July 9, 2007:
China is spending over a billion
dollars to buy new combat uniforms for its troops. The new uniforms use a
digital camouflage pattern similar to the one used by American soldiers and
marines for the past four years.
Digital camouflage uses "pixels" (little square or
round spots of color, like you will find on your computer monitor if you look
very closely), instead of just splotches of different colors. Naturally, this
was called "digital camouflage" when it was first invented three decades ago.
This pattern proved considerably more effective at hiding troops than older
methods. For example, in tests, it was found that soldiers wearing digital
pattern uniforms were 50 percent more likely to escape detection by other
troops. What made the digital pattern work was the way the human brain
processed information. The small "pixels" of color on the cloth makes the human
brain see vegetation and terrain, not people. One could provide a more
technical explanation, but the "brain processing" one pretty much says it all.
Another advantage of the digital patterns is that
they can also fool troops using night vision scopes. American troops are
increasingly running up against opponents who have night optics, so wearing a
camouflage pattern that looks like vegetation to someone with a night scope, is
China will take two years to get nearly two million
troops equipped with the new uniforms. There are four camouflage patterns
(urban, forest, desert and ocean), although the woodland pattern also works in urban areas, just not as well
as the special urban pattern. The new uniforms have a lot of other improvements,
based on feedback from the troops. The new uniforms are also sturdier, and are
able to survive 700 washings, versus about 140 with the current uniforms.
The U.S. Army developed digital camouflage in the
1970s. Lieutenant Colonel Timothy R. O'Neill, a West Point professor of
engineering psychology, had first noted the "digital camouflage effect." It was
never adopted for use in uniforms, but was used for a camouflage pattern on
armored vehicles of the U.S. Army 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Europe from
1978 to the early 1980s. Why hadn't the army adopted it for uniforms back in
the 1970s? It seems that the key army people (uniformed and civilian) deciding
such things in the 1970s could not grasp the concept of how digital camouflage
worked on the human brain, and were not swayed by field tests. Strange, but
true, and it's happened before. In 2003, the U.S. Army decided to use digital
camouflage patterns for their new field uniforms. A few years after that, China
expressed an interest in the concept, for their new field uniforms.