Infantry: Real Camouflage Versus The Publicity Stunt


September 17, 2014: The U.S. Air Force is buying some of its security force troops (those guarding bases in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming) the MultiCam camouflage pattern uniforms soldiers and marines have been using with great success in Afghanistan for years. This is a continuation of a policy of providing air force personnel with “real” (MultiCam) camouflage uniforms when those troops really need it. Meanwhile most air force personnel continue wearing a camouflage work uniform that does not really hide you from anything.

Since 2007 the air force has been issuing its own distinct camouflage pattern uniforms which made airmen serving in Iraq or Afghanistan much easier to spot than army camouflage patterns. After a few years of complaints the air force agreed to pay for army type uniforms for airmen sent to operate on the ground in combat zones. This change was spurred by stories of air force personnel in Afghanistan buying (or scrounging from kindly army supply sergeants) the army MultiCam pattern uniforms. Because the air force uses a different camouflage pattern for their field uniforms this was a problem in combat. When air force air controllers (who call in air strikes) move through the hills with army troops, it was obvious from a distance who the air force personnel were. Actually, it made all the troops more visible, because the MultiCam is pretty good at hiding those wearing it, but the difference between the air force camo and the MultiCam was so striking that the entire group of troops becomes easier to spot. The air force brass eventually got the message.

The U.S. military has been having a tough decade when it comes to camouflage uniforms. Since 2001 the U.S. Army has changed camouflage patterns for their combat uniforms twice. First it was the adoption of digital patterns, then the move to MultiCam in 2010. The air force and navy decided they needed camouflage for their personnel. The majority of sailors and airmen (who worked on ships or bases) thought that was absurd, especially since the brass decided that the air force and navy camouflage would each be a distinctive pattern and color that made it clear which service they were from, but produced little concealment effect. Air force and navy personnel serving with soldiers or marines (as over 100,000 did in Iraq and Afghanistan) were outfitted with army pattern camouflage uniforms, at army expense, just to keep everyone safe from being easily spotted. But now the air force and navy have accepted the fact that their “special” camouflage uniforms should not be used in situations where real camouflage uniforms would be needed. Thus they obtain MultiCam for these troops, which is what the air force is doing for security troops who serve in places where they will often find themselves out in the bush (as in large air bases in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming.) The air force has the equivalent of about six brigades of security troops who guard bases and are trained and equipped as light infantry so that, if necessary, they can bring to bear serious firepower and infantry tactics against a well-armed and determined attacker. 

Even the army had problems coming up with a highly effective camouflage uniform. It was SOCOM (special operations command) troops who first (shortly after 2001) had second thoughts about the older digital camo pattern. The digital camouflage pattern 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." 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 detectionthan if they were wearing standard green uniforms. 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 useful.

But digital doesn't rule, at least not when price is no object. The runner-up in the competition was a non-digital pattern called MultiCam (cleverly designed to hide troops in many different environments). Many in the army preferred this one, but the difference, in tests, between it and the winner, digital ACU, was not that great. Moreover, MultiCam was about three times more expensive.

However, SOCOM operators have their own budget, and by 2006 had many of their guys out in the field wearing MultiCam, rather than the digital ACU. Now SOCOM has always had a larger budget, per capita, than the rest of the army, and its operators had a lot of discretion to use whatever weapons or gear they thought best for the job. Apparently, on some jobs, MultiCam was considered more suitable than digital ACU. That said, there have been few complaints from soldiers about ACU, which measures up to MultiCam in most particulars, and it a lot cheaper.

Eventually, the services decided that if MultiCam provided even a small advantage over digital, than MultiCam was the way to go. The British Army thought the same thing, and obtained new uniforms, using a version of MultiCam, for their troops. But for the new MultiCam to work, everything the troops wear has to be MultiCam. And everyone out with the troops, especially air force air controllers, need to be dressed in MultiCam as well.





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