The Science Behind Military Camo

The Science Behind Military Camo

Nov 19, 2021

Camouflage is more than just a fashion statement; it’s used to hide soldiers and their equipment in plain sight. In fact, camouflage predates humanity itself, having been an evolutionary adaption for many animals that ensured their survival by blending into their environment, and that’s what military camo aims to achieve as well. To explain how it works, read on for the science behind military camo.

Hiding in Plain Sight

There are two components to military camouflage: color and pattern. The uniforms use dull hues that match the intended environment soldiers will be in. For the jungle, this is typically green and brown to match both the foliage and the dirt. For the desert, they use tan colors to match the sand, and for snowy climates, they use whites and greys.

Uniforms may come in either a single color or a pattern of several similarly colored patches mean to be visually disruptive. The reason the patches look like inkblots and the lines meander is to confuse the eyes and hide the silhouette of a soldier hiding in the environment. When you’re looking at this camouflage in a matching environment, your brain “connects” the lines of the camo’s splotches with the surrounding environment and warps your perception and how you recognize the person wearing the camouflage.

Your brain handles all the stimuli it receives from your eyes by categorizing objects. When looking at a scene, for example, and see a vertical brown object with a green top, you see a tree. When you see many trees, your brain categorizes it as a forest and doesn’t pay attention to individual trees. This is part of the brain’s habit of looking for continuity – if you see objects of the same color, you’ll put them in one group. If you see objects of two colors, you’ll group them separately. If you mix them up, however, you don’t group anything by color. So, the mottled mix of colors used in camouflage prevents you from being as identifiable because the “visual disruption” makes it hard to identify the person wearing it because we identify objects that have one continuous color.

Decoy and Distraction

Using this same principle, the science behind military camo is used to create decoys. Since World War I, aircraft has been used to spot the other side, and so military equipment has begun to make use of camouflage as well. Since World War II, American military equipment has been colored dull greens and browns and covered with netting, chicken wire, and natural foliage, to make it more difficult to spot from the air. This isn’t a perfect camouflage, however. And so, to help actual military bases and equipment hide, decoy and dummy sites are created to misdirect the enemy.

Ships are more difficult to camouflage, however. The horizon is a flat background that is typically a single color. There’s no way to make ships blend in with the water or the sky, not perfectly, but a type of camo called “Dazzle” camouflage made them harder to attack. The Dazzle design resembles a cubist painting, featuring many colored geometric shapes jumbled together like typical mottled camouflage. This cubist design obscures the course of a warship and makes it hard to distinguish which side of the warship you’re looking at. This makes it hard to predict where and when to fire upon the warship.

Advancements in Hiding

As technology advances, it has become harder for camouflage alone to hide soldiers effectively. Particularly, thermal imaging allows you to “see” the heat emanating from a person or equipment. There is also radar, satellite photography, and image enhancement that can pinpoint soldiers in hiding. To combat these advancements in sousing out camouflage, so too has camouflage had to develop to stay effective. This includes using material that contains excess heat given off from a soldier’s body, smoke screens to obscure image enhancing, and stealth technology that reflects radar through flat planes and odd angles.

Types of Camo

To match their respective environments, each breach of the military has their own standard uniforms:

  • ACU uniforms, which is for the Army branch, use a digital camouflage in dull greens and browns as it’s standard uniform. This is a disruptive effect by using pixelated patterns in a range of sizes, these different sizes making it effective camouflage at multiple ranges of distance. The pixilation itself does not contribute to camouflage, but it does simplify the design and make it easier to print onto fabric. The standard uniform used for soldiers deployed in Afghanistan uses the OCP pattern, which is a pattern using tan colors and is not pixilated, better blending in with the arid landscape.
  • The Navy uniforms (NWU) also makes use of the digital print camouflage, but in blues and greys. However, if the situation demands it, they also make use of the desert and woodland digital patterns. The pattern used in navy uniforms is meant more for uniformity in appearance rather than a practical use.
  • The Airforce battle uniforms (ABU) make use of a distinctive pattern of three soft earth tones of tan, grey, and green that can be digitized or pixelated like the other branches because, as stated, it’s simply easiest to print on fabric. But the air force will also make use of a slate blue tiger stripe pattern.
  • The Marine uniform (MARPAT) is like the Army’s uniform in that it’s a digital pattern in either woodland or desert colorations. The marine uniform used to take the form of a macro-pattern, big “blobs” of coloration, but has transitioned to a micro-pattern of pixels, earning it the nickname of “digi-cammies.”

As a footnote, the Woodland pattern, a non-digitized pattern of greens and browns, used to be the standard for the military in general but has been phased out in favor of these digitized uniforms that are similar in style but with distinctly different colorations. The Navy still uses the Woodland uniform for specific needs, but the NAVY Seals are the primary users of the Woodland uniform today.

The science of camouflage understands the natural psychology of our brains and how it can be used against us to confuse and disorient. Spotting a camouflaged person suddenly makes them seem obvious, leaving you wondering how you missed them in the first place, but it’s all because your brain didn’t register them as an individual to begin with. So, when you need to pick out camouflage, always keep the environment in mind and consider how these environments are perceived so you can use it to your advantage.

The Science Behind Military Camo