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From Khaki drab origins, camouflage has entered the realm of the invisible man. 

Camouflage is baffling—not only to combatants, but also to those who wonder how, why and even whether it works. The history of military camouflage is filled with artists arguing with architects, soldiers deriding painters, historians contemptuous of theorists, and every variety of self-proclaimed expert, from horticulturists to interior decorators, touting their own visions of proper camouflage.

Camo is like acupuncture. It seems to work, but nobody is sure why. In one war everyone dresses in khaki, in the next they wear complex camo. In one warships are painted black and white, in the next they’re battleship gray. First airplanes are painted to blend into a forest canopy, next they’re all as gray as storm clouds.

Armed forces have tried and ultimately abandoned virtually every imaginable form of camouflage. Every possible pattern and color, splinters, splotches, stripes, patches, daubs, geometric shapes and, in the case of some World War II Luftwaffe airplanes, designs that seemed to result from ground crewmen being given spray guns and told to go have fun. Have fun indeed: At least one Operation Desert Storm Marine helicopter had among its random tan-and-brown camo patterns a silhouette that on second glance was clearly that of the perky-breasted, reclining nude that graces many a truck’s mud flaps.

Which means, apparently, that nobody has yet figured out how to render truly effective camouflage on a broad scale.

If you count outright deception as a form of camouflage, one of the earliest examples of such military subterfuge was the Trojan horse, which had its World War I counterpart in a form of camo that proved effective during static trench warfare: the observation tree, a hollow, armor-lined model of an artillery-blasted tree trunk. At night soldiers crept out into no-man’s-land and replaced the real thing with the duplicate; inside would be an artillery spotter with a telephone.

If you limit camo to traditional fool-the-eye troop and vehicle coverage, William Shakespeare must be among the earliest exponents of such warfare. In The Tragedy of Macbeth he had Malcolm’s troops hide behind foliage cut from Birnam Wood in order to conceal their numbers from the defenders of Macbeth’s Dunsinane Castle. Macbeth had boasted that his reign would stand “till Birnam wood do come to Dunsinane,” which, of course, is exactly what the forest seemed to be doing. Actually, it’s a total fiction, making Shakespeare a camo visionary.

In the days of phalanxes, testudos, infantry squares, cavalry charges and circled wagons, camouflage was irrelevant. Why disguise a soldier who was only a pike’s poke away? Even the flight of a longbow’s arrow left both sides clearly in view of each other. So most historians date the dawn of military camouflage to the advent of rifled arms. During the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century the infantry’s smoothbore muskets were accurate out to about 200 yards. By the time of the American Civil War, however, a slug could knock over a soldier more than 1,000 yards away. Troops now fought over distances that made it fatally foolish to wear brightcolored uniforms.

In fact, soldiers had begun to camouflage themselves, often without even realizing it, during the French and Indian War and then the American Revolution. American Indians of the Eastern woodlands knew how to fight in stealthy fashion, blending into the forests just as hunters always have. The Europeans and settlers who fought with and against them learned those lessons, as did George Washington’s Continental Army, in part because it couldn’t afford uniforms as resplendent and target-worthy as those of the Redcoats. During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers often punched above their weight because they too were hunters and understood how to blend into their surroundings.

Not that the British were foolish. Their massed troopers wore colorful uniforms in order to frighten opponents with their sheer blood-red numbers, but during the American Revolution the king’s army outfitted its most skilled rifle units in dark green. The practice wasn’t without precedent. In the mid-18th century the Austrian army had developed a form of intentionally camouflaged uniforms when they recruited jägers (“hunters”) from the foresters and stalkers of the countryside. They comprised special units clothed in light gray— Confederate gray, as it came to be known —a color that proved particularly difficult to distinguish at a distance.

Populating the early history of modern military camouflage was a cast of characters straight out of Greenwich Village, in one case quite literally: In 1917 the New York Camouflage Society, an informal civilian group, formed in Manhattan’s arty downtown and became the basis of the U.S. Army’s first camouflage company during World War I. The group recruited painters, sculptors, illustrators, interior decorators, horticulturists, poets, stage-set builders and architects to design camo. When America entered the war in 1917, one of the concerned civilians volunteering to help form a camouflage unit was stage director Homer Saint-Gaudens, son of Beaux-Arts sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. At the outset of World War II Homer, by then a lieutenant colonel, re-upped as chief of the Army’s camouflage branch.

The amateurs weren’t universally admired, however. In a 1940 essay Hugh B. Cott, a British zoologist and authority on natural and military camouflage, was especially dismissive: “Camouflage research and application are at the present time largely dominated by artists, or in the hands of civil servants and army officers, and in either case controlled by people lacking the necessary scientific training and with no knowledge of the fundamental biological and psychological principles involved.…As a result much contemporary effort at camouflage has failed completely.” Cott would have been amused that the U.S. Marine Corps’ World War II uniform camo design, known as the “duck hunter” or “frog-skin” pattern, was developed by the garden editor of Better Homes and Gardens, presumably inspired by the skin of frogs and toads spotted around better homes and gardens.

Camouflage specialists were called camoufleurs, a word that with all of its Francophone allusions suggested yet another art form. Even Pablo Picasso put in his oar, suggesting soldiers should be clothed in diamond patterns like those of the colorful harlequins and clowns he painted. Picasso might not have been aware of the vivid “lozenge camouflage” of German World War I airplanes, so called because it comprised repeating multicolored polygons, much like the pattern of a harlequin’s costume. Whether lozenge camo was effective perhaps was irrelevant to German pilots, since most of them were far more interested in painting peppermint stripes, death’s heads, dragons, near-neon colors and enormous flowers on their fuselages. Or, in the case of Manfred von Richthofen, using the ultimate anticamouflage, an airplane painted entirely fire-engine red, prompting his infamous nickname the “Red Baron.”

In fact Picasso was absolutely right. He and his fellow cubist painters had developed a school of coloration and confusing geometric shapes that made it difficult for a viewer to discern a figure from a background and depicted depth of field in a way that allowed shapes to be at the same time in front of and behind other shapes. “Cubism went out of its way to deny the eye stable focusing points round which the rest of the composition could be organized,” observed Austrian art lecturer Anton Ehrenzweig. Camoufleurs quickly took notice.

American painter and naturalist Abbott Thayer first suggested the concept of disruptive coloration. He saw that while certain animals blended perfectly into their backgrounds, others had mutated differently— “that patches, stripes and blocks of color in an animal’s markings have the effect of visually breaking up its contours, making it more difficult to distinguish at a distance,” notes Tim Newark in Camouflage. Disruptive coloration has become a basic principle of modern camouflage.

During World War I, however, no one had yet figured out that disruptive camo was applicable not only to ships and vehicles but also to individual soldiers. Armies still wore monochromatic uniforms—the British khaki, the Germans field gray. The British didn’t fully replace scarlet as the official army uniform color until the turn of the century, when they switched to khaki—a Hindi-Urdu word meaning “dust-colored.” They had introduced khaki uniforms in the mid-19th century in northern India, outfitting local Sikh, Pathan and Afghan troops with trousers and jackets dyed a muddy color. The French, oddly enough, initially felt it stylish to enter battle during World War I wearing scarlet trousers, though these quickly changed to a light blue.

In 1917 German soldiers began painting their helmets in bright-colored disruptive patterns—the sole example of German uniform camouflage during that war, as military forces remained primarily concerned with camouflaging tanks, aircraft and other conspicuous targets.

Casual viewers might assume that military camouflage is largely based on lessons learned from nature—insects that mimic twigs, beetles that match tree bark, owls that perch unseen amid foliage. But such lessons only apply to motionless snipers, who do sometimes choose to fade into their surroundings by wearing ghillie suits, which resemble man-sized haystacks or whatever foliage the situation demands (one major advantage of ghillie suits is that they necessarily are fabricated from locally available flora rather than material from some rear-area quartermaster depot).

In World War II virtually all combat troops wore monochromatic uniforms— typically khaki, green or field gray. The Japanese did not wear camouflage patterns but did use foliage to conceal themselves in jungle warfare. American, British and German forces reserved the use of actual camo for elite units—Marines, rangers and the like. In the late 1930s Germany’s Reich Patent Office went so far as to patent certain camouflage patterns for use only by the Waffen-SS; the regular Wehrmacht could not use them.

Many GIs disliked World War II camouflage, suspecting it made them more visible, particularly when they or their vehicles were moving. Studies showed they may have been right, and camo fell out of favor from 1943 onward. By the time the United States went to war in Korea and then Vietnam, only Marine camo helmet covers remained popular. The earliest U.S. military advisors in Vietnam had to buy their own camo uniforms from hunting goods suppliers.

Motion ruins any “owl on a branch” effect blending camouflage might impart. Backgrounds are variable, and no existing camouflage can shape-shift to maintain invisibility in motion. Sophisticated military camouflage actually makes use of “disruptive patterns,” often in the form of light and dark patterns closely juxtaposed to break up an object’s shape and outline. One’s brain can’t readily process the resulting formless cluster of patterns.

Just as the rifle forced armies to turn away from colorful uniforms, the airplane made camouflage of hardware a serious business. During World War I the primary function of aircraft was not to fight but to observe —to locate buildups of troops or equipment. Aerial photography added to the earthbound camoufleurs’ burden. The unblinking lenses, the best of them made by the Germans, recorded everything below. And because they recorded in black and white, carefully chosen colors no longer hid the shapes of objects.

The camoufleurs resorted to nets and tarps, painstakingly festooned with real and fake foliage, often repainted to match the season. One pioneering German camoufleur, the Expressionist painter Franz Marc, decorated artillery tarpaulins in pointillist patterns, an effective disruptive pattern when seen from above, and he once rendered a series of nine such tarps painted in the styles of Édouard Manet, Wassily Kandinsky and other well-known painters of the era. (It was harder to camouflage field artillery with nets and tarps than was first assumed. When guns fire from a fixed position, the muzzle shock creates a distinctive, fan-shaped blast pattern on the ground well ahead of the gun, a signature easily seen from the air.)

World War I’s dazzle-painted ships —entire vessels covered with huge, jagged slashes and panels of black and white—seemed to bear the most counterintuitive of camouflages, making them as visible as zebras on a grassland rather than blending into the ocean or sky. But dazzle paint was actually a particularly vivid example of disruptive patterning. When the commander of an early U-boat peered through his scope at a target, the dazzle paint was intended to transform a bow into a stern, to tilt funnels in conflicting directions, to make one big ship look like two smaller ones or a cruiser appear to be a freighter. Dazzle also concealed a ship’s vertical structures, the marks that enabled rangefinders to calculate distances.

An attacking submariner needed to fix a target’s direction of travel, and doing so through a monocular periscope in a tossing sea is far harder than Hollywood makes it seem. But did dazzle camouflage really work? “In 1931, when German evidence had been sifted,” writes Guy Hartcup in Camouflage: The History of Concealment and Deception in War, “the verdict was that it was doubtful whether any submarine commander had misjudged his target’s course and speed through dazzle painting alone.” Actually, the greatest benefit of dazzle paint seemed to be as a morale-booster for merchant mariners, many of whom regarded camo as a talisman to ward off U-boat attacks. During World War II British and American warships made occasional use of dazzle camo, though by then radar and far-ranging patrol bombers had made it little more than a waste of paint.

Combat aircraft were for decades the most obvious palette for camouflage, and modelers today spend hours with airbrushes replicating the endless variety of patterns and trompe l’oeil devices applied to airplanes. But when an air force gained air superiority, camo became largely irrelevant, and superfluous paint can add hundreds of pounds to a bomber airframe. In Vietnam the U.S. Air Force did apply camo paint to aircraft, at least in part to combat the corrosive subtropical air.

In the 1970s aviation artist Keith Ferris—best known for his billboard-sized B-17 mural Fortress Under Fire in the National Air and Space Museum— developed (and patented) a deceptively simple aircraft-camouflage device, painting a cockpit canopy on the belly of a fighter. In theory the device would fool an opposing pilot into thinking the target plane is turning into him rather than away. The only aircraft that still use it are a few U.S. Air Force combat-maneuver training planes and the Royal Canadian Air Force’s McDonnell Douglas CF-18 Hornets.

Camouflage has recently been in the news because of the “digicam” fiasco— the U.S. Army’s decision to wholly replace its Universal Camouflage Pattern (aka digital camouflage, or digicam) with whatever the next new thing will turn out to be. It cost an estimated $5 billion to design, test and field digicam. The changeover will make every current field uniform, cap, slouch hat, backpack, bedroll and helmet cover obsolete.

The decision has a precedent. Soon after the Persian Gulf War the Army dropped its Desert Battle Dress Uniform, (aka “cookie dough” camo), at least in part because GIs didn’t think it looked military enough. The Iraqi army inherited the leftover uniforms.

In the future camouflage may become as pointless as feathered shakos and scarlet blouses. As night-vision goggles, infrared scopes and ever more sophisticated means of detection become standard equipment, camo will no longer matter. Surely it won’t factor into air combat, as supremely stealthy F-22s and F-35s will be firing missiles at opponents beyond visual range (BVR), and the enemy will never see what hit them. But that raises a question: What happens when both opponents are stealthy, essentially invisible BVR? Air combat may just revert to a “guns and eyes” furball in which camouflage will matter.

Inevitably, someone will invent the ultimate camouflage. University of Tokyo researchers have already produced optical camouflage, in which a camera captures what’s directly behind an object and projects an image of that background onto a uniform or vehicle surface coated with a high-tech reflective material. The result? A transparent trooper, a transparent tank—as long as the viewer is at right angles to it.

Britain’s BAE Systems is working on more advanced adaptive camouflage to conceal tanks and other vehicles. The system would use sensors to record a vehicle’s surroundings and then direct electronic pixels on a tank’s flanks to display an amalgam of the general shapes and colors in the immediate area. A tank so outfitted could crawl like an iron chameleon from desert to grassland and instantly adapt its pattern and coloration.

Other companies are developing systems using electrochromic panels that change color and transparency under low-voltage inputs. But they’re quick to point out that such solutions only work in the visible wavelengths, while battlefield camo of the future will need to cover most of the electromagnetic spectrum—not only visible light, but infrared and microwave.

Duke University physicists are working on transformation optics, developing an “invisibility cloak” permeated with electrical circuits that can manipulate light and bend it around an object, like water flowing around a rock in a stream. An observer’s brain would process such an optical signal as light that had passed through the object, rendering it invisible. So far, Duke’s efforts work only at microwave frequencies, not visible light, “[but] there’s no theoretical limitation that would prevent someone from building a visible-light cloak,” insists Duke electrical and computer engineering Professor David R. Smith.

So far, the only truly effective form of camouflage has been stealth technology, including radar-absorbent coatings, shielding of infrared-detectable hot spots and non-radar-reflective shapes. Unlike conventional camouflage, the effectiveness of stealth techniques is quantifiable, simply by measuring the radar cross-section of a stealthy vehicle. Is it as big as an airliner? Tiny as a hummingbird? But even stealth requires the cover of darkness or BVR distance. A stealthy airplane parked in the noonday sun is just another airplane. A stealthy ship in a sub’s periscope is just an odd-looking vessel.

Countershading, disruptive coloration, confusing patterns and outlines, false cloaking, how the brain processes optics—the theories all sound fascinating, yet this is one of the last arenas of warfare and tactics in which we’re still unsure what works and what doesn’t.

Your guess, in fact, may be as good as mine.


Stephan Wilkinson is a regular contributor to Military History and Aviation History. He is also a member of the board of contributors of Air & Space/Smithsonian and the senior contributing automotive editor of Condé Nast Traveler. For further reading Wilkinson recommends Camouflage: The History of Concealment and Deception in War, by Guy Hartcup; Camouflage, by Tim Newark; and Art & Camouflage, by Roy R. Behrens.

Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.