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Uncloaked: How Army is testing new camo to replace flawed design

AP file

The Army unveiled a redesigned combat uniform with a digital camouflage pattern on June 14, 2004.

Ask the man dubbed “the father of digital camouflage” about fatal flaws in the U.S. military's uniform-concealment choices and he’ll give you a punch line. Then he’ll mention the bottom line.

“Never decide Pattern A just looks cooler than Pattern B. The Marine Corps call that a ‘CDI factor’ – chicks dig it,” said Timothy O’Neill, a former professor of engineering psychology at West Point who has spent 37 years concocting and analyzing the latest in military camouflage.

More critical: Never let cost dictate how you hide your combat troops, added O’Neill referring to the Universal Camouflage Pattern, or UCP, the Army’s primary uniform pick in 2004. American soldiers in Afghanistan openly bashed the green-gray, pixilated fatigues for making them stand out, not blend in. The Army now is busy gauging an array of new camo looks to likely replace UCP, an effort that will continue into this autumn. 

"Everybody got in trouble with the very problematic idea that you can come up with one pattern that can work equally well everywhere," said O'Neill, a retired Army officer who had no part in the Army's decision. "These patterns (UCP) generally don't work well anywhere - and for reasons that have nothing to do with the skill of the designers. It was just a dumb requirement.

“I don’t think I’ll be shot for saying that because I’ve said it a number of times. And in any case what can they do? Send me to Vietnam? Everybody understands now that the Universal Pattern was a bad idea. It was really a strange case of designing down to cost.”

Four companies are competing to become the Army’s new combat-camo designer. Guy Cramer, a consultant to one of those firms, ADS, Inc., said the intense scientific scrutiny of the four proposed patterns shows “the Army is bending over backward – probably more than they even need to – so no one can point a finger at the Army and say: ‘You didn’t do this right.’

“They don’t want another problem like they had with UCP,” Cramer added. “ADS may not win. And so be it. Whatever works best is what we want for the soldiers. At least, (the new camo) will give the soldiers more survivability than what they have right now.”

Military camouflage testing is typically top secret and lengthy, using a blend of computer simulations and – out in the field – cloaked men ducking in thick brush or dusty deserts to measure precisely how many milliseconds trained observers need to spot and identify the “targets.” The evaluation process blends the intricacies of brain and vision science with the evolving art of textile deception – a battlefield gambit first used in World War I.

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But it all begins indoors, usually at the United States Military Academy at West Point. There, O’Neill helped design a 120-degree, curved screen onto which three ceiling-mounted, high-definition projectors beam, he said, “calibrated digital images” containing – somewhere – a small picture of a rifle-toting soldier wearing the latest camo pattern under exploration. The spotters include cadets, faculty members or active-military troops who supply their 20/20 (or better) vision plus a wide range of combat experience, from zero to many years.

“The observer sits in the sweet spot. A picture comes on of a tree line, or something like that, and the person searches the tree line to find a target,” said O’Neill, who in the mid-1970s created the first “digital” camouflage pattern and then successfully tested it at West Point. O’Neill is not part of the current camo assessment.

Observers wear modified, large eyeglasses equipped with two tiny video cameras. That eye-tracking technology allows Army testers to follow the observers’ screen scanning in real time and to record how long it takes them to find the hidden soldier or “bad guy.” They’re then asked to decipher in which direction the on-screen “target” is pointing his rifle.

“Having detected it, (then we want to know) how easy it is to recognize what it is,” O’Neill said. “From our point of view, the question becomes: Is it worth pulling the trigger?

“If we have a variety of different camouflage patterns we’re comparing for effectiveness, we’ll just run the hell out of them in the laboratory and look at how much difference (in detection time) we’re getting,” O’Neill added. “Then, we move to the field.”

Testing the same patterns in open terrain can take place at U.S. military bases or at locations abroad – for example, in Qatar, near the Saudi border where O’Neill said he once ran an assessment of a potential camo formation.

“You’re looking at (natural) extremes and every place in the middle,” O’Neill said. “That means dense jungle versus low desert, Saharan desert, boreal rain forest and western scrub.”

In the field, observers are often soldiers who have volunteered for the duty. Initially, camo samples may be printed onto fabric then placed on man-sized frames and planted in the bush – a sort of ominous-looking scarecrow. In later phases, O’Neill said, “you’re going to make up uniforms and put them on soldiers.”

“They’ll take the soldiers out and place them (wearing the test design) at a certain distance,” added Cramer. In addition to consulting for ADS, Cramer founded the Canadian camouflage company HyperStealth Biotechnology through which he has produced more than 2 million uniforms for the armed forces of several countries, including Jordan and the Afghanistan National Army.

In 2004, Cramer devised a snow-pattern uniform to conceal U.S. Marines and later teamed with O’Neill to test that design, which ultimately was issued to Marines in 2006. (The two men also teamed up to develop OPTIFADE, a hunting-camo product for Newark, Del.-based W. L. Gore & Associates.)

Where O’Neill is known for digital patterns, Cramer was the first to incorporate fractals and mathematical algorithms into his designs. (Fractals are shapes with uneven contours that mimic the irregularities found in nature – like twigs, branches and leaves.)

During field tests on a Cramer military-camo design, “snipers were saying our patterns were giving them over 30 seconds of delay from the start of the test to when they recognized the target,” Cramer recalled. “They told us that most of the camouflage they run into takes eight to 12 seconds to detect, to know what it is. That's when we knew we were onto something (with fractals).”

“And that,” added O’Neill, “is how it goes from a theory to a suit.”

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