A Primer on 21st Century Camouflage

turtle humping boot
| October 11, 2013
Categories: Assorted Ramblings

Tonight we’ll talk a little camouflage. We’ve discussed it before. For instance, we’ve asked why bother? Pete Nealen has been voluble about the silliness of even wearing camouflage if you’re moving like an assraped turtle humping a cinderblock. We’ve talked about how sad it is that we don’t have enough camo patterns. Sure, we have a couple per branch of service, but wouldn’t it really be better to have a different pattern for every MOS? Most recently we had even taught our handsome Hebraist the word ‘Gucciflage’. Not everyone realized just how many patterns there are, in service and out, and not everyone is as up to speed on modern camouflages as we are. We asked Pete Nealan to help give us a basic overview of “21st Century Camouflage.” Hopefully there will be more to follow.

You know there are kids fighting in Afghanistan now who have never seen DCUs, or polished a boot? Makes us feel old.

21st Century Camouflage

Pete Nealen

Camouflage has gotten to be a big deal, and a big industry, in the last thirteen years.  It’s also been a huge bone of contention, with millions of dollars being spent on development of patterns, sometimes of dubious usefulness [think back past the US Army Camouflage Improvement process to the mismanaged efforts that gave us Army UCP and Air Force ABU, neither one of which is much use anywhere outside Clothing Sales or off the couch].  Some of these patterns have been officially adopted, oftentimes to the derision of those forced to use them.  Meanwhile, the private sector has been working hard at developing their own patterns, many of which have been noticeably better than those actually fielded by the military.

At the turn of the century, camouflage was pretty much still the tri-color woodland BDUs and tan DCUs.  By 2003, however, the Marine Corps had adopted the digital MARPAT camouflage in Woodland and Desert, and really kicked off the “camouflage arms race” among the services.  The MARPAT camouflage was largely derived from the digital pattern adopted earlier by the Canadian Armed Forces, called, imaginatively, CADPAT.  The desert pattern was particularly effective.

Not to be outdone, the Army promptly launched an effort for their own service-specific pattern.  Somewhere along the line, somebody got the bright idea that they wanted a single pattern that would work for all environments.  The competition came down to Crye Precision’s Multicam and the “Universal Camouflage Pattern,” a digital pattern of gray, tan, and sage green.   Despite an apparent lack of actual field testing of UCP, UCP was selected.  Unless you go by back to the days of shakos and polished brass buttons, this was possibly the worst camouflage pattern ever fielded – until the Air Force and Navy got involved.  UCP has been found to blend in with nothing, aside from one soldier’s gray patterned couch.

The Air Force decided to come up with the Airman Battle Uniform, which followed essentially the same color scheme as UCP, except they added in blue – and did it in tiger stripes like the old Vietnam cammies. The wear testing on the ABU pattern was even worse than that given UCP, though that doesn’t seem possible.  The Navy took it a step further with their own version of MARPAT, only they did it entirely of blue.  The running joke on that one has been that now when a seaman falls overboard, he can’t be found.

The private sector remained hard at work trying to develop effective camouflage patterns, especially as the complaints about ACU mounted.  Crye was still producing gear and clothing in their MultiCam pattern, which actually does a pretty good job of blending in to most kinds of foliage.  US SOF, particularly Special Forces, started adopting Multicam early on. As Afghanistan heated up again, conventional Army forces began adopting it (the ACUs in UCP having been officially acknowledged as a failure). The Air Force, meanwhile, also began issuing MultiCam to some personnel (the ones not in all-tan flightsuits) going outside the wire (such as EOD, TACPs, Security Forces, etc.) though not before first fielding an Improved Airman Battle Uniform in the same hideous Power Ranger grey-and-blue scheme.

The Navy soon adopted versions of the MARPAT-style digital camouflage for NSW.  A pretty straight copy of the desert MARPAT, minus the tiny Eagle, Globe, and Anchor emblems throughout, became AOR1, used by SEALs in desert environments such as Iraq and southern Afghanistan.  A version using MultiCam’s general color scheme, but still using the digital pattern, became AOR2, for use in areas with more vegetation.

Other companies have been making their own patterns, some of which have been adopted to various extents by military and law enforcement, though military use is largely limited to gear, and is unofficial.  Digital Concealment (an offshoot of Next Camo) came out with their A-TACS patterns in 2010, starting with desert.  They used multiple micro-patterns to create a blurred, mottled effect.  They’re patterns now include A-TACS FG, A-TACS AU and most recently a black and grey version A-TACS AU. Another civilian custom camo company is Hyde Definition. They are the developers of the PenCott Patterns: Greenzone, Badlands, Sandstorm and Snowdrift. 5.11 Tactical had a couple of patterns that were apparently received well, but they are no longer commercially available. Tiger Stripe Products is another commercial venture that includes Desert Tiger (tiger stripe camo pattern, but in brown colors) and All Terrain Tiger (tiger stripe pattern in MultiCam colors).

Ameriflage may not be perfect in certain jungle and some urban environments, but it is better than UCP or ABU.

One of the latest patterns to come on the scene is Kryptek.  The Kryptek patterns (there are now six; Nomad, Typhon, Mandrake, Highlander, Yeti and Raid) use an interesting sort of “reptilian” appearance, ostensibly to break up the shape of the wearer.  They range from desert, to woodland, to arctic, to a dark gray ostensibly for LE, and have achieved significant popularity (though this will probably not be enough to get it adopted as a military pattern).

No reference to modern camouflage would be complete without mentioning Guy Cramer’s HyperStealth patterns, one of which (US4CES) is in competition to be the Army’s new pattern. HyperStealth has done a lot of PR work explaining, among other things, Why not just use MARPAT? and developing literally thousands of digital patterns (and trademarking them). Deceptex is Hyperstealth’s “Print on Demand” series; Ghostex is a series of 30+ specialized patterns available to military, LE and others who qualify. It is also a unique print on demand type camouflage execution.

There isn’t a whole lot out there about Brookwood, which is one of the four contenders in the ongoing Army camouflage process. That may change if they’re forced to go to the civilian market by the formal selection of somethng else.

Recently, Congress has gotten fed up with the inter-service camouflage drama, and has mandated joint camouflage patterns by 2016.  Which pattern will be chosen isn’t known yet, but at least the “one pattern to rule them all” nonsense has been discarded.  There will be separate color schemes for different environments.

As of this writing, though RUMINT says the Army will be sticking to OCP (which is what they call MultiCam; Operation Enduring Freedom Camouflage Pattern) there has yet to be an official announcement. Nor can anyone do more than conjecture what will happen to OCP or MARPAT or anything else once the Congressional mandate goes into effect.

This has been a quick primer on the proliferation of patterns here in the US – it is probably not complete, and it does not delve into the specifics of digital patterns, pixelation, so-called “transition” patterns and NIR (Near Infrared Signature) issues.

Feel free to weigh in and help cover any other patterns, timelines or development issues.


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AAuthor Peter Nealenbout the Author: Pete Nealen is a former Reconnaissance Marine, a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan and the author of several books. A contributor here at Breach-Bang-Clear for many years now, Pete is a bad ass writer who continues to make the Duo’s efforts look pale and feeble (if less gritty and jaw-clenching-y) by comparison. You can follow Nealan on his own blog, American Praetorians. We encourage you to do so here. His author page on Facebook is at https://www.facebook.com/PeteNealenAuthor. If you’d like to read some of his books, you can start the American Praetorians series (about a PMC in a post Greater Depression dystopia now 4 books long) with Task Force Desperate. He has a standalone action novel called Kill Yuan, which you can find here. You could also do worse than to start reading the Jed Horn series (a supernatural shoot ’em up series now on its 3rd volume) with Nightmares, then proceed with Silver Cross and a Winchester and Walker on the Hills and . His fiction is widely claimed for the realism of its combat scenes — this is no doubt because he hangs around with us. It could also have something to do with his skill as a writer and his background (multiple deployments, qualifications as a Combatant Diver, Navy/Marine Corps Parachutist, Marine Scout/Sniper and S/S team leader, Combat Tracker, et al). Continue below to see the only picture of Nealen smiling


Fortis cadere, cedere non potest.




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