Desert Night Camo: The Brief Life of DNC

desert night camo gulf war
May 15, 2024  
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Following the Vietnam War, the United States Army Engineer Research and Development Laboratory (ERDL) developed a general-purpose jungle camouflage that consisted of mid-brown & grass green organic shapes with black “branches” on a lime green background. This became desert night camo. The pattern proved effective in wooded terrain and was widely copied. It is still in use throughout the parts of the world.

desert night camo parka
Desert Night Camouflage (DNC) made its debut in the Gulf War. It was promptly discarded.

It was developed at a time when it was believed that the next major conflict would be against the Warsaw Pact in Europe, and was worn as the Battle Dress Uniform, but became known more commonly as the “Woodland” pattern. However, as the Cold War came to an end, and it became apparent that the U.S. and NATO would not be engaged in a conflict in Europe, hotspots in the Middle East were already brewing.

By that time, the U.S. Army had developed the Desert Battle Dress Uniform camouflage. Its origins began in 1977, but it was likely spurred on by Iran’s taking of the U.S. hostages during the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Seeing that U.S. forces might be deployed there, the military devised a six-color scheme of camouflage that became known as the “chocolate chip” pattern due to fact that it looked like cookie dough! This DBDU camouflage was officially introduced in the 1990s and was in use during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and saw use again in Operation Restore Hope in Somalia in 1993.

It should be noted that the 2001 film Black Hawk Down actually incorrectly depicts the U.S. Army Rangers wearing the three-color pattern known as Desert Camouflage Uniform (DCU) – nicknamed “coffee stain” – in Somalia. While it was beginning to replace the DBDU at that point, and was worn in the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and by the U.S. military forces in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, period photos show the Rangers still wearing the DBDU.

The reason that the DBDU was replaced is that it really didn’t work very well.

It had been developed in the California desert, and even there it wasn’t exactly effective. In the sandy terrain of Iraq it proved ineffective – which is why desert night camo was not in use when the U.S. military went back in 2003.

Camo For a Different Concern

Most camouflage patterns worn by the U.S. military were developed to address what the human eye could see, even if it was enhanced through binoculars or rifle scopes. However, during the Cold War it was determined that night vision goggles were another issue altogether.

In the 1980s, when the threat still remained the big bad Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, the U.S. military began development of patters of night camouflage. It was discovered with infrared goggles, which don’t actually make everything appear red but rather green, solid blacks stood out.

However, black is actually effective to the naked eye, which is why some special operators like the British Special Air Service (SAS) utilized all black uniforms in hostage rescue situations where it was assumed that the bad guys didn’t have such night vision devices. But when going up against an enemy equipped with such imaging devices, black doesn’t work.

Camouflage works not by making the wearer invisible but by blending in. This is why various color patterns are used. For nighttime operations special patterns were also developed.

Enter DNC

This is where a distinct type of camouflage entered the picture (but hoped not to be seen). The purpose for it was to disrupt the primitive Soviet-era night vision devices. Instead of resembling the branches and leaves of the BDU, this new camouflage consisted of a grid pattern that was intended to interfere with the generated grid used by those devices for targeting. Its colors consisted of Axolotl and Laurel Green.

It is unclear if the camouflage pattern was originally known as “Night Camouflage” or had another moniker. However, it wasn’t used in the field until the beginning of combat operations in Gulf War in 1991 – where it became described as “Desert Night Camouflage” or DNC.

Desert night camo was issued in the form of pants and parka, which was meant to be worn at nighttime over the standard 6-color desert camouflage pattern, along with a boonie hat. Because the U.S. military’s “wholly defensive” mission to prevent Iraq from invading Saudi Arabia – Operation Desert Shield – only began on August 7, 1990 when U.S. troops were deployed at the request of King Fahd, and combat ground operations began in late February 1991, it is unlikely “new” uniforms were produced.

Instead, it is likely that the uniforms were those from the Cold War, simply employed in the desert.

As uniforms went it was unique – consisting of pants and a parka with the aforementioned grid pattern. Whether it actually helped with concealment is debatable, but it likely provided some extra warmth to the soldiers standing watch during the winter months in the deserts of Saudi Arabia.

Its effectiveness was thus limited.

It was never clear if the desert night camouflage actually disrupted Soviet-era night vision devices, but by the early 1990s the technology had improved so much that the green grid proved ineffective and some sources suggest it may have made detection easier. The vertical and horizontal lines and blotchy patterns may have stood out in the dark when seen through the goggles. In fact, in testing, it was determined that the DNC actually proved to be more visible than the day desert uniforms or even winter over white uniforms when viewed through the U.S. military’s AN/PVS-5 night vision goggles.

The pattern was considered obsolete as it proved only effective against early NVGs from the 1970s.

The Surplus Market

The U.S. military quickly gave up on desert night camo, and apparently sold off its stocks of the pants and parkas. These could be found in Army/Navy Surplus stores in the early to mid-1990s, but then an interesting thing happened. It was soon copied by private companies that manufactured various gear in DNC – some of which was marketed as Night Desert. Whether that was out of fear of trademark violations or simply because it sounded better is also unclear.

Part of the appeal may have been the arrival of a new generation of video games in the early 1990s that featured 16-bit graphics with pixilated characters. The grid-like patterns certainly looked like computer screen pixels, and no doubt the idea of advanced camouflage played into the cool factor!

desert night camouflage like ski pants
How effective Desert Night Camouflage might be on the ski slopes in the daytime is the question to ask with these DC Revival Snowboard Pants. They’re available from Amazon for $110. [Photo: Amazon]

According to one source, a reversible jacket featured the DNC on one side and the three-color DCU pattern on the other side. This reportedly proved popular with some Special Forces operators who bought the jackets and deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq with them.

The pattern proved to be a bit ahead of its time, as it preceded the U.S. Army’s Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP), which blended tan, gray and green so as to work equally well in desert, woodland and even urban environments. The United States Marine Corps developed its own version in the MARPAT while the Canadian Forces utilized a similar pattern. What was unique about the UCP is that black was omitted from the uniform as it was found that black remains highly visible not only to the naked eye but also to modern optics. Instead, several shades of gray were incorporated in a grid-like pattern, which is why UCP became known as a “digital camouflage” as the color pattern also resembled computer pixels.

universal camoflage pattern replaced desert night camo
DNC was a forerunner to the U.S. Army’s Universal Camouflage Pattern, which was only universal in that it was marginally effective everywhere and not particularly good anywhere. (Photo: U.S. Army)

Yet, it was found that UCP was also ineffective. About the only thing universal about it was how badly it worked in every environment, and that is why the U.S. military adopted the Operational Camouflage Pattern (OCP), which seems like a modernized version of the BDU from the 1970s.

As for effects to counter night vision goggles, it was found that infrared reflective technology does the trick better than wearing an extra layer of clothing with a grid-like pattern. Yet, despite the fact that desert night camo doesn’t work – it has remained a staple of civilian tactical clothing. The original vintage clothing has also recently attracted collector interest. Maybe the purpose is to look like a special operator and be seen, instead of actually blending into the surroundings!

Check out more military history from Peter Suciu here:

Heads Up: The History of Military Helmet Covers | Breach Bang Clear

The Military Flashlight — It Dates Back to the First World War (breachbangclear.com)

The Egyptian Small Arms of the Cold War | Breach Bang Clear

              

Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu

About the Author

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers firearms related topics and military history. As a reporter, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. Among those are Homeland Security Today, Armchair General, Military Heritage, The Mag Life, Newsweek, The Federalist, AmmoLand, Breach-Bang-Clear, Newsweek, RECOILweb, Wired, and many (many) others. He has collected military small arms and military helmets most of his life, and just recently navigated his first NFA transfer to buy his first machine gun. He is co-author of the book A Gallery of Military Headdress, which was published in February 2019. It is his third book on the topic of military hats and helmets.

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