BDU - Battle Dress Uniforms

Hiding Our Assets: Reducing Threats Through Camouflage

Today’s soldier faces battlefield threats that were unknown just a generation ago. Advanced sensors, for example, make it possible to track soldiers’ positions at night not only visually, with the help of low-light near-infrared sensing devices, but thermally, with devices that measure body heat. To respond effectively to such intricate threats, and to be positioned to respond to threats posed by the increasingly digitized battlefield of the future, flexibility, adaptability and integration with the soldier as a whole will be the key to product development. The Survivability Directorate at SSCOM’s Natick Research, Development and Engineering Center (NRDEC) is designing clothing and equipment that meets all of these criteria.

The mission of NRDEC’s Multifunctional Materials Group (MMG) is to develop a multifunctional combat system that provides a balanced level of protection against known battlefield threats. Group members work to create a system that is durable, comfortable and readily accepted by the soldier for use in a myriad of environmental conditions.

“We’re looking to get away from how things were done in the past,” said group leader Tom Pease. “We’ve always done an effective job in responding when a new threat comes along,” he said, “but it’s always been a stovepiped process, very vertical. We’re now looking for more horizontal integration” into the soldier system as a whole.

In its efforts to develop countermeasures against emerging threats, Mr. Pease said, the Army “never really looked at the cumulative effect of the various countermeasures on soldier’s performance. The weight and load that the soldier carries has been increased. We want to develop countermeasures now that don’t add another layer of bulk to the soldier’s clothing and equipment. We’re trying to do more with less.”

One of the MMG’s largest projects is the development and improvement of camouflage, which comes into play in every facet of a soldier’s combat clothing and equipment. The purpose of camouflage is to blend an object into its background and break up the pattern of the object as much as possible. Toward that end, battle dress uniforms (BDUs) have near-infrared capabilities built into them and are painstakingly patterned with the help of the MMG’s Camouflage Evaluation Facility (CEF).

The CEF, which features four real-world environments in which to design and evaluate camouflage suits, gives the Army a valuable tool for protecting soldiers against emerging threats in the field, according to team leader David Audet. The four environmental settings represented are woodland, which has live plants; desert, which has sand of a similar color and texture as the sand in the Middle East; Arctic, with simulated snow; and urban, featuring a variety of building materials, including concrete and stucco.

The use of real materials is important for a faithful representation of what would be visible through near-infrared night vision goggles. Adding to the realism is the CEF’s special lighting, which can be adjusted to different levels of moonlit or dark skies. The facility serves as a base for “quick and dirty in-house testing,” Mr. Audet said. “The goal is to come up with the best available camouflage prior to field testing.” That approach saves both the time and expense associated with field tests, and it offers a controlled testing environment free of the variable weather conditions of outdoor test sites. It allows the Army to evaluate not only its own camouflage systems but that of foreign countries as well.

An important complement to the camouflage evaluation process is the Terrain Analysis System, which “essentially allows us to go into an environment, take a ‘snapshot,’ and digitally break down the scene” in order to create an effective camouflage pattern, Mr. Audet said. Videotape of various backgrounds is brought into the lab and fed into a computer, which then breaks the scene down into a user-specified number of predominant colors and shapes and comes up with the appropriate camouflage pattern, which is printed up for in-house testing. Reversible camouflage, which is helpful in the field for quick changes and for use on helmets, can also be printed.

In addition to camouflaging the BDUs, the MMG is now looking at the camouflage of ancillary gear like helmets, canteens and other equipment, which has traditionally remained camouflage green. The focus is “on improving the synergy of the system,” Mr. Pease said, by studying the effect of different camouflage treatments on the entire system.

Research efforts will soon permit not only site-specific camouflage but just-in-time camouflage, where new patterns can be created to respond to newly developing threats in a matter of weeks. Within the next several years, Mr. Pease anticipates, his group will be able to demonstrate the viability and effectiveness of a just-in-time system.

The group’s mission of multifunctionality is being carried out in other ways as well. For instance, it is working to find cost-effective ways to impart flame-retardant properties to battle garments. In keeping with the group’s synergistic, integrated approach to its business, the soldier’s comfort will be a primary concern. As a result, Mr. Pease said, tradeoffs will be made to achieve a balance of all the important qualities: Performance, cost effectiveness, comfort and durability.

The group is also developing protective countermeasures to directed energy threats. Laser eye protection, devices offering protection against tunable lasers, is the focus at present, but there will be broader applications as different threats present themselves. For instance, microwave emitters could become a significant part of the battlefield of the future, making protection against directed energy all the more important.

The MMG is constantly looking ahead, finding innovative ways to anticipate future threats. Its fiber plant is being put to work investigating new polymer formulations to build new yarns and fabrics. Further down the road, the group will be looking to develop smart textiles, fabrics with built-in sensors that can identify and adapt to various threats.

“We look at Land Warrior as being our ultimate customer, because the focus is on systems that are truly multifunctional,” Mr. Pease said of the Army’s soldier system for the 21st century. “Our focus will be on demonstrating advanced technologies in the Force XXI Land Warrior program, which is responsible for providing technology upgrades to the Land Warrior system.”