The art of camouflage, part 1

A few days ago The Mail on Sunday, a British tabloid, announced with great excitement that “British troops have been testing an ‘invisibility cloak’ that makes them disappear on the battlefield.” Well, obviously this intrigued us at FOB so we decided to investigate. And, as often, what lies behind the headline is not quite as exciting as may at first appear. And The Mail on Sunday had confused two quite separate technologies: static camouflage, which doesn’t change, and dynamic camouflage, which does.

Static camouflage, such as this soldier's uniform, can be very effective against the right background. But pout this person in bushes and he would show up straight away

Static camouflage, such as this soldier’s uniform, can be very effective against the right background. But put this person in bushes and he would show up straight away

What soldiers from 3rd Battalion The Rifles (3 Rifles) have been testing in field trials at the US Army’s centre for experimental warfare techniques at Fort Benning, Georgia, is a static camouflage product called Vatec initially developed by Polaris Solutions in Israel and manufactured and marketed today by a non-profit organisation whose mission “is to employ persons with significant disabilities”, ReadyOne Industries in El Paso, Texas under the Vatic Concealment Solutions (VCS) brand.

The originality of this material is that you can scrumple it up into whatever shape you like, say a rock, or a bush, and it will hold that shape.

Vatec can hold any shape you wish to give it

Vatec can hold any shape you wish to give it

It takes about 25 minutes for two people who know what they’re doing to shape the material into a small bunker for example or to cover a vehicle. But Vatic certainly doesn’t change colour. If you want a rock then you have to have the rock-coloured camouflage version and if you want a bush then you’ll have to have the bush version in your stock. ReadyOne says any current combat camouflage pattern or natural or urban environment pattern taken from photographs can be applied to the core fabric.

What is interesting about this fabric is that renders whatever is behind it very difficult to detect by infra-red and heat-seeking devices. The fabric has a crinkly texture so that even when it is laid out flat it has some depth. In addition each of the three layers of the fabric can have holes cut out of it revealing the layer or layers underneath. This means that the heat outline of a person or vehicle hiding underneath it would be broken up into an irregular and unrecognisable pattern.

Corporal Tyrone Hoole, a sharpshooter from 3 Rifles, was quoted by The Mail on Sunday as saying: “This is an absolutely brilliant piece of kit. The lads are desperate for the Army to buy it. Instead of carrying chicken wire, spray paint and thermal sheets we can use this one item, which is really light.”

This static camouflage is quite a different thing from the dynamic camouflage that a number of industries and laboratories are working on and that again is a far cry from an “invisibility cloak” such as worn by Harry Potter, the fictitious child-wizard. FOB spoke to Professor Andrea di Falco, head of the Synthetic Optics research group at Scotland’s University of St Andrews who published a paper in 2010 about these “metamaterials” which absorb or bend light and/or radar waves.

come back on Monday for part 2