China’s New Modern War Machine

Invented by a US Army officer in the 1970s, ‘digital camouflage’ is pixelating China’s modern war machine.

On 3 September 2015, China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II with a fairly stunning display of its military might, parading hundreds armoured fighting vehicles and some 12,000 troops from the normally secretive People’s Liberation Army through Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Many of these vehicles had never appeared in public and a notable theme — one that to many eyes came as a big surprise — was the Army’s use of dramatic ‘digital’ camouflage patterns. The Chinese pageant featured columns of military vehicles covered in pixelated squares, some in shades of green and khaki, others in outlandish schemes of blue, white and black.

Digital camouflage is a type of camouflage pattern combining micro- and macro patterns, often though not necessarily with a pixellated look created with computer assistance. The function is to provide military camouflage over a range of distances, or equivalently over a range of scales, in the manner of fractals. Not all multiscale patterns are pixellated, and not all pixellated patterns work at different scales, so being pixelated does not of itself guarantee improved performance.

Pixelated camo prints, or at least the theory behind them, arrived long before the fashion craze. Their history begins with an experimental psychologist (and Jungian analyst) named Lt. Col. Timothy O’Neill. While teaching at West Point, O’Neill thought to apply new ideas about human perception to the art of the concealment.

O’Neill figured that a smart camouflage would have to take account of both pathways, so he devised a pattern with two overlaid textures. At one level, a “micro-pattern” made of discrete color blocks would blend in with the visual noise in a scene and confound the where-is-it pathway. At a second level, those shapes would form a larger “macro-pattern,” like the tree branches in a Seurat painting, meant to break up the symmetries of a target and flummox the brain’s what-is-it neurons. In 1979, O’Neill’s “DualTex” design was blotted onto the vehicles of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment with square sponges, in the first major field test of digital camouflage.

The early results were promising, but it took another 20 years for the DualTex concept to worm its way into the collective unconscious of the Defense Department.

The root of the modern digital camouflage patterns can be traced back to 1930s experiments in Europe for the German and Soviet armies. Modern digital patterns date to the 1970s with work by U.S. Army officer Timothy O’Neill for armor camouflage, later followed by Canadian development of CADPAT and then with US work led by O’Neill which created MARPAT.

The pattern, which resembles the blocky graphics from the computer game Minecraft, is a stark contrast to traditional variegated “organic” camo designs that militaries have employed since the 19th Century — schemes that use blotches of complementary colours to mimic foliage and other natural features. The boldly pixelated camo, which despite some initial reluctance has seen increasing use by military forces around the world, seems counterintuitive; nothing in nature is so rigidly shaped. But it does work, and its vastly improved performance even came as a surprise to the man — a US Army officer — credited with developing it 40 years ago.

“Well when I looked at the data I think my observation was something on the order of ‘holy crap’,” recalled now-retired Lieutenant Colonel Timothy R O’Neill, PhD, when we asked him about early tests of the camo.

In the late 1970s O’Neill suggested to the US Army that square blocks of colour would disguise an armoured fighting vehicle better than large blotches. His idea was to build a pattern that would work no matter how far the vehicle is from the observer. Large patterns work well at long distances, and small patterns are better at close range. But patterns made from small squares, or pixels, can be painted to mimic both.

There’s a lot of brown in Afghanistan, says one aggrieved soldier, but the U.S. Army’s camo print contains not a speck. Standard-issue uniforms come instead in a pixelated marble of gray and khaki, as if they were made to blend into a gravel pit or a slice of Valdeon cheese. The problematic design, called the Universal Camouflage Pattern (or UCP), was released in 2004 as a one-print-fits-all solution for military deployments around the world, based on the dream of a single outfit that could be worn in every terrain. But as the Daily reported last week, this would-be wonder-pattern was flawed from the start.

Even before the UCP was issued to soldiers, lab tests showed that it didn’t perform as well as other designs. But the Army’s textile researchers now say that military brass had already made up their minds in favor of the new-fangled pixelated look. It didn’t take long for sergeants to begin complaining from the field, and by the summer of 2009, the $5 billion boondoggle had made its way to the floor of the House of Representatives. Soldiers in Afghanistan were issued replacement uniforms with a more traditional, splotchy camouflage known asMultiCam, and the Army embarked on a three-year study to choose a permanent replacement. That period is almost over, and though critics have focused more on the UCP’s washed-out colors than its pixel scheme, it’s starting to look as if the military’s long-running experiment with “digital camouflage” is about to end, once and for all.

The bottom line on design is that whether its a professional Denver web design firm building a business website or a design for military camo – it can often take more than one set of eyes to deduce the effectiveness. Sometimes it takes someone bold and brave enough to try a new design before it can be accepted and seen to be effective.

The early results for digital camo were promising, but it took another 20 years after it’s invention for the concept to worm its way into the collective unconscious of the US Defense Department. Many people were skeptical of O’Neill’s sharply defined color squares, which had little resemblance to anything you might find in the forest or the desert. But new modes of thinking about the brain became fashionable in the late-1990s. Researchers found secrets hidden in the blocky, colored voxels of fMRI scans, and the human mind was reimagined as a set of rectangles on a screen. The way we saw our brains matched up with how our brains would see the word—pulling and processing data like a digital camera. This made sense to the camouflage expert: The eyeballs of an enemy soldier were just another technology of surveillance, and one that could be hacked with the right tools. It looks like China has adopted Camo Design big time. Let’s hope we never have to fight against it.

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