Modern camouflage

Camouflage is a mind game that makes you believe that you are not seeing something that is there before your eyes. The modern-day stealth technology is an exercise in visual deception that has evolved considerably since the first hunter found a way to get close enough to his prey to hurl his spear to be able to ensure that he and his cave mates will have dinner on the table. Camouflage techniques have played a major role in warfare down the ages through the art of deception.

Military uniforms for armed forces personnel are intended to play a dual role of concealment within the battlefield environment of deployment as well as identifying a body of troops and distinguishing between friend and foe. India’s contribution to military accoutrement is the “khaki” or “drab” uniform derived from the Urdu “khak” or dust. The dust brown nature of the Indian landscape (and also of much of Africa where the British carried out many campaigns) helped create uniforms that provided camouflage as well as comfort in the Indian climatic conditions.

Nonetheless the Indian landscape is not totally homogenous. It includes the browns of the desert in the west, the patchy greens of the forests of the north-east and, after 1962 Chinese invasion, the snowy whites of the Himalayas. The Indian armed forces personnel have thus had to change their uniforms during summer and winter and on being posted to the western, northern or eastern sectors. The new uniform intended for the Future Infantry Soldier as a System (F-INSAS) will also reflect this geographical reality.

New approach

If futurism is the catchword then the designers will have to look for means of reducing the infrared and thermal aura that surrounds a human being and is easily detectable by aircraft and helicopters fitted with forward looking infrared (FLIR) sensors. These tend to undercut the attempts to hide the deployment of infantrymen as well as tanks and vehicles that have switched on their engines. Thermal imaging facilities on board airborne platforms are proving to be a threat to ground forces. Stealth technology and the protection of the infantry soldier need to be revisited in the light of this development.

In major wars the role of military camouflage is very significant in creating illusory cities and industrial infrastructure as bait to divert enemy attack from the real habitat. Both, camouflage which can hide the real assets and decoys intended to indicate a different axis of movement could force the enemy to waste its military facilities for futile operations.

The need for camouflage arose with the increasing range of weapons like artillery, mortar, howitzers and rifles. The idea was being able to hide military concentration of troops and fighting assets and divert attention to innocuous locations.

Camouflage incorporates more than just the broken pattern of textiles used in uniforms. It has a heat, sound, magnetism and even smell dimension that is required to be managed in a manner that does not give away location.

For example, ships need to be demagnetized by a process known as “degaussing” by rubbing the hull with a charged electric cable. Deguassing prevents an attack by magnetic mines and torpedoes.

Heat from the exhausts of fighter aircraft needs to be neutralized by a repositioning of the exhaust pipe to a level above the wings where the ambient air is very much colder and it quickly disperses the heat to prevent heat-seeking missiles from homing onto the aircraft. This is supplemented by self-protection suites that include chaff and flares that draw the missile away from the plane.

Digital camouflage provides the disruptive effect that is seen on desert and jungle uniforms. It is brought about by the use of pixilated patterns that tends to deceive the eye at different ranges. The role of digital camouflage may be described as obfuscating the mind which, if it is unable to discern the specific silhouette of a man or machine would decide that nothing exists at that spot. However, defence scientists have pointed out that once identification has been made the pixilated pattern no longer deceives.

During World War II aircraft were camouflaged with a lighter shade on the underside and a darker shade on the top, the rationale being that against the sky the aircraft could blend with the blue while the perspective from the top would be a dark pattern that would merge with the ground below. This has largely been discarded by modern aircraft and nearly all of them are now painted grey.  

Stealth technology

Over the years’ stealth technology has become buzzwords. Most persistently this technology has been applied to fighter aircraft, the protection of which is the paramount responsibility of the government. Radar has brought new dangers in the air as had sonar under water. To be able to deceive either of them has taken a lot of study and encouraging results have been seen during the Gulf War when US Air Force stealth aircraft struck Iraqi radar installations, electricity grid and other very valuable assets without the Iraqis being able to retaliate effectively.      

This has been achieved in aircraft and ships by reconfiguring their shapes to reflect radar impulses away from the sender, and covered with radar-absorbing materials, to reduce their radar signature. The use of heat-seeking missiles has also led to efforts to hide the heat signature of aircraft engines. Methods include exhaust ports shaped to mix hot exhaust gases with cold surrounding air and repositioning the exhaust ports on the upper side of the airframe. What is known as multi-spectral camouflage is intended to hide aircraft from detection systems using infra-red, radar, and millimeter-wave imaging simultaneously.

While the fifth generation fighter aircraft is being fashioned with stealth technology in the Russian laboratories, India has managed to assimilate the technology in shaping the indigenously built Shivalik class of warships to deal with both radar and sonar not just by surface vessels but also submarines.  

In stealth equipment, the surface of a vehicle is made up of many reflecting surfaces interconnected at odd angles. This configuration serves to deflect the radar waves in a manner that  they don’t bounce straight back to the radar station, but instead bounce off at a tangential  angle and travel in another direction. Equipment may also be coated with a layer of “radar-absorbent” material which sucks up the electrons. This reduces the overall reflected radio signal.

There are other innovative ways of adding to the stealth capability. The deployment of hundreds of nozzles into the sea and squirting the water in a thick fog all around the ship or using smokescreen can be other viable options.