The Army's Strange Fascination with Pixelated Camouflage

The state of the universe.
July 5 2012 3:53 PM

Lost in the Wilderness

The military's misadventures in pixelated camouflage.

Pixelated Army Uniform.
A soldier in the Georgia National Guard sports the U.S. Army Combat Uniform from 2005 at Fort Stewart, Ga.

Photograph by Erik S. Lesser/GettyImages.

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.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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 as MultiCam, 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.

Seen with civilian eyes, the rise and fall of the UCP—and the family of rectilinear camouflage patterns to which it belongs—reads like a parable of irrational exuberance. Pixelated camouflage started to catch on in the technophilic years of the late-1990s, a digital pattern for a dot-com world. By taking the flowing shapes of the old woodland prints and deconstructing them into tiny squares, military engineers applied a computer logic to nature: They made over the science of camouflage, once inspired by the evolution of peppered moths and other animals, into a kind of digital screen-print that could spread through the networked military as a piece of viral media.

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The pixel print started (like its analogues in high fashion) as a look-book style for the warrior set. U.S. troops had worn the classic, four-colored Battle Dress Uniform and then a three-color NATO design for decades, but in the early 2000s, the Marine Corps pushed into the avant-garde by donning a digital print borrowed from the Canadians. (That one was first tested in 1998.) When it came time for the Army to update its own uniforms a few years later, the Marines' pixelated "MARPAT" scheme served as the model. "It was trendy," one military textile engineer told the Daily. "If it's good enough for the Marines, why shouldn't the Army have that same cool, new look?"

That's jumping ahead, though. 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. Neuroscientists had divided the human visual system into a pair of parallel circuits with different functions: One neural pathway alerts us to the presence of objects in the world (where is it?), while the other helps us figure out what those objects might be (what is it?).

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. 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.

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