Army Officer: Without Effective Camouflage, Some Soldiers 'Don't Come Home'
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
On the battlefield, colors and contrast matter, providing soldiers needed cover. In the search for the perfect camouflage, the U.S. Army is introducing a new pattern to its combat uniform. Given all of the different battle settings today, is there any such thing as the perfect camouflage? We reached out to retired Army officer Tim O'Neill. He's done camouflage related work for more than 40 years, including for the U.S. military, though he's not currently on contract with them. I asked him what he thinks of the new pattern called the operational camouflage pattern.
TIM O'NEILL: Well, the improvement is immense. However, I have to caution you by saying the improvement is immense because what it replaces was just terrible.
CORNISH: In what way?
O'NEILL: It didn't work. It was an unfortunate attempt to create a single camouflage measure that worked equally well worldwide. And in fact, it succeeded. The old pattern now being replaced is equally useless everywhere in the world.
CORNISH: So help us understand. I mean, you've had quite a bit of combat experience. You also have a PhD in visual biophysics. I mean, what makes a camouflage pattern effective?
O'NEILL: All right. The pattern currently in use is a very bad color palette. It's supposed to fit anywhere in the world, but in fact, it's just several shades of very neutral gray. It's also very light - very bright in the terms of the energy that reflects off of it, much more so than much natural backgrounds. The other problem is that within the pattern, there's very low contrast, which means that within a very short distance, you no longer see a camouflage pattern at all. You just see a - kind of a grayish blotch.
CORNISH: And so what makes this new one more effective?
O'NEILL: Well, the choice of colors is much better. I think it still has some problems in contrast, but just the change to a more realistic color palette is a huge leap forward. The problem is it is designed to be a universal camouflage pattern, and there is no such thing. There is no pattern that works well in the woods and in the desert and in the swamps and in the snow. And you can't design one with current technology. So it is a compromise.
I'm not entirely certain why that decision was made. If we're trying to reduce the number of uniforms and that's our primary objective, then it was a good decision. If we're trying to reduce vulnerability of soldiers on the battlefield - their detection - it was not quite that good. So that's where we are now. It's an improvement. Personally, I believe it could be better.
CORNISH: Thinking back to your own experience in wearing the camouflage, how important is it to you?
O'NEILL: I spent a significant part of my youthful days in the Army being shot at. That sharpens your appreciation of counter surveillance or camouflage. Right now I'm working with another country which is dealing with a widespread insurgency within its own borders. And I have been working with them on their camouflage equipment and on their camouflage doctrine. They care about it a lot. If they don't do it right, some of them don't come back. So to me, it's very, very important. It's not a logistical or a bureaucratic question. It's a question of combat outcomes and making it back home.
CORNISH: As someone who studies this world, what's the future?
O'NEILL: Well, camouflage is always going to be around. It's simply going to change in its capabilities. I think we're poised now to have active camouflage - for example, networks embedded in the fabrics that are electronically controlled so that they can change color and pattern like a chameleon. It's possible to do that now, but it's incredibly expensive and the durability is somewhat questionable. However, if you put enough time and effort into it, you can certainly come up with a chameleon suit.
CORNISH: Tim O'Neil is a retired Army officer. He's now a private consultant whose work focuses on camouflage. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
O'NEILL: It's my pleasure.
CORNISH: We asked the U.S. Army for comment. They responded with this statement. Quote, "after rigorous testing and evaluation, the operational camouflage pattern has emerged as the best value for the Army. Soldier force protection and safety was the Army's primary decision criteria." They go on. "The selected pattern will provide soldiers an effective camouflage pattern optimize for both day and night operations in the full range of Army military operating environments across the combatant commands."
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