Designed By Marines For Marines


Camouflage is the concealment of personnel or equipment from the enemy by making them appear to be part of the natural environment.  This is a vital concern for Marines, and covers a broad area of tactical study.  In a manner of speaking, camouflage is the ability to disguise, or mask, ourselves from the detection of our opponents' senses - whether by sight, sound, smell or even electronic sensors.  Camouflage can be used for either defensive or offensive purposes.  For surveillance or reconnaissance, this may mean to not reveal ourselves at all.  For an assault, it may mean waiting until we are within a short distance from an unsuspecting enemy.  It helps us to obtain and maintain the initiative in combat,  by allowing us to conceal ourselves from the enemy until the moment of our choosing when we want our presence known.  

As the Marine Corps first considered development of a new combat utility uniform, one of the primary areas reviewed for improvement was the camouflage pattern.  The camouflage pattern is one of the most important components of any combat uniform.  As the uniform covers most of the body, it is one of our key personnel camouflage concerns.  Recognizing this as an complex  field of study, the project team turned to one the premier experts of the field:  the Scout Sniper Instructors School.

The Scout Sniper Instructor School considered various factors that influence personnel camouflage.  Most of these are termed as target indicators, which means anything Marines do or fail to do that subsequently  reveals themselves to the enemy.  One primary target indicator is improper camouflage.  Since the purpose of camouflage is to blend in with the immediate surroundings, having an appearance that contrasts with the environment would be considered improper camouflage.  

The ability to blend into the environment is often relative to the perception of the viewer.  Perception is often dictated by whether the viewer is trained to view the world with primary vision, or if the viewer has the natural tendency to use secondary vision.  Secondary vision is when the viewer associates what he or she sees with pre-conceived mental images, a limiting form of memory recognition.  If an observer searching for a specific object does not see something that corresponds with a pre-conceived image, the object often goes unnoticed.  An observer trained in primary vision, however, will not view a visual area with pre-conceived notions of what to expect, and therefore has a better chance of picking up on partial or obscured objects.  A deer concealed in vegetation  may not be seen by someone using secondary vision because they are looking for a head with antlers; whereas someone using primary vision will spot the white tail.  Most people are not trained to see with primary vision skills and rely instead on secondary vision.  Even so, the average observer can still detect improper camouflage.

This is generally caused by having an appearance that is intuitively recognizable as man-made.  Natural objects often follow a random flow of colors and patterns in their appearance; man-made objects often have geometric shapes, solid and contrasting forms, or other indications of a recognizable pattern.  With these concerns in mind, it is useful to think of a uniform's camouflage in terms of pattern and color.

The pattern helps break up the outline of the wearer's body by implying a flow of space.  An untrained observer naturally divides a field of view into positive space and negative space.  A tree, building or other specific object that draws our focus is considered positive space.  The visual area in between two positive spaces is considered negative space.  As a person's observation moves across a field of vision, his or her natural tendency is to jump from positive space to positive space.  Anything that interrupts this flow of space would be considered a target indicator.

Many commercial camouflage patterns are based upon some representation of positive space.  Most hunters tend to find a position near a tree or other form of positive space.  As they tend to remain in position for long periods of time, camouflage patterns such as those imitating tree bark and leaves work to their advantage.  Marines, however, spend most of their time being mobile, and they often cross negative space while moving toward an objective or checkpoint.  They need a camouflage pattern that breaks up their outline, reducing their identification as positive space and lending to the perception of being as part of the background.  

Obviously, the speed of movement in itself can attract attention, but disciplined movement can reduce this to an acceptable minimum.  The ideal pattern would allow for a squad to move through an environment with as little signature as possible.  If the squad were to halt while in a dispersed formation with some members motionless in an open area, good camouflage would break up their outlines and allow them to blend in with the surrounding negative space - or allow natural and uninterrupted flow of space.

Colors can also be perceived as natural or man-made.  Drab colors blend more evenly in a natural environment than do primary colors, which are more commonly found outside of nature.  Primary colors, in this sense, apply to the true value of the color.  True blue and true yellow mixed in equal amounts make true green.  Although different shades and hues of green can be found in any forest, true green is not common - therefore, a target indicator.  The same can be said for true brown, which is composed of equal parts of true red, true yellow and true blue.  Shades of brown are more commonly found in nature than green.

Preferred camouflage uses medium value colors.  Medium value colors have a greater tendency to make use of ambient light reflected off surrounding objects.  Take a green leaf: it absorbs sunlight -- which is composed of all colors of the spectrum -- but reflects the color green.   This is the color our eyes see.  It is also reflected onto surrounding objects, which in turn absorb or reflect the color in addition to the sunlight.  A medium value brown will absorb some of this color and reflect back the rest.  The result is a slight shift in the brown's perceived value to match the environment.

Basically, if an object closely resembles its surrounding environment,  the mind often makes the automatic assumption that what it sees is part of the environment.  This is usually the case, unless the color obviously contrasts with the natural environment or if the observer is well-trained in primary vision.  Medium value brown generally comes close in hue to most common natural colors.  This also explains why black is often used in camouflage patterns.  Black is rarely found in nature, but most observers register shadows or dark colors as black.  

It is no secret that our current utility uniform violates a few of these principles.  It has four colors arranged in contrasting "blotches" throughout the surface of the uniform.  The green and brown used in the pattern dominate the overall color scheme, both of which are close to their primary value.  These colors are not suitable for most wooded environments.  The excess use of green in the pattern has been determined to more often than not draw attention to the wearer.   In addition, each colored "blotch" on the pattern has well-defined edges, causing abrupt transitions between colors.  These qualities of pattern and color on our current uniform tend to interrupt the flow of space and attract attention to the wearer.

As the Scout Sniper Instructor School tested various camouflage patterns, it applied these considerations to determine the best pattern.  The pattern had to break up the outline of the wearer.  Out of eight patterns submitted to the School for evaluation, two were regarded as the leading contenders.  An improved "tiger stripe" pattern and a computer generated pattern called the "MARPAT."

The tiger stripe is a pattern well-known to most of the military.  Different variations are used throughout the world.  The proposed Marine version used colors that had been optimized to use medium value colors for maximum effect.  The pattern itself had a natural flow which lent to an effective break up of the wearer's outline, although the flow tended to be bi-directional.  The MARPAT also uses optimized colors with medium values, and has a random, omni-directional pattern.  Viewed up close, this pattern appears in small digital blocks, but with increasing distance serves to blend in with any numerous environments.  Although the tiger stripe was found to be more effective than the current pattern, the MARPAT was considered the best of the selection due to its multi-environment flexibility, tactical effectiveness and ability to provide service distinctiveness.


Special thanks to the SNCOIC of the Scout Sniper Instructor Course (SSIC).  Any errors made in describing the principles of camouflage are the fault of the author and not of the SSIC.  Questions, corrections or other comments may be sent to our POC.