When American soldiers participating in Operation Enduring Freedom were issued with new camouflage gear in 2004, it rapidly became clear that it did little to disguise them against the harsh, mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. The camouflage selected for their Army Combat Uniforms (ACU) was a government-sponsored design known as Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP), and seemed to make wearers easy targets for insurgents.
So concerned was the US Government that Congress passed a bill in 2009 to rapidly supply soldiers with a replacement. By 2010, delivery began of ACUs that used another pattern which had proven effective in testing - the seven-colour, multi-environment design known as MultiCam, developed by Brooklyn headquartered Crye Precision.
While it is impossible to directly correlate deaths or injuries of soldiers to wearing camouflage, the readily-recognisable pixelated design of UCP was always going to be a controversial choice. Between 2002 and 2004, the US Army Natick Center rigorously tested and compared four different colourways of four different patterns; Desert All Over Brush, Woodland Track, Urban Track and MultiCam. UCP was not among them.
The tests were carried out over four phases. In the first, trained army experts had to compare side-by-side patterns printed on paper for blending, brightness, contrast and detection. The eleven candidates that made it through to phase two were production printed and tested separately in daytime and night-time conditions. By phase four, the candidates were printed on the Future Force Warrior ensemble - as opposed to the current ACU -- and evaluated from different angles, against different backgrounds and in different lighting conditions.
The winner in daylight was Desert All Over Brush, with MultiCam performing well in woodland environments and Urban Track getting best results at night, despite doing poorly in all other tests. Despite this effort, none of the patterns evaluated through this process was selected.
Towards the end of these trials, UCP, a modified version of the US Marine Corps' Marine Pattern, was undergoing a rigorous series of laboratory and field tests at five different sites. While it performed well alone, it was never directly compared against its competitors, adding heft to the argument of the detractors of its performance in Afghanistan, who are quick to point out the only other army to use a strikingly similar pixelated design is Kazakhstan.
Back to the drawing board
Eleven years and a $5bn investment in UCP later, the US Army is back at the drawing board in an attempt to settle on a family of camouflage designs that achieves what UCP set out to do originally - be a truly universal design that, in a small selection of colourways, will disguise the presence of soldiers in all situations.
To ensure there is no repeat of the UCP fiasco, the Army is currently subjecting candidates to the biggest uniform camouflage test in history, involving thousands of soldiers at Fort Benning in Georgia, Fort Polk, Louisiana and Yuma Testing Ground in Arizona. Designs for specific environments are compared to more generic designs, and soldiers trained as spotters will try to pick out colleagues wearing uniforms made from the printed fabrics against different backgrounds, at various distances and in different lighting conditions.
The Army reports that, to date, the tests have revealed that the pattern itself only seems to be important at distances of up to 50m; after this the colours become the main factor. Having learned lessons from UCP in Afghanistan, one likely solution is that the Army will select a universal pattern for general use while offering commanders backdrop-specific designs for different theatres.
Col. Robert F. Mortlock, project manager for Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment, says the criteria for testing the patterns are "detection and blending".
He recently told Army Times: "The bottom line is the enemy can't kill, hurt or injure who they can't see. We have testimonials from soldiers in theatre close enough to the enemy to hear them saying they can't see the American. That's powerful. That's a combat multiplier."
In May 2013, Crye's MultiCam emerged as the top contender for the general use pattern, but by May 2014 talks with the Army were reported to have broken down over the $24.8m royalty fee Crye was demanding. Crye issued a statement in reply stating that this figure was misrepresentative, adding that it had agreed to reduce its fees and offered a deal within 1% of the cost of UCP.
Sources say that other contenders still in the running include Marine Corps' desert and woodland patterns, and officials are considering creating and testing a digitised pattern based on the colours of MultiCam pattern. The US Army is not currently in a position to confirm the situation.
Big military purchasing decisions, especially those that could affect a soldier's chance of being detected and targeted, are always going to be a hotbed of politics piled up uncomfortably against scientific research and testing, not least because of the number of organisations necessarily involved.
David Accetta, public affairs officer at the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, says: "There are different agencies that are responsible for different parts of it. We're responsible for the research and development, another Army organisation is responsible for the testing and evaluation, and then the actual acquisition and fielding of it. Yet another organisation is responsible for making the decision, based on the input of the other two. Everybody's very sensitive about this, especially now because there may be some changes coming up."
All this is set against a background of cost-cutting and the requirement to comply with the 2014 Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to field camouflage uniforms common to all members of the armed forces. The NDAA states that the Army can "use existing uniforms and patterns and use the patterns of sister services".
Whenever the military considers its camouflage options, the question the public often asks is, given the media is full of futuristic solutions like invisibility cloaks and chameleon clothing, why is the military still using old-fashioned printed cloth?
Back in 2008, the US Army Research Office and the National Science Foundation's Nano-Scale Science and Engineering Centre funded research at the University of California aimed at developing materials that could make people and objects invisible by redirecting light and other EM radiation around them.
Taking a different approach, US outdoor and hunting supplies specialist Cabela's last year introduced a range of camouflage clothing that changes colour with temperature to match seasonal foliage. In mild temperatures, the main print colours are vivid greens that blend with spring foliage, but at lower temperatures the greens blend into autumnal shades of brown.
As well as the cost - after all, uniform is one of the things the US Army buys in breathtakingly huge quantities - the threat of technical failure is one reason advanced technology solutions are unlikely to be adopted. What happens if an invisibility cloak's batteries run out, or if a solider hiding in autumn leaves gets a bit hot and turns his gear to a summery green?
Additionally, the uniform fabric itself is the result of many years of research, testing and development. Although rough treatment might result in wear and tear, it is readily repaired or replaced. Plus it is unlikely high-tech alternatives would be as comfortable to wear, compatible with the rest of the kits or able to be treated with insect repellent or fire retardant.
The US Army's decision on a new camouflage pattern is a long, complex process fraught with political complexities, but a final decision is due in financial year 2014. If it offers soldiers the protection against detection it promises, it could be the greatest army innovation never seen.