An airman in the U.S. Air Force covers military trucks with camouflage netting.

Photo courtesy United States Military

Disguise and Decoy

In the last section, we saw that camouflage material helps soldiers blend in with their environment so the enemy won't detect them. But in modern warfare, hiding individual soldiers is often of secondary importance. Since World War I, opposing forces have used aircraft to seek each other out from the air. In order to hide equipment and fortifications from these "eyes in the sky," ground forces have to use camouflage on a larger scale.

Since World War II, almost all U.S. military equipment has been colored in dull green and brown colors so it blends in with natural foliage. Additionally, soldiers almost always carry camouflaged netting and chicken wire, which they can throw over military vehicles to conceal them better. Soldiers are also trained to improvise camouflage by gathering natural foliage from an area and covering tanks and other vehicles. Using these means, Allied and Axis forces in World War II camouflaged tanks, jeeps, planes, guns, manufacturing plants and entire army bases.

A Republic of Korea Army soldier camouflages his tank with tree branches as part of a battle-simulation exercise.

Photo courtesy United States Military

Camouflaging warships has proved more difficult because they are always floating on a wide background that has a uniform color. In World War I, military forces realized that there was no way to make ships "blend in" with the surroundings, but that there might be a way to make them less susceptible to attack. The dazzle camouflage design, developed in 1917, accomplishes this by obscuring the course of the ship (its direction of travel). The dazzle design resembles a cubist painting, with many colored geometric shapes jumbled together. Like the mottling in camouflage wear, this design makes it difficult to figure out the actual outlines of the ship and distinguish the starboard side from the port side. If submarine or ship crews don't know which way a ship is moving, it is a lot harder for them to accurately aim a torpedo.

Militaries also make extensive use of decoys as a means of camouflage. Unlike traditional camouflage, the purpose of decoys is not to conceal forces and equipment, but to divert the enemy from their locations. In the Battle of Britain, Allied forces set up more than 500 false cities, bases, airfields and shipyards, consisting of flimsy structures that resembled actual buildings and military equipment. These remarkable dummies, built in remote, uninhabited areas, significantly diminished the damage to actual cities and fortifications by causing the Axis forces to waste their time and resources.

HMS Belfast, a British ship that served in World War II, is now a floating museum on the River Thames in London. The ship is painted with a variation on the classic "dazzle" camouflage scheme.

Photo courtesy United States Military

This sort of camouflage is still used today, to good effect. Many modern equipment decoys have advanced pneumatic systems, which give them the movement you would expect to see in real equipment. Traditional camouflage is also used today, but it is not always effective. As we'll see in the next section, modern technology makes it much easier for your enemy to find you, no matter how well you blend in with the colors of your surroundings.