Camouflage is designed to help soldiers and military vehicles blend in with their anticipated surroundings. But what if they could change colour in real-time? Or even appear to disappear altogether? Rick Adams looks at some of the latest camo enhancements as well as developments in special forces equipment.
Call it the Griffin Disguise. The ultimate camouflage, invisibility.
Dr. Griffin, a brilliant British research scientist, albeit fictional, discovered a formula which changed the refractive index of his body and the air around him so it neither reflected or absorbed light. Voila, he became “invisible.” In H.G. Wells’ serialised novella, The Invisible Man, first published 120 years ago, Griffin – frustrated by his inability to reverse the process and exhausted of funds – decided to terrorise the nation. He was eventually killed by a mob, and his body became visible again as he died. The concept of invisibility has become even more popular in recent sci-fi movies: Star Trek, The Predator, and Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, among others.
Now imagine – in real life – whole armadas of invisible aircraft, ships, tanks, and even individual soldiers. How do two or more opposing forces fight when they cannot even see each other?
Laboratories are, “now at the cusp of ground-breaking innovations that could change war-making to its core,” states Nayef Al-Rodhan, Senior Fellow and Director of the Centre for the Geopolitics of Globalisation and Transnational Security at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy in Switzerland. At the urging of eager military authorities, researchers in Australia, Canada, China, Russia, the UK, and the US are working feverishly on ways to hide weapon systems and people effectively from electronic and visible detection. “Cloaking technologies would make warring actors less detectable and therefore less predictable,” Al-Rodhan suggests.
The Invisibility World
Hyperstealth Biotechnology, a small Canadian camouflage specialist based in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, claims its QUANTUM STEALTH material renders an object, “completely invisible by bending light waves around the target.” The material is said to be inexpensive, very lightweight and requires no power source. Hyperstealth CEO Guy Cramer, a former “paintball champion,” is the inventor of the “passive negative ion generator” for use in hyperbaric chambers, and has produced more than four million uniforms in 12,000 camouflage patterns based on mathematical fractals. Customers include the Afghan National Army, the Canadian Department of National Defence, Chile, Jordan, Slovakia, the UK and the US.
BAE Systems’ Swedish business has offered an electrically powered “active camouflage” technology similar to SmartCamo, known as ADAPTIV, for about five years. BAE says: “Once mounted on a vehicle’s hull or ballistic armour plates, ADAPTIV renders a vehicle invisible to infrared and other surveillance technology.” It consists of an array of 14cm hexagonal Peltier plates (a solid-state thermoelectric heat pump) which can be rapidly heated and cooled to form any desired image, such as the background. Infrared cameras continuously gather thermal images of the vehicle's surroundings, then display an infrared image of the vehicle's background (crypsis) or an image from ADAPTIV’s library superimposed on the background (mimesis). The technology reportedly reduces the range at which a vehicle can be detected to less than 500 metres.
Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) and the University of South Australia unveiled the results of a vehicle-mounted adaptive camouflage technology trial that would allow vehicles to change colour “at the push of a button,” at the Land Forces 2016 conference in September. Vivienne Wheaton, Defence Science Technology Group, explained that the “holy grail of camouflage” works by manipulating electrically charged polymer cells placed between glass, polycarbonate or polymer sheets. A small voltage applied to the polymer cells adapts them to different environments.
The trial was conducted at the Australian Defence Force’s Cultana Training Area, near Whyalla. The results were presented by Wheaton, together with the university’s Future Industries Institute Professor Peter Murphy and Dr. Kamil Zuber. Wheaton said, “What we’d ideally like to have is panels that are flexible and lightweight, which can be removed but also deployed quickly,” so the panels could be wrapped around vehicles or ships. Murphy said deploying the technology in uniforms was “a lot further off.”
Roselectronics in Saint Petersburg claims its “imperceptible shroud” fibre technology, developed at the request of the Russian Defence Ministry, "reduces radar visibility of the object both on the visible and microwave spectrums,” according to Georgy Medovnikov. The invention can allegedly make armoured vehicles, missile systems and warplanes invisible to weapons that use thermal, infrared and electromagnetic radar. The material absorbs radio-electronic signals and interferes with the distribution of electronic traces.
In China, the government has funded more than 40 research teams to develop invisibility technologies. The teams involved include researchers at Beijing Institute of Technology, Tsinghua University, Zhejiang University, Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Xian Jiaotong University, Harbin Institute of Technology, and the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China. At an international forum on invisibility studies in Paris last year, a third of the researchers came from mainland China. An optical engineering specialist at Zhejiang University, Professor Ma Yungui, said his team is developing a device that stops objects being detected by heat sensors or metal detectors. It would enable weapons to pass through security checkpoints or prevent troops moving at night from being detected by infrared cameras.
Li Yi Hsu, Thomas Lepetit, and Boubacar Kant from the University of California San Diego have developed a “carpet cloaking” technique using, “an extremely thin dielectric metasurface with a tailored phase gradient,” which they claim is “sufficient to accomplish invisibility. Once the scatterer is covered with the designed metasurface, no observer can distinguish it from a flat surface.” The US Army last year requested contractors to come up with concepts for invisibility cloaks for soldiers by the end of 2016. Contractors selected will submit 10 prototype uniforms for testing which must work “in all terrain from all angles” across a wide range of temperatures, in rain and snow. If a power source is required, it must weigh less than 450g and provide at least 8 hours of operation.
Martin Wegener of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, whose team has created cloaks from photonic crystals that work for certain wavelengths, claims that bending light over the entire spectrum is precluded by the laws of relativity. “You may see less of something at a particular colour, but see it at all other colours,” he said. The vehicle or wearer would be effectively transparent at some wavelengths but not all, rendering them as a coloured shadow or ghost image.
Some legal analysts think such chameleon-style camouflage that allows a military vehicle to resemble its surroundings may be illegal under Article 37 (Prohibition of Perfidy) of the Geneva Conventions, which states that "the feigning of civilian, non-combatant status" is an example of prohibited wartime perfidy. Camouflage, decoys, mock operations, misinformation, however … are all legitimate.
Special Forces Tech in Small Packages
Special Forces around the world are gearing up with a diverse range of new niche mission equipment: from aircraft to boats, dirt bikes, parachutes and rifles. Here are just a few:
SKYRUNNER flying ATV
An innovative sports vehicle has caught the attention of US and other Special Forces. SKYRUNNER is a radical-looking all-terrain vehicle … that also flies. The carbon-fibre body ATV incorporates a ram-air parafoil wing and three-blade propeller that allows it to take off in the space of about 10m and reach altitudes up to 10,000ft at flight speeds of 40-45mph, (maximum ground speed is 70mph) with a range of 240 miles with two occupants. Last summer, the Shreveport, LA company received Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to operate as a Special Light-Sport Aircraft (S-LSA).
A SKYRUNNER representative claims a “verbal commitment” from the US special forces community, who see the craft’s utility for low-level surveillance missions and recovery of wounded personnel. It can take off and land on paved roads, dirt strips, open fields, even beaches. Entrepreneur Stuart Hamel said his creation is, "very intuitive; it can be piloted within 12 hours of flight training."
Near-Silent Dirt Bikes
Navigating difficult terrain (think thick forests, narrow mountain paths, rocky landscapes) is also the objective for a competition sponsored by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for a lightweight “stealth” motorcycle design. Two competing prototypes were unveiled at the Special Operations Forces industry conference in Tampa, FL, both hybrid designs capable of switching between fuel-powered operation and electric, using lithium-ion batteries. In electric “quiet mode,” the bikes are claimed to be “about as loud as a normal conversation” (less than 55 decibels). In fuel mode, both can use gasoline, propane, Jet A-1 and JP-8.
The SILENT HAWK, developed by Fairfax, VA-based Logos Technologies in collaboration with California e-bike racing specialist Alta Motors, weighs 350lbs, has a range of 170 miles, and can reach 80mph with as much as 75lbs of equipment. The prototype can run for up to 170 miles without refuelling, including two hours in quiet mode on a single charge. Logos was founded by Dr. Greg Poe, whose credentials include remote sensing research at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, consulting on the Strategic Defense Initiative Organisation (aka Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars”), and DARPA’s Advanced Technology Office. Other Logos endeavours include intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) sensors and multi-sensor fusion.
Competitor Land Sea Air Autonomy (LSA Autonomy, Westminster, MD), partnering with Alta’s San Francisco neighbour Mission Motors and propulsion specialist Northwest UAV (McMinnville, OR), developed the slightly heavier (400lbs) NIGHTMARE cycle.
The NIGHTMARE can generate 13kW of power versus the SILENT HAWK’s 7.5. Power derived from a bike could be used to run an observation outpost or provide power to battlefield communications, sensors, medical equipment, lighting, water purifiers, and other devices.
Wargamers may recall that in the 2002 Millenium Challenge, retired USMC Lt.Gen. Paul Van Riper, commanding the Red (pseudo-Iranian) forces, used motorcycle couriers to evade the Blue team’s electronic surveillance network.
French commandos and special forces teams will be getting a new airdrop package, a système de mise à terre des chuteurs opérationnels (SMT C-OPS) comprising a parachute, navigation system, communications system, helmet, low-temperature clothing, and accessory devices. The contract was awarded to Zodiac Aerosafety (Chambray, France) by the Direction Générale de l'Armement (DGA). The new system will allow up to 200kg to be dropped from an altitude of 30,000ft, compared with 24,000ft and 160kg for the French military’s G9 parachute.
Royal Marine Rifles
The 790 specialists in the UK Royal Marines’ 43 Commando Fleet Protection Group will be replacing their SA-80 rifles with Colt Canada C8 Carbines capable of firing 900 rounds per minute. Designed for close quarters combat, the C8 uses lower-velocity rounds, which are less likely to ricochet and cause damage to sensitive equipment during firefights onboard ships. Regular forces will have to make do with the 1980’s-vintage SA-80.
Underwater Sabotage Detection
The Kazakhstan Navy’s special forces have a new patrol boat fitted with equipment for detecting, classifying, and tracking divers and “swimmer-delivery vehicles” at ranges up to 500 metres. The defence ministry said the purpose is to guard strategic facilities in the port of Aktau against the risk of underwater sabotage, and is believed to feature grenade launchers and machine guns. The waterjet-powered 12t boat is 13m long, 3.5m in beam, and has a draught of 0.6 metres. Captain First Rank Serik Boranbaev said the vessel will also be used to study the hydro-meteorological environment in the Caspian Sea. The builder is Zenit Shipyard, Uralsk, West Kazakhstan.
Rick Adams is an experts on aviation training, simulation, safety, and other subjects with three decades’ experience for industry-leading companies and publishers, and a regular contributor to MT.
For more information please see MILITARY TECHNOLOGY #1/2017, available at SHOT Show 2017; and frequently check back for more NEWS FROM THE FLOOR.