Modern sensors can see right through it
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
The U.S. Army has long covered its fixed installations — radars, ammo dumps and other structures — with camouflage nets to protect them from prying eyes and sensors. The problem is that for the Arctic, the Army’s netting is obsolete because of modern infrared-viewing cameras.
Yet the Army’s Arctic camo has “not been upgraded since its inception in the mid-1970s,” a group of senior Army generals told Congress in 2015. “Due to improvements in technology, these variants are now ineffective against current and emerging advanced sensor threats and are in need of updates.”
The admission came buried in a “questions for the record” document published by the Senate Armed Services Committee in April 2016, and spotted by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists. These “questions for the record,” Aftergood noted, “constitute a valuable though unpredictable and often neglected genre. At their best, they serve to elicit new information in response to focused, sometimes unwelcome questions.”
These unwelcome questions exposed a U.S. military vulnerability in the Arctic.
See, there is more to camouflage than concealing, say, an individual soldier from an enemy’s eyes. Heat-emitting machines and structures — like a radar installation or a tank — are far more visible to sensors of all kinds … and vulnerable especially if the structure doesn’t move. If a sensor can see it, and the target is immobile, it’s easily destroyed.
Multispectral camouflage can regulate temperature and help lower — but not eliminate — an object’s infrared signature. In effect, the netting blends the object’s temperature so it resembles the environment around it. An added benefit is that the nets can help break up an object’s radar signature. So think of them like Ghillie suits but for things, not people.
The Army currently uses a 1990s-era system called ULCANS, produced by Swedish automaker Saab, which comes in desert and woodland versions … Arctic excluded. Thermal camouflage has also seen use in Russia, and the Serbian and Bosnian armies applied netting to their T-55 tanks during the Yugoslav civil war.
But even the Army’s current ULCANS nets are “ineffective,” according to Gens. Michael Williamson, H.R. McMaster, Anthony Ierardi and Gary Cheek. That includes all versions for woodland and desert environments.
To make up for the gap, the Army wants a “next-generation ULCANS” that includes netting for Arctic and urban environments, plus nets for grounded aircraft in addition to replacing the woodland and desert versions.
The U.S. military presence in the Arctic is minimal — a handful of icebreakers, America’s northernmost air base at Thule in Greenland, and submarines. Russia, meanwhile, regularly conducts large-scale Arctic exercises involving thousands of troops, even parachuting them onto ice floes. The Kremlin is also expanding its military infrastructure in the region.
But this reflects one key difference between the two approaches: Russia’s Arctic presence is taking place more above the ice, where camouflage is more important, while America’s submarines (in substantially greater numbers) are are lurking below. Arctic camo nets or not, the latter has the advantage.
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