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So who's back doors need breaching?

Suddenly it’s all about Multicam. Everywhere you look there is another post, another article, another rant: are the Americans getting it, are we getting it, why we should, why we shouldn’t, whether it works, whether it doesn’t, whether it’s ally, whether it’s walty, whether it’s just a huge scam. Like it or loathe it, it’s flavour of the month.

So what is it? Multicam is a camouflage pattern produced by a US company called Crye Precision. What it’s not is a range of clothing or equipment – plenty of kit is made in Multicam colours, both by Crye and by others, but Multicam is the colours and the pattern, not the gear. It’s worth getting this straight, as almost every debate about camouflage gets bogged down in confusion over the kit it’s printed on: Multicam is not about having kneepads on your combat clothing, just as DPM is not about combat jacket styles though the ages (whatever the Arrsepedia page thinks...). You can have your kneepads or combat jackets in any style you want or any colour you want; the question is: do you want that colour to be Multicam?

How It Works

Leaving snow out of it for the moment, most armies use two different camouflage patterns, or at least camouflage colours, which are optimised for certain areas. These tend to be at the opposite ends of the colour/darkness spectrum and are typically a woodland cam (dark, greeny/black colours) and a desert cam (light, sandy colours).

These cams tend to work very well against their target backgrounds, but their performance drops off as they move along the spectrum towards the end they are not designed for. By the time they are somewhere in the middle – say: grassland, arid scrub, urban areas – they are either too dark or too light to be ideal; and beyond a certain point they stand out like ticks on a dog’s balls: think of Woodland DPM against Salisbury Plain grassland or Desert DPM against a brick wall for example.

Multicam adopts a different approach. In effect it is optimised somewhere near the middle, and has colours and an overall brightness that means it never quite reaches the point of being utterly wank, no matter what background it is seen against. Put next to a terrain specific camouflage on its own turf it will never be quite as good; but it is never lethally bad either, and across the whole range of backgrounds it gives better overall performance: it is a multi-terrain camouflage.

Multi-Terrain Camouflage

UCP Multiterrain Cam - Spot the Yank

The two camouflages approach has one major flaw. Annoyingly, operational areas very rarely contain a single background type, so it is often not clear which of your options is going to be the best (or at least, the least worst). We wear Woodland DPM as a temperate camouflage pattern, but big chunks of temperate Europe are not in fact woods and, increasingly, the sort of warfare we expect to fight will be in populated areas that have a wide variety of backgrounds.

Modern wars are fought amongst the people; and people do unhelpful things, like living in built up areas with lots of light coloured backgrounds as well as nice dark brick, and gardens and parks full of trees and bushes. Other than Far Far Away, even the approaches to cities are usually arable land, not woods, with a variety of ploughed fields, stubble, crops, chalky soil, dark soil, sandy soil, hedges, ditches, tracks, roads, paths, compounds, farms and structures.

At this point in the debate someone will mention reversible camouflage clothing “like the Waffen SS had in 1944, obvious really…” and the only sensible thing to do is windmill into the cnut.

When he is lying in a pool of blood and snot, explain patiently that reversible camouflage clothing is only really viable for seasonal variation (…autumn’s arrived, I’ll reverse my jacket to the brown pattern…) or planned transitions, like moving into and out of the snowline in the mountains (…this is the last RV before the snowline, so, in pairs, we will reverse coveralls…and we’ll do it pairs because we are bloody vulnerable while we are fannying around half naked…). What it does not solve is the problem that, during even a short patrol or op, a soldier may transition across multiple backgrounds with widely differing characteristics, often more than once. Stopping every 50m to strip off and reverse your combat jacket is not really an act of war. Stopping every 50m to strip off and disassemble your body armour cover, turn it inside out and reassemble it is even more fecking ludicrous.

Having a reversible, easily changed helmet scrim, like the Israeli mitznefet, is a more viable option, for the head at least; but even that ignores the problem that you don’t always get a choice of what background you are seen against. Seen from one direction you might be framed against a dark green hedge, but another observer might see you against the sandy track you are walking on. A 360 degree threat is not going to be defeated by changing parades, whatever Sandhurst thinks.

My Ipod’s out there somewhere…

So, maybe multi-terrain camouflage is the way ahead; if nothing else it should avoid the fiasco of invading Iraq with half the army wearing Woodland DPM. PECOC seems to think so, and the Royal Navy has been trialling Osprey covers in a rather dubious multi-terrain version of DPM that would not look out of place on any fat, sweaty, terminally corrupt, third-world Interior Ministry thug; presumably it helps them blend in during photo calls with the Iranian border police. The US Army definitely thinks so (although their primary aim is to save money on having to issue multiple uniform types: when you’re buying for nearly 3 million people, it matters) and that led to the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP).

Which is shit, unfortunately, completely fecking useless against almost any background and has given multi-terrain camouflage such a bad name that even mentioning the idea causes hoots of derision from informed observers who have not spotted the flaw in the reasoning: “UCP is a multi-terrain camouflage, UCP is shit, therefore all multi-terrain camouflage is shit”. A dicto simpliciter ad dictum secundum quid, fuckwits, as I aways say.

Anyway, why the US Army adopted UCP is something of a mystery, as several other options it trialled clearly worked much better (not hard - so do most party frocks) and some have gone on to be very successful on the civilian market. One of those was a pattern that is now marketed, in an improved form, as Multicam.


Multicam in UK Use

Multicam is a 6 colour camouflage pattern, apparently optimised in the arid scrub and urban colour sets but which appears to perform pretty well across the whole spectrum, out to desert at one end and woodland at the other. Multicam itself is IR reflective to military spec, but there is a variant for civilian use, Multicam VS, that only works in the visible spectrum. Most of its colours are fairly low contrast green and brown, with spots of two striking high contrast colours, almost black and white, superimposed over the top. The pattern is unique, but has shapes reminiscent of some early US camouflage prints, causing criticism that it looks “too American” for UK use. Given that the US wears digital patterns that look nothing like Multicam, this seems a little odd.

Since the US Army turned it down, Multicam has become popular principally though the Airsoft community; although having a bunch of retarded fantasist fuckwits with Peter Pan syndrome bigging it up is hardly a ringing endorsement. This makes it all the more remarkable that almost every western Special Operations Force is either wearing it, asking for permission to wear it, or complaining about not being allowed to wear it. So what’s going on?

It seems to have started with the SAS buying Crye Precision combat gear (with the ally knee pads and flame retardant UBACS) because they wanted the clothing, and settled on having it in Multicam colours more by luck than judgement. Having got it by accident, they found that Multicam seemed to work pretty well everywhere, and started using it more and more widely. Delta Force (who want to be the SAS even more than your average airsofter) then started using it and things have snowballed. Right now Congress is pointedly asking the US Army why it hasn’t adopted Multicam for use in Afghanistan; and if we had a political class that gave a hoop dhobey about anything military, they might also question why our soldiers in the Green Zone are dying their desert kit turquoise when we have a cam in service that our best troops say works well everywhere.

That is the problem, of course. As soon as you tell anyone in DE&S that UKSF is using something that might benefit the wider army, some sort demonic possession takes place. They either start channelling the spirit of Earl Haig at his most emphatic that machine guns are just a passing fad or an Academy Sergeant Major who is convinced the sole purpose of the Special Forces is to subvert British Army dress regs: “of course, the SF have completely different requirements old boy, not our sort of thing at all; and besides it doesn’t really work, they’re only wearing it to look different…”.


Congolese Child Soldier Cam – Courtesy of PECOC

Personally, I don’t believe UKSF are just big timing wankers looking for ways to stand out from the green army proles. They’ve generally struck me as professional operators, who do a highly dangerous job, and are always seeking any edge that will make them more effective. If they think Multicam helps give them that edge, that’s good enough for me.

In any case, Multicam seems to prove that the multi-terrain camouflage concept is viable. PECOC seems to be trying to develop one too, and early indications are that it must work shedloads better than Multicam because no one would willingly wear something that gopping otherwise. Unless… No… Surely we wouldn’t just choose a Chad Valley camouflage because it’s cheaper than the Gucci option? The British Army wouldn’t do that, would we?

Of course we would. Stand by to be dressed like a Zimbabwean police chief...

Or not!

Late breaking news: the British Army unexpectedly does the right thing, say hello to UK Multi Terrain Pattern

Further Reading