Camo tested in Afghanistan
By Matthew Cox - Staff writer
Posted : Thursday Dec 10, 2009 6:24:48 EST
The small team of soldiers knew the enemy was watching them from above.
Each of the soldiers could see the two armed Afghans spying on them through binoculars from their mountaintop perch northeast of Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost province, Afghanistan.
“All of the sudden the spotters disappeared,” said Program Executive Office Soldier’s Lt. Col. Mike Sloane, a member of the nine-man team formed to help evaluate alternative camouflage patterns. The effort could result in a new pattern for Afghanistan by late January.
Eight members of the team left the safety of Salerno that Oct. 20 morning to take photographs of six camouflage patterns against the rugged Afghan terrain. One team member remained in over-watch at a nearby observation post.
Music announcing a late-morning Muslim call to prayer echoed over the landscape. The next sound the soldiers heard was the whoosh of incoming rockets.
“Right away the eight of us hit the ground,” Sloane said. Just as they had rehearsed, the team members, many of whom are combat veterans, talked to one another over radio headsets and quickly found a defendable position. “We all got up and moved out to a nearby dried-up riverbed and established a 360-degree perimeter.”
As the product manager for Soldier Clothing and Individual Equipment, Sloane had been working on the highly publicized camouflage effort since Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., directed the Army in mid-June to look at new camouflage patterns after “a dozen” Army sergeants told him that the Army Combat Uniform’s pattern is ineffective in Afghanistan.
As Sloane covered his sector with an M4 carbine, enemy rifle fire persisted for several minutes. Sloane thought to himself, “Wow … camouflage has never been so exciting.”
The enemy launched a handful of rockets then disappeared, Sloane recalled. It was the only time the enemy fired at the team, but their photo-gathering was never boring.
“We would see people coming over the tops of the mountains, kind of checking us out, bearing rifles,” he said.
During the 17-day mission, the team took more than 1,000 photographs of camouflage uniforms and equipment in desert, woodland, cropland and mountain settings between Kandahar and Bagram. Each photograph was calibrated to show the correct color despite varying daylight conditions.
The team members went outside the wire nearly every day, Sloane said. Each took turns wearing different camouflage uniforms and equipment for photos and providing security. They evaluated each terrain setting to determine “where in this scenario would we be moving if ambushed or where would the enemy be coming to us,” Sloane said.
The team decided on this approach after rejecting other methods. “One of the options was to fly out to locations, dress up some mannequins, put them up on the mountains, take pictures and come back,” Sloane said. “We knew that … would limit our ability to truly get realistic photos.”
Another option was to ask commanders at different base camps to assign soldiers to work with the team. “It would have been a distracter to their regular mission,” Sloane said.
The calibrated photos gathered have been used to create a computerized photo simulation test that involves identifying individuals wearing different patterns at multiple ranges and settings. Several hundred soldiers from bases such as Fort Bragg, N.C., Fort Campbell, Ky., and Fort Drum, N.Y., will take the tests through December. The data from the tests will go into a report, and senior Army leaders will decide by late January whether to select a new camouflage pattern for Afghanistan.
Looking back at the effort, Sloane said he was thankful for the mix of experience on the team.
“I think every one of us that signed up for the mission wanted to do it right,” Sloane said.
Besides Sloane, the team consisted of individuals from the Asymmetric Warfare Group; Army Special Operations Command; Army G4; the Maneuver Center of Excellence; the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center; and the Naval Research Laboratory.
The AWG members were assigned as “tactical lead to ensure every one of us was trained the same way. We had guys that had been into theater several times. … It was really good to have that experience with us.”
Soldiers in an Army camouflage assessment team wear the following patterns (from left): AOR II, current universal pattern, Multicam, Desert Brush, ACU-Delta and Mirage.