Aircraft camouflage is the use of camouflage on military aircraft to make them more difficult to see, whether on the ground or in the air. Given the possible backgrounds and lighting conditions, no single scheme works in every situation. A common approach has been a form of countershading, the aircraft being painted in a disruptive pattern of ground colours such as green and brown above, sky colours below. For faster and higher-flying aircraft, sky colours have sometimes been used all over, while helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft used close to the ground are often painted entirely in ground camouflage. Aircraft flying by night have often been painted black, but this actually made them appear darker than the night sky, leading to paler night camouflage schemes.
Aircraft were first camouflaged during World War I; aircraft camouflage has been widely employed since then. There is a trade-off between camouflage and aircraft recognition markings, and visible light camouflage has been dispensed with when air superiority was not threatened or when no significant aerial opposition was anticipated.
During and after World War II, the Yehudi lights project developed counter-illumination camouflage using lamps to increase the brightness of the aircraft to match the brightness of the night sky. This was abandoned with improvements in radar, which seemed to render visible light camouflage redundant. However, aircraft continue to be painted in camouflage schemes; recent experiments have again explored active camouflage systems which allow colours, patterns and brightness to be changed to match the background, and some air forces have painted their fighters in digital camouflage patterns. Stealth technology, as in the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, aims to minimise an aircraft's radar cross-section and infrared signature, effectively providing multi-spectral camouflage at the price of reduced flying performance. Stealth may extend to avoiding or preventing vapour contrails.
World War I
Military camouflage was influenced by the rise of military aviation during World War I. With aircraft flying over the battlefield and rear areas, units vulnerable to attack needed to hide their presence. The French were among the first to introduce camouflage, using irregular patches of brown and green for Nieuport 11 and Nieuport 16 fighters, as well as other Nieuport models. They later introduced a standardized camouflage scheme used on almost all combat aircraft – such as the Breguet XIV and SPAD XIII that consisted of dark and light green, dark and light brown, black (sometimes omitted) and an underside of grey or beige.
Like the French, the German air services used a variety of disruptive camouflage patterns until April 1917, when lozenge camouflage was introduced; it used up to five colours. German aircraft were however sometimes painted in deliberately conspicuous colours, like the bright red of Manfred von Richthofen's Albatros D.III, advertising the pilot's prowess to intimidate the enemy.
Aircraft of the British Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service were either coloured on top and sides with a protective olive brown dope called PC.10 or the cinnamon coloured PC.12 while the undersides were a pale cream colour resulting from clear dope applied to unbleached linen. These colours were not intended primarily as camouflage, but were developed to prevent the fabric from being damaged by UV radiation from the sun. Black was used for night bombers, while a wide variety of experimental camouflages were tried out for specific roles such as trench strafing, with multiple colours. Alternatives were tested in late 1917 at Orfordness Experimental Station, resulting in NIVO (Night Invisible Varnish Orfordness) being introduced in early 1918, used for all external surfaces on night bombers. Between the wars, the British replaced PC.10 and PC.12 with aluminium dope but continued using NIVO until superseded by World War II colours.
World War II
During the Munich Crisis of 1938, the Royal Air Force implemented plans to camouflage its aircraft in its disruptively patterned Temperate Land Scheme of "Dark Earth" and "Dark Green" above and "Sky" below. This scheme was known colloquially as "Sand and Spinach" when the pattern was painted on at the factory, large rubber mats serving as guides. For many types of aircraft, particularly fighters, the rubber mats were reversed for even and odd serials, named A and B patterns. The undersides of night bombers were painted black.
The basic German camouflage during most of the war was based on a light blue undersurface and a two tone splinter pattern of various greens for the upper surfaces. In the first year of the war, the top colours were dark green and black-green; later, lighter and more greyish colours were used for fighters, though bombers mostly maintained the dark green/black green camouflage. The side of the fuselage on fighters and some light bombers often had irregular patches sprayed on, softening the transition from the upper to the lower surface. The undersides of night bombers and night fighters were painted black early in the war, but by 1943 switched to lighter base colours of their usual light blue undersurfaces for diurnal-flown aircraft, and a light gray base coat over the upper surfaces to match the skyglow over the German cities they were tasked with defending. A special pattern was devised for the Mediterranean front, consisting of a sand yellow that often faded to tan, with or without olive green patches. As Germany lost air supremacy, ground camouflage became increasingly important, and late war fighters received a two tone scheme like the British Sand and Spinach, in dark brown and light green.
Some United States Army Air Forces aircraft used a variation of the British camouflage schemes (mostly on aircraft originally built to RAF orders) but most USAAF aircraft did not use multiple shades on the top side of the aircraft. Instead, most were camouflaged in olive drab above and neutral gray below, though some had the edges of flying surfaces painted in medium green. In the later stages of the war camouflage was often dispensed with, both to save time in manufacturing and to reduce drag, leaving aircraft with a natural metal finish. The U.S. Navy used a variety of schemes throughout the war. When the war started, most combat aircraft were painted in a medium grey overall, over which a dark blue was then added to the upper surfaces. This was then superseded by a "tricolor" scheme consisted of dark sea blue above, intermediate blue for the sides, and white for the underside.
Cold War and after
During the Cold War, camouflage was partially abandoned; for example, glossy anti-flash white was used on high-flying Royal Air Force nuclear weapon-carrying V-bombers as protection from nuclear flash. When SAMs made high level attack too dangerous, the RAF bombers changed to low level attack and camouflaged top surfaces returned. In the 1970s, heat-seeking missiles were developed that had a range greater than the visual acuity of pilots. Aircraft camouflage now had two major threats that it was not able to fully defeat — radar and infrared detection. Camouflage accordingly became less important. However, by the 1980s, aircraft such as the ground attack A-10 Thunderbolt (Warthog) were painted in camouflage schemes that included both disruptive ground coloration and automimicry (deceptive self-imitation), in the form of a false canopy on the underside.
Camouflage for aircraft is complicated by the fact that the aircraft's background varies widely, depending on the location of the observer, the nature of the background and the aircraft's motion. For this reason, military aircraft were often painted to match the sky when viewed from below, and to either match the ground or break up the aircraft's outline when viewed from above. This is a form of countershading, likely to work best on aircraft such as heavy bombers that do not do fly inverted during combat. Because of the way light hits it, patterns of dark and light will often be present on an aircraft even if it is entirely one colour, making it easier to see. Such self-shading can be counteracted by painting an aircraft in neutral shades with a non reflective, matte finish. There is a trade-off between the effectiveness of camouflage and the size of recognition markings: larger markings reduce the risk of friendly fire through misrecognition, but compromise camouflage.
Ground camouflage is used to delay visual acquisition from the air of an aircraft that is on or near the ground. Light sand has been used for aircraft used over deserts, blues and greys for aircraft over the sea, and greens and browns for aircraft that are expected to operate in forested areas. However, a camouflaged aircraft either on the ground or flying low over the ground in bright sunlight remains vulnerable to being detected from above because of its own shadow cast on the ground. This can reduce an aircraft's camouflage effectiveness at altitudes up to 3,000 feet (910 m), particularly if the ground surface is pale and relatively uniform. Helicopters are often painted in ground camouflage. Aircraft deployed in the Arctic are sometimes repainted in snow camouflage patterns.
Camouflage for an airborne aircraft may attempt to provide concealment with colours resembling the background. For example, until 1941, Royal Air Force fighters were painted in ground colours (dark green and brown) above, and sky colours below. However, aircraft were being lost, and pilots reported that the colours used made their fighters conspicuously darker than the sky. The Air Fighting Development Unit at Duxford studied the problem, and in the summer of 1941 replaced the dark brown with a paler colour, "ocean grey"; the sky blue on the underside was similarly replaced by a paler "sea grey" to reduce visibility against the bright sky. Similar adjustments were made by the Luftwaffe. Towards the end of the war, allied air superiority made visible light camouflage less important, and some American aircraft were flown in unpainted (silver coloured) metal.
Military aircraft flying at night have often been painted black or other dark colours, applied to just the underside of some aircraft and to the entirety of others, to reduce the risk of being seen in enemy searchlights or by night fighters. For example, the undersides of Heinkel 111 night bombers were painted black. However, aircraft camouflaged with black paint are actually darker than the night sky, making them more visible to observers not using searchlights. Black was replaced by Medium Sea Grey with Dark Green upper surfaces for RAF nightfighter aircraft such as the Bristol Beaufighter from later 1942.
In the early years of World War II, German U-boats often escaped attack by aircraft because they spotted the aircraft while it was still far away as a black dot in the sky, no matter what camouflage colours were used. To solve this problem, in 1943 the U.S. Navy, following the Canadian diffused lighting camouflage trials on warships, conducted secret experiments on counter-illumination in the Yehudi lights project. Sealed beam lights were mounted on the leading edge of the wing of a Grumman TBM-3D Avenger, and around its engine cowling, with the lamps facing forward.[a] The intensity of the lamps was adjusted to match the background sky as seen from an observer in a surface ship. Aircraft with Yehudi lights were not detected until 2 miles (3.2 km) away under conditions where aircraft without the lights were detected 12 miles (19 km) away. Though successful, the system was not put into production because of improved radar detection.
During the Vietnam War, Yehudi lights were again tried, this time mounted to an F-4 Phantom painted in a dull blue-and-white camouflage pattern. The experiment reduced by 30% the distance at which an observer visually acquired the Phantom. In 1997, active camouflage was again investigated, this time with thin computer-controlled fluorescent panels or light-emitting polymer covering much of an aircraft's surface.
Stealth technology aims to make aircraft almost undetectable by radar or other sensors, whether infrared, visible, or acoustic. This is effectively multi-spectral camouflage. Work began on stealth technology in America in 1958.
The Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk was the first operational aircraft designed to use stealth technology to minimise its radar cross-section; it began operations in secrecy in 1983. Its low detectability was traded-off against performance in other areas, including reduced thrust and only subsonic speed. The aircraft's faceted shape reduced the reflection of radar back to the receiver, at the expense of making the aircraft aerodynamically unstable, requiring a fly-by-wire flight system to maintain controlled flight. The infrared signatures of stealth aircraft can be reduced by designing exhaust nozzles to mix the hot gases with cool ambient air, by placing the nozzles above the wing to conceal them from ground-based observers, and by avoiding the use of afterburners, as with the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit bomber.
Camouflage may extend beyond an aircraft's airframe. High-flying aircraft can sometimes be detected by their vapour contrails. Researchers have considered whether these might be reduced with the use of chemical additives. Work was carried out on a contrail management system for B-2 stealth bombers in 1994. From the Second World War onwards, reconnaissance pilots took care to avoid creating contrails, varying their altitude as necessary; the Lockheed U-2 reconnaissance aircraft was equipped with a mirror to enable the pilot to see if the plane was creating a contrail, and to take action accordingly.
Digital camouflage patterns, widely used for uniforms with designs such as CADPAT and MARPAT, have been applied to the aircraft of some armed forces. For example, Jordan has painted its F-16 fighters in a digital pattern, and in 2008 Slovakia repainted its MiG-29 fighters in a disruptive pattern designed by HyperStealth], "Digital Thunder". In 2017, a prototype of the Russian air force's Sukhoi PAK FA (T-50) flew with a countershaded digital camouflage scheme, all dark above except for a multi-scale pattern at the edges.
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