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Chinese Camouflage and PLA Modernization

By Taylor Marvin

David Frum has a brief piece seconding Robert Kagan’s recent article “Against the Myth of American Delcine” in The New Republic. Frum’s particularly optimistic when he compares the modern US to a growing China:

“Yes, China’s and India’s shares of world GDP are growing. But it is Europe’s and Japan’s shares that are shrinking to accommodate them, not (very much) America’s. Besides—China remained the world’s largest economy as late as the early 1800s without exerting much political power. Yes, China presents strategic challenges to the US. But not as severe as those presented by the Soviet Union in the 1940s and 1950s. Yes, the military budget is burdensome, but not burdensome beyond American means and (relative to those means) much less burdensome than during the 1950s and 1960s.”

Frum’s photo choice inadvertently supports his assertion:

‘Digital’ or fractal micro-patterned camouflage like the pattern seen on the PLA amphibious assault vehicles in the photo works by blurring the outlines between large patches of color, adding ‘noise’ which lowers contrast and blurs recognizable outlines. After its high  profile adoption by the US military in the early 2000s, digital camouflage is in fashion worldwide  —  digital patterns scream modernity and look cool, and everyone wants to emulate the world’s most powerful military.

So digital camouflage’s a sign of a modernizing, capable PLA? Not necessarily. To the best of my knowledge there’s no evidence digital patterning is more effective than traditional camouflage when the individual ‘pixels’ are large, which defeats the pattern’s blurring ‘noise’ effect. While some other nations have experimented with vehicle digital camouflage (aside from a brief period in the 1970s the US military generally hasn’t), effective camouflage schemes typically utilize more intricate, and expensive, patterns. China’s military is rapidly modernizing, but experimenting with digital camouflage schemes that lack effective micro-patterns is evidence of a force obsessed with imitating the more professional and combat-experienced US military. In many ways this is understandable: the PLA is decades away from parity with the US in Asia, and striking camouflage is a low-cost way to project an image of threatening modernity. All militaries have a weakness for show, but PLA has a long way to go before its threatening image is backed by actual combat capabilities.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ari Kattan #

    Fascinating and insightful, as always.

    February 2, 2012
  2. SFC Robert Donnell #

    You are right Sir having a new whiz-bang camouflage pattern painted on their tanks does not necessarily that the armor is thick, the guns are powerful or that the troops inside are well trained and lead.

    Actually the pattern on the vehicles show above is quite good, better in fact than what the US Army uses on their vehicles, which is defined by NATO Standardization Agreements, not what would work best. The Chinese camouflage pattern has a macro pattern which at long range does help obscure the shape of the vehicle, which is the point.

    What the pixilated camouflage pattern indicates is a Chinese Military that is leapfrogging generations of research and development costs by stealing modern technologies, and that is frightening.

    July 1, 2012
    • admin #

      @SFC Robert Donnell
      I was not aware that macro-pattern vehicle camouflage is effective. Thanks for the comment.

      -Taylor Marvin

      July 3, 2012

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