Rethinking Camouflage…

Inspired by Churchill’s Wizards The British Genius for Deception 1914-1945 by Nicholas Rankin

Camo CloseUp

“All Warfare is based on deception”

“War is deception”

Haditha ‘al-harb khuda’, the Prophet Muhammad [PBUH] Tweet


Those readers who follow me on Twitter will be aware of my fetish for camouflage and many often comment or challenge me with the hashtag #CamoGeek. What many will not realise is that as a child I was painfully introvert and struggled at school. To overcome this I was encouraged to take up public speaking, join the debating club and, most importantly, to act in school plays.

This British love of acting, dressing up and adopting a new persona is the basis from which Nicholas Rankin launches his amazingly well researched and fascinating book, Churchill’s Wizards. I finally bought the book, which has been on my reading list for far too many years, while visiting the Churchill War Rooms in London.

But the book goes far beyond recording the development of camouflage, as the proliferation of more and more accurate small arms meant the bright red tunics of the British Army were reversed for ceremonial duties. Boer Kommandos, who would inspire Churchill’s creation of the modern commando forces and the Special Operations Executive, were adept at tactical cunning and hit and run attacks using camouflage and misdirection to harass the far larger British force. Rankin takes the reader on a journey, starting at the tea-staining of white belts, the adoption of khaki in India through to the evolution of modern sniping, false trees in No Mans Land and to perhaps the most famous deception of all; Operation Mincemeat.

Churchill's Wizards Book Cover
Churchill's Wizards by Nicholas Rankin

However, throughout my reading of the book I was stuck with the parallels in today’s contested and confusing Information Environment. As a practitioner of Information Warfare, I began to consider;

“What does modern camouflage look like?”

A couple of years ago, while attending a conference, I enjoyed a coffee and morning pastry with US Marine Corps General Joseph L Osterman, who was then the Commander of the USMC Special Operations Command (MARSOC). One of his “big ideas” at the time was getting small teams of Raiders in and out of hot spots and the grey zone, without compromising the individuals or the mission. Similarities can be seen with the GRU chemical weapons attack in Salisbury and the subsequent investigation by the Open Source Intelligence website Bellingcat.

While enjoying Churchill’s Wizards, with its interlocking stories, recurring themes and multitude of lessons for Info Ops planners and practitioners, I could not help but think:

    • We (Britain and her Allies) have lost the operational edge when we consider camouflage in its broadest sense and with it an entire capability (a subset of Information Operations which includes Deception, Counter-Command Warfare, OPSEC and EW).
    • Much like sniping, camouflage is ignored during peacetime and rushed into service in times of crisis. Those who advocate camouflage, deception or ‘unconventional methods’ are often treated with suspicion, mockery and contempt by those officers in the ‘top third’.
    • Finally, and most importantly, we consider camouflage in a far too narrow a spectrum. Namely, the clothes worn by soldiers, cam-cream on faces and scrim on helmets, and at best reduction of our Infra-Red and Radio Frequency (IR and RF) signatures.

To address the current lack in camouflage thinking, I propose that we are now in the age of 3rd Generation Camouflage.

Allow me to explain:

1st Generation Camouflage was adopted in response to an enemy’s ability to see and shoot a soldier in the field. Uniforms were changed from scarlet red to rifles green or khaki in the hotter regions of the empire. During World War 1, the French recruited the artistic community as les camoufleurs, to create dummy head (complete with smoking cigarette), false trees to be used as OPs and a catalogue of other tricks. The Royal Engineers followed suit and established work shops close to the front line and as the war progressed into bloody stalemate, camouflage mutated from simply hiding to actively deceiving the other side.

A supply mule of the Somalialand Scouts 'camouflaged' as a Zebra. (IWM)
A supply mule of the Somalialand Scouts 'camouflaged' as a Zebra. (IWM)

This was made more urgent with the arrival of aircraft over the battlefield and the early use of aerial photography – tactical and operational thinking suddenly became 3-dimensional. [Should we have been so surprised when ISIS and other groups began using commercially available drones as delivery platforms?]

In short, 1st Generation Camouflage was used to defeat the Human Mark 1 eye-ball.

2nd Generation Camouflage arrived during WW2 and advanced rapidly through the Cold War as the opposing blocs became increasingly industrialised and technically advanced. Now not only were forces required to defeat the man with his simple optics, but camouflage was needed to defeat technology.

Stealth technology hides aircraft and ships from radar, encrypted burst transmission radio reduces the risk of SIGINT intercept and direct-finding or jamming, the first pixelated camouflage was developed to defeat early night vision devices and clothes were issued with IR absorbent coating. But throughout this technological advancement, the principles of camouflage remained unchanged and often 2nd Generation Camouflage often became a state’s most heavily guarded secret.

Where are we now?

I believe that we must now recognise that we are operating in an environment that requires us to adopt a 3rd Generation Camouflage approach. 1st and 2nd Gen Camo remain important and we must continue to develop these as fundamental elements of Force Protection and to maintain technological advantage. But we must also look at how the GRU officers in the Salisbury case were identified, traced and exposed.

Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) may be dismissed by many, just as camouflage, aircraft and even special forces were in the past. But it offers insights into how our adversaries operate, their attempts to mislead, confuse and threaten our political systems and societal norms. More importantly, it offers lessons to those of us who work in Info Ops, our intelligence services, special forces and our deployed units and formation, as to how information can be used against us and what measures we must have in place to “camouflage” our operations, in order to protect our service men and women and safe-guard our national interests.

So what does 3rd Generation Camouflage (3rdGenCam) look like?

Well, firstly it must be recognised that 3rdGenCam functions primarily in the Information Environment, as such the planning, coordination and assessment of it sits within Information Operations (InfoOps) – itself an often misrepresented, misunderstand and under-appreciated capability (just saying!).

Within InfoOps, 3rdGenCam draws together capabilities, functions and specialist knowledge from across the Information Activities, including; Media Ops, OPSEC, PERSEC, Deception, Electronic Warfare (EW), Open Source Intelligence linked to wider All Source Intelligence ‘fusion’ and a healthy portion of creativity, imagination and unconventional thinking – often absent in our headquarters, where conformity, group think and “because I said so” are the norm.

Example: During the NATO intervention against the Libyan regime in 2011, a small team of ‘experts’ were seconded to the MOD to consider deception operations against Colonel Ghadaffi and his inner circle (including his playboy son Saif al’Islam). This team delved deep into operations of WW2 and counter-revolutionary doctrine to produce a “Chinese take away menu” of options with a view to psychologically isolate the dictator and undermine his control.

While it can never be proven that these activities ever took place or contributed to his capture, Ghadaffi’s decision to move and attempt to escape the country proved to be his undoing – maybe images of “ninjas with stealth helicopters” (noting at the time that the killing of Osama Bin Laden by US Navy SEALs was widely reported) filled his nightmares and irrational suspicions about his senior commanders preoccupied his waking hours.

This example demonstrates that 3rdGenCam must take the methods and creative thinking of the past and apply it, like a fresh coat of paint over our current 1st and 2nd Gen thinking. It must be recognised in our policies and it is encouraging to see leading MPs dedicating time to these issues.

Our doctrine must free up thought processes to allow greater creativity, while drawing heavily on past endeavours (camouflage workshops, technological solutions) and an adaptable approach to very modern problems. Practitioners in this field must be drawn from a diverse pool, including deep specialist, empowered with authority to set the conditions to effectively implement “camouflage” when called upon to support military operations, political manoeuvres and react to the activities of our adversaries – not waiting for a crisis to occur before rushing half-baked capabilities into service.

Open Source Intelligence – the UK Military needs a capability similar to that of the Bellingcat group. Many believe this exists in 77th Brigade, but in truth Information Manoeuvre is a corralling of existing capabilities such as PSYOPS, Civil Affairs and Info Ops. Legal and ethical constraints are too often cited as reasons why OSINT is not used by the military, but this can not be allowed to effectively hand the advantage to our adversaries to run a mock and turn audiences against us unchallenged.

Electronic Warfare – The (re)formation of the Royal Marines 30 Commando (so name after Ian Fleming’s wartime unit of commando scallywags) included the Corps’ EW specialists, Y Troop. They recognised that this new form of warfare needed to incorporate much of the 2nd Generation capabilities of DF’ing and jamming, but increasingly weaknesses in a Forces use of the electromagnetic spectrum are exposed by Personal Electronic Devices (PEDs). Mobile phones, iPads, game consoles and wrist-worn fitness devices have all been used to collect or compromise data relating to the user or the operation.


Example: Released data from the fitness app Strava highlighted significant and immediately recognisable ‘hot spots’ in obscure locations in Syria, Somalia and other locations, because military personnel were wearing the devices while running around the perimeter fences of their compounds. OPSEC/PERSEC – The old adage of “loose lips sinks ships” still holds true, but now loose lips are most often found on social media platforms and in the open source.

Examples from Bellingcat show how Russian soldiers were photographed inside Eastern Ukraine, despite the claims from the Kremlin. The GRU officers in Salisbury were not only caught on CCTV (a lack of 2nd Gen Cam) but images from their previous military service, awards they have been presented and copies of their real passport were all discovered by investigators.

However, it must be remembered that Osama Bin Laden was not found because of his ‘signature’ but by the fact that he had no signature in the Information Environment. A family compound in Abbottabad in modern Pakistan, with no phone, no internet and no access to the outside world stood out in the busy Information Environment.

So what?

“Absence of the normal, presence of the abnormal!”

 By instructing soldiers, analysts and others to have no digital footprint is not only almost impossible, but will in fact draw more attention than a well managed and ‘normal’ online persona. It should be argued that a believable, appropriate and human online persona should be the gold standard, rather than no presence at all.

To quote from Rankin’s book, ‘On the surface they are so open,’ writes novelist Geoffrey Household of his countrymen, ‘and yet so naturally and unconsciously secretive about anything which is of real importance to them.’

Of course, these days what is “of real importance” is personal data and information relating to family and which could be used against us. PERSEC training must go far beyond “don’t post on Facebook or Twitter” and consider social media as a weapon to be used safely by all, not just by practitioners.

Recent initiatives in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia have focused on media literacy, safe and responsibility use of social media and an “alert not alarmed” approach to counter misinformation, fake news and the impact of other active measures. Media Operations (or Public Affairs, if you prefer) –

Traditionally, Media Ops and PA has focused on simply informing audiences through the media. This has been short-circuited by social media and the disciplines have struggled to maintain the old assumption that they must stay separate from PSYOPS and the other Information Activities.

While 3rdGenCam thinking does not advocate using the media and journalists as a channel for deception, the amplification of stories, provision of good news and as a medium through which Presence-Posture-Profile (PPP, the Force’s body language) can be demonstrated must be utilised.

The media, no matter where on the political spectrum they sit, have a responsibility to help protect a population from the “truth decay” seen in recent years, where conspiracy theories, fake news and emotional triggers have become the norm, replacing well researched journalism, the opinions of real experts and facts.

Media Ops must be the military’s shop front, not only to attract recruits and propagate good news, but to rebut false fact, half truths and lies, before they gain traction and are accepted as fact.

Above all, these activities can not be controlled centrally.  They must be delegated down to the point of discomfort and far beyond. Credible voices must be found, established and amplified at unit, formation, thematic and operational levels – force multiplied by a network of mutually supporting accounts, voices, advocates and outlets, in a decentralised but coordinated manner.

“But how?” you may cry…

…through the application of Mission Command and a clear intent.

Deception and Counter-Command Warfare (CCW) – Key to 3rd Generation Camouflage thinking is that all information (as we often see) can be misinterpreted, misrepresented, taken out of context and twisted. Therefore, we must be able to do the same as and when we require to. Occasionally, conspiracy theories and folklore will play to our advantage.

Example: British tabloid media are happy to run stories of SAS snipers making impossible shots and killing multiple targets with a single shot or of Military Working Dogs tearing the throats out of Jihadis. While those in the know can dismiss these as exaggerated ‘dits’, they enter the public domain and are often reposted, shared and liked.

The official outlets and channels should never “confirm or deny” such fantasies, but defence commentators should (where necessary) at least share them.


Because if even one young British Muslim is deterred from making the journey to join his brothers and commit acts of terror then that article, retweet or like was worth the second it took to tap!

In Summary:

Nicholas Rankin’s excellent book, Churchill’s Wizards: The British Genius for Deception 1914–1945, offers everyone with an interest in military history, Info Ops or the British ability to embrace eccentricity and muddle through, a thoughtful, thorough and detailed account.

Full of colourful characters, political infighting and some truly unbelievable adventures. It sits alongside Rogue Warriors and The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare as a must-read for those entrenched in the ‘middle third’ and anyone who secretly wants to be free to experiment and innovate as British scallywags have done from the Indian subcontinent, the African pains to the jungles of the Far East.

In the spirit of Fleming’s 30 Commando, Stirling’s SAS and Lawrence’s Arabs, the SOE and the Political Warfare Executive the ability to embrace uncertainty, apply unconventional thinking, take risks and ignore the ridicule and sniping – to achieve the assumed impossible and establish new norms.

What next?

  • What measures could be taken NOW to establish these evolving capabilities within an organisation preoccupied with managing budgets, STRIKE, new carriers and F35?
  • How can existing capabilities and activities be aligned to achieve 3rd Generation Camouflage?
  • Is OSINT the new J2? How does the Military resolve the ethical and legal considerations around OSINT and the use of such data in the targeting process?
  • What counter-measures are needed to provide OPSEC/PERSEC to personnel, especially those deployed on operations? Particularly those deploying in small teams and ‘at reach’?

What are you thoughts?