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With modern technology, targeting equipment has become very good in its ability to pick out a target and lock onto it, thereby reducing the viability of traditional camouflage. In a world of mechs, this technology has increased in power and accuracy, primarily against large signals like vehichles. The issue with this however is that the equipment required to perform this level of targeting is specialist and not everyone will have access to it. Visually spotting a mech target is still a requirement even with the technology.

The mechs themselves are big, around 5 meters at the smallest. They are often deployed in combat hotspots including deserts and rainforests and have the appropriate camouflage pattern painted on them. They will usually carry advanced targeting computers that can track multiple targets and objectives simultaneously whilst tracking for more contacts. This operates mostly on heat signatures but can also catch the occasional communication signal from hostile targets.

What I want to know is will camouflage in the traditional sense be made redundant in its entirety or is there still a viable place for it on the battlefield. Likewise, is there much room for improvement within the combat zones outlined using camouflage techniques that can disrupt radar or make it harder to spot? Would this be useful in these scenarios?

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  • $\begingroup$ You might want to rephrase the question a bit: it was not until the 3rd paragraph I realized you were talking about visual camouflage. $\endgroup$ – Thomas Jacobs Jun 18 '15 at 12:48
  • $\begingroup$ @ThomasJacobs Ok, I'll make it a little more obvious. $\endgroup$ – Universalerror Jun 18 '15 at 12:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Universalerror, I love your reference to Dazzle Camo. $\endgroup$ – Green Jun 18 '15 at 15:20
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The most probable development for future camouflage (for all combat elements, not just mechs) would be metamaterials. Metamaterials are structured in such a way as to deflect waves around then in non classical patterns. There are actually many different ways of doing this, but the optical lattice is the most commonly used and understood.

Essentially, an optical lattice is a structure with gaps that are a fraction of the size of the wavelength that you want to manipulate, with the gaps engineered to "bend" the light in the direction you want it to go. In theory (and now in practice) you can bend the incoming wavefront to "flow" around the object being protected so there is no reflection or refraction to indicate the object is even there. Since the waves flow around it, there is no "hole" to indicate its presence either.

Current metamaterials work in the electromagnetic spectrum (radar and microwaves), and in limited optical frequencies (usually one or a small number of frequencies). Metamaterials can also be scaled to deflect sound waves; reducing the ability of sonar to track ships and submarines. Very long wavelengths, like the ground waves of earthquakes and explosions could also be deflected around buildings and structures: a metamaterial shield on that scale would look like a grid of pilings driven into the ground around the protected structure.

Metamaterials are passive, which means the operator doesn't need to monitor or activate anything, but based on their nature, they will require lots of care and cleaning to remain functional, so a tank or armoured vehicle bashing through the woods or in urban combat could reveal itself as the covering becomes damaged.

Metamaterials can be used for other purposes. Bending waves can be used to increase the sensitivity of antenna and optical components of cameras and sensors by focusing the incoming waves to the receiver. Laser and microwave emitters could also be vastly improved by using metamaterials rather than lenses to focus the beam.

Metamaterials are not a cure all, however. The heat energy of the vehicle or soldier still needs to be managed somehow, and the use of energy (sending a radio transmission or using a weapon) will also reveal that something is there. The vibration of a moving vehicle can be picked up by geophones, and metamaterials themselves are designed around specific frequencies: an optical metamaterial shield would have little effect on radar, while submarines sheathed in sonar cloaks would still be visible on the surface. And vehicles in space would be revealed by their heat signature against the cold backdrop. Targeting in an age where metamaterials are common would involve large numbers of multispectral sensors employed in a "grid" to identify anomalies and direct probing fire to reveal what is there. Area weapons like thermobarics, large bombs and fuel air explosives would also make a comeback to ensure that whatever was in the target grid was actually hit.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thermobarics are so nasty and an excellent area affect weapon. +1 for including them. $\endgroup$ – Green Jun 18 '15 at 14:40
  • $\begingroup$ Aww, man that would've been my answer... :D $\endgroup$ – Efialtes Mar 30 '18 at 22:29
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Camouflage would absolutely still matter. If not everyone is in one of these 'mechs then not everyone will have access to the advanced targeting systems, and would still rely heavily on visual contact. For the record however, modern target acquisition systems use far more advanced methods than simple heat signatures, as we learned long ago how to mask those even on the biggest tanks. On another note, as it stands with current technology (and foreseeable future tech), non-network wireless communications are nearly impossible to pinpoint without the target being within a sophisticated sensor grid.

Target acquisition in advanced systems these days relies heavily on visual identification and pattern recognition. For example, even civilians have access to highly accurate pattern recognition software that can pick out a face in a crowd with startling speed. That's the kind of thing that the camouflage of the future will need to combat, and it will probably require some pretty crazy materials to make it happen.

Also of note is that there's plenty of room for improvement even in current camouflage techniques. Most military organizations try to standardize camo as much as possible so they don't have to issue ten sets of it to all their troops for different environments, but that leads to inefficiencies within those individual environments where other patterns or color palates would be more effective.

I guess to sum it up, camo as we see it today wouldn't undergo a radical shift because human visual identification would still be a large factor. Camo patterns on a 'mech would be somewhat different from those on a soldier just because of the size and materials involved (I'm betting your 'mechs aren't made of cloth), and you can certainly get a little creative with how you approach it like using patterns inspired by the ship designs you linked or those of modern tanks, but it wouldn't necessarily be radically different. If the 'mechs are really really tall (taller than trees) and you're mostly worried about ground threats, the tops of them might be painted more grey-blue to blend in with the sky, but then you're vulnerable to aerial surveillance. Again though, it depends on the environment.

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If visual acquisition is a requirement then yes, absolutely traditional camouflage will be a requirement. A system like BAE's Adaptiv that can do both visible and IR adaptation would absolutely kill in this situation.

Since radar depends on the return signal, a radar absorbent coating similar to that found on stealth aircraft would help a lot.

Visual acquisition limits the engagement range to 2 or 3 miles. That's incredibly close quarters for a machine with the damage projection capabilities that a mech typically has.

Dazzle is amazing and as much as I love it, I don't think it's appropriate for for the purpose of concealing a mech. Dazzle was designed to make it really hard for U-boat captains to get an accurate fix on the direction and speed of a ship given that a paint job that would effectively conceal a ship under one set of atmospheric conditions would make it stick out like a sore thumb at a different time. Torpedoes in WWI and WW2 were optically launched. The invention of sonar guided torpedoes immediately made Dazzle obsolete.

Putting Dazzle on a mech would just make it easier to pick them out. There could be a psychological gain from a Dazzle paintjob much like warpaint on human warriors but that's outside the scope of your question.

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  • $\begingroup$ I checked the effective range of the main gun on the US M1A2 Abrams main battle tank. It's 2,500 metres (8,200 ft). Assuming more effective mainguns on a mech, engagement ranges could be longer but not by much. A 50 caliber rifle has a record kill at 1.5 miles (7920 ft / 2414 meters). Much farther and conventional projectiles just run out of energy. Hypervelocity rounds would be another matter. $\endgroup$ – Green Jun 18 '15 at 17:44

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