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Watching modern Hollywood movies, one would think covert ops agents (especially women) all wear some sort of skintight latex or leather uniform when they're on some mission to sneak around. I highly doubt that is actually what an agent would wear when sneaking into some top secret facility, it seems more practical for showing off the actor's curves than, you know, being practical. I might be wrong, or I may not be.

Regardless, I'm curious: what would be the best kind of outfit to wear if you're sneaking into some place?

Optional addendum: I'm going for something a bit more action-y/entertaining, so expect acrobatic hand-to-hand fighting to be something the attire would need to accommodate.

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    $\begingroup$ For a covert operation, your agent should wear something unsuspicious, i.e. a normal business outfit (or lab outfit, or whatever the people in the facility normally wear) $\endgroup$
    – Burki
    Sep 16, 2015 at 8:15
  • $\begingroup$ Do you want an answer focussing on real world or do you want to please the audience? Are these characters intended to be presented for a novel (written) or drama/movie (visual)? $\endgroup$ Sep 16, 2015 at 8:16
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    $\begingroup$ define "sneaking in". If you want them to be like real spies who walk in during buisness hours and walk out with the goods/info: suits. If you want them to be like Jason-Bourne crossed with Cat-Burglars who may have to get into fistfights then something reasonably dark/dull grey and form fitting kind of makes sense. $\endgroup$
    – Murphy
    Sep 16, 2015 at 13:24
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    $\begingroup$ This seems pretty vague. Are we talking Delta Force raiding a site? A spy sneaking a peek at something? A jewel thief breaking into a 20th story office? $\endgroup$ Sep 16, 2015 at 19:39
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    – Keltari
    May 22, 2018 at 6:59

7 Answers 7

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"Mission dictates gear".

This is true in any military organization, especially SOF. So what do SOF Soldiers wear? I ask you in return: In what situation?

If the SOF Soldier has to operate alongside GPF (that is General Purpose Forces - as opposed to Special Operations Forces), then the SOF Soldier will wear uniform and gear matching the Unit with which he's working on. Why? Because if I am an enemy sniper, and I'm out there scanning your troop formations, I'm not gonna waste my ammunition, I'm going to stay hidden. opportunities to kill regular Privates or Lieutenants aren't really worth being discovered. I'd look for those 'hmm, that dude looks special' targets like your snipers, senior leadership (Officers or NCOs), or SOF personnel. If your guys walk around in camouflage and body armor, and all of a sudden there's this group of guys walking around wearing skin-tight spandex and ninja gear, well, that fits the 'hmm, they look special' category. Believe you me, you would not be able to operate effectively if every time you leave the wire the enemy single you out as a target.

If a SOF unit operates on its own, well then the gear is determined by the need of the unit, as well as the ROE. Does the ROE state that you need to be clearly identified as a national legal combatant? Then you will be wearing combat gear with your flag. Does the ROE state that you are operating covertly/in a clandestine fashion? Then you may wear civilian clothes or sterile uniforms.

If the SOF unit is tasked to covertly infiltrate an enemy facility, then (insert whatever they're doing there), and then egress covertly, then the SOF unit might consider wearing enemy uniforms/clothing. Although, the wearing of enemy uniform means you are giving up your Geneva convention protection. They may wear local garb, pose as cops, business people, whatever gets the job done.

One thing they would not do is wear skintight spandex with ninja gear that screams to everyone, "I'm special!"

ETA: Consider that a significant amount of GPF gear today started out as SOF gear at one point of time. From armor, to weapons accessories, attachments. SOF may not look that different from GPF troops.

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    $\begingroup$ "One thing they would not do is wear skintight spandex with ninja gear that screams to everyone, "I'm special!"" Unless of course, the mission is to infiltrate ComiCon, in which case the mission will dictate wearing awesome ninja gear =D $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Aug 14, 2019 at 16:09
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The answer totally depends on the situation into which you are putting your spies. As the others mentioned odds are they should be dressing to blend in with their surroundings, so in those cases whatever the locals are into.

If on the other hand you are setting up a series of tests with laser grids and all that, skin tight is exactly what you want.

There is something to be said for a skin-tight outfit in hand to hand combat as well and it is the same reason professional military commanders started requiring hair cuts way back to antiquity. It gives the enemy one less thing to grab onto when grappling or using melee weapons.

The short answer: It depends on the situation, but skin tight outfits (that don't impair mobility) are not as ludicrous as they may initially seem.

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For covert operations, the soldier or operator would need to blend into the local surroundings, but that does not mean the clothing would be what other people wear in the situation, just that it externally looks like other people's clothing.

Take a mission in the executive suite of an office building. The operator will be wearing a suit and tie, and possibly carrying a briefcase. The briefcase will be rigged to carry a weapon like a submachine gun (possibly even to the point that you could aim and fire it from inside the briefcase. The suit will only look like it has buttons, but really be held together by velcro or something similar so the operator can rapidly open the jacket and access a sidearm or special tools and equipment. The inside of the suit jacket will have lots of concealed pockets to store small items that the operator might need (lock picks, gloves, thin sheets of explosive material and so on). Obviously you don't want someone to grab your tie, so the tie is a clip on; anyone who grabs it will be in for a surprise. The belt buckle might double as a knife and so on. The would be executive will be wearing glasses, but close inspection would reveal the stylish lenses are ballistic eye protection, and possibly "Google Glasses" to interface with a computer/cellphone.

If you are expecting to be in a melee the suit or outerwear could be made of Kevlar or a similar protective material to reduce the effect of knives or batons (a Kevlar jacket or raincoat will not stop a bullet or grenade fragment; for that you would need a close fitting actual frag vest and plates).

One convention of modern western civilization will certainly help operators; the fact that small backpacks are pretty common wear among virtually all people outside the executive class, and especially in "casual wear". An operator will be able to unobtrusively carry much more equipment with a backpack without standing out much.

Finally, since many jobs actually require protective equipment (and also allow access to lots of places), it might make sense to go into an area disguised as a utility worker or something similar. The bulky clothes will conceal the protective armour vest and sidearms, the hard hat will be a true ballistic helmet and the "earmuffs" are not sound deadeners but actual radio headphones. No one will think twice as the utility truck pulls to a stop and 4 guys get out walking towards the tool bins strapped to the side of the truck....

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  • $\begingroup$ Umm, Kevlar is basically worthless against knives. It does okay against a baton, but there are still better choices. $\endgroup$ Sep 10, 2016 at 5:34
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In the real world, the CIA doesnt send in secret agents like Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible. Those people dont exist. Also, its pretty much impossible to bypass good security such as cameras, alarms, guards, and masses of people. One mistake and you are caught.

The best way to infiltrate a guarded facility is to send in someone who is supposed to be there. No one is going to question why Johnny Terrorist is in the terrorist camp. He belongs there. The trick is making Johnny Terrorist an "asset." This could be by promising a reward, immunity, allowing his family to come to the US, threatening his family, etc. If Johnny Terrorist gets caught and killed, well... no US personnel were harmed.

Another method the CIA uses to infiltrate facilities is to be invited in. Did you just order a bunch of computer equipment for your terrorist activities? Well the CIA will be happy to step in and deliver it and set it up. This is more common than you think.

Lastly, if there is little chance of being seen, then the clothing is not a factor.

Edit: I want to add, the best way to not be caught, is to not be there. When gathering intel from things like computers, doing things remotely is the best bet. Back in the first Gulf War, Iraq bough a bunch of printers. The CIA assumed these devices were going to government locations and modified the printers to send out signals, revealing their location. The CIA is known to modify hardware and software. And they are known to hack networks as well...

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Do you get to the Diamond District often? No, of course you don't. Or maybe you do, I don't know where you live.

Regardless, in New York City there is an area called the Diamond District on West 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenue. It's estimated that 90% of the diamonds that enter the United States pass through the Diamond District, making $24.6 billion USD a year. \$400 million per day in sales. As you can imagine, with that amount of money changing hands and that many diamonds coming in and out of stores, it's kind of a wet dream for an enterprising criminal to make a move somewhere like there, but if you've ever actually been to the Diamond district and you sit a while and observe the people you might begin to realize why there aren't heist movie plots happening there every day, especially in a city like New York. It's absolutely swarming with undercover security. People in shirts that are just a little too freshly-ironed, touting bulletproof suitcases and fully-polarized sunglasses even when the clouds are out, wearing shoes that look nice but are completely suited for chasing someone down in. More than anything it's the behaviour that's off, though. They're standing where they can perfectly see the entrances to several stores, and they've been on this phone call without pacing or even moving for like an hour. They're alone, and they're spread out from anyone else also clearly trying to act sooo normal just far enough so that they don't give each other away but just close enough that they can see each other if they have to go after someone.

All of this is to say they wear a flawed imitation of civilian clothes that you'd only notice if you knew what to look for, much like in the Hollywood movies. The clothing owes itself nicely to looking wealthy enough to belong in a place like this without restricting movement. If they're wearing a blazer it's unbuttoned, if they've got a tie on it's not pinned, if they're a woman they're probably wearing a sports bra. I've never actually seen them have to do anything and I get the sense they too are utterly untested and just living out a fantasy, but it's completely reasonable to assume there's some kind of body armor going on under that button-up shirt and a concealed weapon of some kind. Since we're talking undercover soldiers and not overpaid mall cops with an even bigger complex, it's probably this and more. Definitely body armor and a concealed handgun at least, with likely some kind of jacket to hide it. Also, a few tips about concealed weapons; A handgun is hidden in the front of your pants, for easy access, and you can hide a knife a lot of places but the easiest way to tell where someone else is hiding a knife, outside of them pulling it out at you, is to watch where their hand twitches when they get nervous or startled. I don't live in a warzone and I'm not a secret agent so when I have a knife on me that I don't want people to see, I just keep it in my pocket. Men's pants have the kind of pockets you can fit anything in.

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Uniform Uniforms?

Soldiers wear uniforms for a variety of reasons. One of them is to identify them as lawful combattnts under the laws of war. This requires national insignia which can be identified at a distance, but not actually uniformity.

Militaries require their own soldiers to wear distinctive rank insignia and unit patches. Elite forces often get some latitude to wear non-uniform uniforms, both to help form their esprit de corps and in recognition that they don't need "mickey mouse bullshit" to remind them they're soldiers.

Militaries may also require soldiers to use only standard issue gear, or they allow some privately owned gear. Allowing any personal gear sets a precedent -- the first soldier wants his own boots, the second brings her own sleeping bag, the third soldier has a mobile phone which tries to link up with the local grid.

Only standard issue doesn't mean all equipment looks the same. One might be a radio operator with a specialized backpack, another a grenadier with a specialized vest, etc.

Camouflage Uniforms?

I've been talking about soldiers on legitimate military operations. As Burki mentioned in his comment, covert ops are something else. In a deniable operation, they wouldn't wear anything resembling their national uniform and equipment. This is one reason why the SEALS used Swedish SMGs in Vietnam and the Delta Force used funny hats in Afghanistan. The latter seem to be an actual attempt to blend in at a distance.

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If the soldier is going undercover then he should wear something that blends him/her with other people. And if there is some action involved (like you) say then comfortable clothing is needed not like the uncomfortable ones we see in Hollywood films sometimes.

I'd say something like this, like soldiers wear in real life:

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