In a vast desert, several factions vie for dominance. The factions use giant tanks and advanced aircraft. All the factions have a common origin, but are now entrenched in their respective dogmas and will continue warring for the forseeable future. Despite desert camouflage being the obvious choice for vehicle colors, only one faction uses the "obvious" desert colors - grey, yellow, orange, brown. The other factions have opted for "bright" ones: red, blue, green.

Thus, there is some reason that camouflage isn't considered necessary. There had to be some scientific or technical answer to why bright colors would not be a liability, or why they would at least be used even though "traditional" desert camouflage is available.

Edit: setting is a future world. Technology is certainly more advanced than today, but not extremely so: spaceflight is routine but still very challenging, AI has begun to emerge but has by no means replaced all human crews/pilots, life spans are long but immortality is not on the horizon. Much of the population still lives in conditions comparable to today, since warfighting consumes most resources.

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    $\begingroup$ There is no clear way to judge the 'best' answer if you allow cultural factors. This makes the question opinion based and so it may be closed. $\endgroup$ Oct 7, 2017 at 13:29
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    $\begingroup$ Are you by chance playing Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak? $\endgroup$
    – dot_Sp0T
    Oct 7, 2017 at 18:52
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    $\begingroup$ Semi-related: British military landrovers were sometimes painted bright pink. Though this was actually camouflage. Google images $\endgroup$
    – Jack B
    Oct 7, 2017 at 22:36
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    $\begingroup$ The fundamental problem with your scenario is that deserts barely support any life, much less multiple large, technologically-advanced warring states. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Oct 8, 2017 at 0:45
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    $\begingroup$ If they have advanced methods of detection such as radar then (as others have pointed out) the camouflage isn't realy going to be very effective so they might as well paint the tanks their favorite colours $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Oct 8, 2017 at 2:38

7 Answers 7


By lighting up an object it can appear garish from some viewpoints but at the same time it can act as camouflage from others. If a dark object is visible on the horizon, lighting it up can make it appear to be as luminous as the horizon and when seen from a distance it is hidden.

Garish colours can also serve to confuse people as the brain tries to interpret an image in the distance. Broad bands of colour might be misinterpreted by the brain as eyelashes if the viewer is squinting. Bright colours might also mimic colour distortions seen in binoculars at extrema ranges. Unusual combinations of colours can also confuse the brain into thinking an object is smaller than it actually is and or is traveling on a different heading even if it can be seen. ship dazzel 1 http://camoupedia.blogspot.dk/2016/05/hypothetical-dazzle-camouflage-schemes_28.html

ship dazzle 2 https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/452822937506176766/

ship dazzle 3 https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dazzle_camouflage#/media/File%3AEB1922_Camouflage_Periscope_View.jpg

I think this one illustrates the point well. Top right - which way is the ship traveling? Bottom - how many ships? And in which direction are they traveling? Is it two ships or has one ship got a decoy chimney? Is that a third stationary ship or is it part of the first ship? https://hyperallergic.com/106107/modernist-camouflage-reconstructed/

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    $\begingroup$ Oh god. Paint a front on image of a tank on the side of a tank. Watch enemy combatants wonder if they’re going mad. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Oct 7, 2017 at 17:08
  • $\begingroup$ Can you add links for the sources of those images, Slarty? Especially the ship. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Oct 7, 2017 at 17:22
  • $\begingroup$ @will camoupedia.blogspot.dk/2016/05/… pinterest.co.uk/pin/452822937506176766 Also a few more here: publicdomainreview.org/collections/dazzle-ships Another advantage is they help to break up the outline of an object making it difficult to judge size and therefore distance $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Oct 7, 2017 at 17:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Slarty so it's like dazzle camoflauge? (en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dazzle_camouflage) $\endgroup$ Oct 7, 2017 at 17:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Joe Bloggs Making the enemy go mad is a good idea but probably not possible unless they had a hangover. But it might just make them hesitate for a few seconds before firing. And that might be enough time for a bomb to land on their head… $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Oct 7, 2017 at 18:14

I am thinking about animals. Tanks are kind of like animals. Why would an animal want to be seen, or not care if enemies see it?

  1. It wants to intimidate. Animals that are trying to scare off predators or rivals make themselves look big and formidable. A cat raises its hackles and puffs up to look big. Lizards with colorful throats expand them. Maybe true for these tanks?

  2. It wants to be seen by conspecifics (allies). If coordination is done visually it may be worth more to be easily seen and identified by your friends (or potential mates) than the risk you incur by having enemies spot you. This is why male birds are bright colors - they want to be seen by the females (and maybe also other males, to scare them off). Your tanks may coordinate action visually. They do not want to shoot each other by accident.

  3. Bright paint has advantages other than color, which is incidental.. @Henry Taylor above puts forth a convincing scenario where tanks don't care what color they are because they assume they will be seen. But this does not explain bright blue. If I don't care about being seen as I drive down the boulevard my car will be a combination of primer gray and rust. You can posit that the paints chosen have other advantages like wear resistance, thermal emissivity etc. Perhaps the active ingredient happens to be a vivid color - for example copper sulphate is vivid blue which has nothing to do with its anti fungal action. This is the explanation for bright colors in fish which live at such depth nothing will ever see the bright colors - the colors are incidental.

Final and different option: Bright colors are camouflage.

We think of camouflage like a leopard is camouflagued. We do not see it 30 feet away in the shadows. But what if you are camouflaging yourself against the sky? In the desert, objects on the horizon are often obfuscated by mirage.

mirage https://i.pinimg.com/originals/59/26/68/592668a7ec144026ce0e337ce6aa6e55.jpg

You can see that the horizon is actually the color of the sky. A blue tank would be hard to distinguish. Sky can come in different colors and if one is trying to blend in with the color of the sky, apparently garish colors would be appropriate camouflage.

sky blue tanks http://www.bbc.com/autos/story/20160324-the-story-behind-chinas-minecraft-military-camo


Short answer
The factions not using desert camouflage are tritanopes.

Maybe the planetary inhabitants using the non-camouflage colors aren't trichromatic species but instead miss the blue cones in their retinae. They either may not have evolved multichromatic vision, or alternatively, they lost their blue cone somehow. If they didn't evolve trichromatic vision (as did your camouflaged faction) they may be less advanced evolutionary spoken in terms of color vision. Note that their evolution then has followed a different evolutionary path than homo sapiens, given that we obtained trichromacy through a doubling of the low-frequency cone due to a dual red/green cone type. Hence, they may have followed a different evolutionary pathway unknownst here on earth. We earthlings diagnose blue-cone deficiency as tritanopia; a recessive autosomal trait in people lacking blue cones.

To expand on tritanopia, i.e., trichromatic species that loose their ability to detect blue wavelengths, miss cones with the short-wavelength (high-frequency) blue opsin. It is a rare autosomal recessive trait leading to blue color blindness. These people are definitely not 'color blind' (bad terminology), as they still have color perception, but it is different as their colors are perceived as follows (source: Colour Blind Awareness):

People with reduced blue sensitivity have difficulty identifying differences between blue and yellow, violet and red and blue and green. To these people the world appears as generally red, pink, black, white, grey and turquoise.

Also see Fig. 1. below for a visualization of tritanope vision.

Note that their ability to distinguish yellows is due to the opponent form of color vision; we as trichromats perceive colors through a red-green and yellow-blue opponent axes (known as the Hering theory of color vision). Stripping away blue cones disrupts the yellow-blue axis, making the perception of yellows also difficult as a consequence. The obvious problem is the other factions still use blue colors in your scenario, which should be adapted then in your story line.

The most common form of color blindness on earth is red/green color blindness. This form of dichromatic vision is shared among many other primates. Our trichromacy is thought to have been favored in evolution to discern ripe fruits (yellow/reds) from their unripe counterparts (green).

As another alternative, the factions not using desert camouflage may have monochromatic vision (black-and-whites only), but that would not make sense, as apparently they still apply specific colors, i.e. red, blue and green in your story abstract.

enter image description hereenter image description here
Fig. 1. Left: trichromatic vision. Right: tritanope vision. source: Colour Blind Awareness


Computer Vision and Computer Augmented Targeting Systems make camouflage obsolete.

With cameras which capture hundreds of gigapixels in each shot and massively parallel image analysis systems which can instantly pick out micro-meter movements at maximum weapon range, "what color is your tank?" is no longer an important question.

Once two tanks are within direct line of sight of each other (or within view of their surveillance drones and tactical satellites), the vibration of their engines, the movement of their barrels, even the breathing of their supporting troops are all instantly detectable.

Camouflage only works against humans. Against computers, it isn't even worth the effort.

  • $\begingroup$ Presumably this scenarion occurs before computer vision was possible. $\endgroup$
    – Slarty
    Oct 7, 2017 at 16:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Slarty, is there a reason to presume that this takes place before computer vision? The OP's inclusion of Giant Tanks and Advanced Aircraft suggest at least 20th Century tech and imply at least late 20th Century tech. Given that we are nowhere near evolving beyond nationalism and war, I would assert that we have more wars ahead of us than those which lie in our past. With that in mind, we will most likely someday see pink and orange poke-dotted tanks on a dessert battle field. Imagine how embarrassing it would be to lose to an enemy tank wearing a tu-tu! $\endgroup$ Oct 7, 2017 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ This is, sorry to say, false. Humans and other animals are still way, way better for detecting camouflage than computers (You never encountered here such google CAPTCHAs which "purpose" is to check if you are human, but they are used to train computers?). Such "deep learning" networks are black boxes, they won't tell you why they failed and they are not used for every possible encounter (human, tank, plane) for every possible background (desert, wood, snow) etc. $\endgroup$ Oct 7, 2017 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ @ThorstenS, The OP has not limited this question to current day technology. Also, you are talking about the very challenging area of image recognition while I am talking about the comparatively simple area of motion detection. You want the computer to see the tank despite it being camouflaged and to know that what it is seeing is a tank. I just want the computer to notice that something moved a fraction of a millimeter between this image and the last. That is how planet detection is accomplished at light year distances. My goal is obtainable, even today. $\endgroup$ Oct 7, 2017 at 18:02
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    $\begingroup$ @HenryTaylor You have forgotten something. The magic word is "aperture": the diameter of the objective which limit the image resolution. Your 100 trillion pixel camera is completely useless if the optical system is not able to create a projected image with the same resolution and I can guarantee you that tanks won't move with a 2-meter mirror on their top (by the way, dust & grime?). Then we have the problem of the mount, you need to suppress or measure the vibration. Then the hot air scintillates at day so that everything moves. Your idea sounds good, but won't work. $\endgroup$ Oct 7, 2017 at 21:53

Electronic detection is so good that battle experience has shown camouflage is a complete waste of paint.

However, friendly-fire incidents are a huge damn deal, and there have been combat days where they fragged more of their own than the enemy did. So they painted all their tanks PINK and that ended the problem.

Honor may also factor into it; for whatever reason it may be morally reprehensible to them to "false-flag", even making their markings low-vis to exploit ordinary battlefield confusion/fog of war. It is a matter of battlefield honor that their units are clearly marked.

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    $\begingroup$ a bit like red coats $\endgroup$
    – RozzA
    Oct 8, 2017 at 5:06
  • $\begingroup$ Oh, "they" the people referred to in the question. Gotcha. $\endgroup$ Oct 8, 2017 at 21:35

Abusing knowledge of enemy IFF systems

The people who use visual camouflage use garish colors to highlight targets. "Is that tank actually green? or has the computer colored it green to tell me it is a friend?" Gives a moment of doubt which might be critical. The variety of colors is a hedge against the obvious solution of changing IFF color highlighting.

Your IFF is more important than delaying enemy detection

The reaction time from detection to launching weapons is critical. Stealth, be it cloaking devices, jamming or something works well enough that targets and friendlies appear suddenly and randomly well within lethal range, and if you don't hit the badguys in the first 30 miliseconds chances are they got you. This makes gunners jumpy. In the last war you lost more people through friendly fire than to enemy strategic surprise.


The key to my answer is in the restrictions that a desert places on activity hours, in the punishing desert sun manoeuvres are next to impossible, engines overheat and unprotected humans are prone to collapse within an hour of exposure to the elements. In such an environment combat takes place during the night and in the twilight hours of dawn and dusk, light amplification equipment is an essential targeting tool for all involved. Light amplification clarifies image at the cost of colour definition so pattern recognition becomes key to target acquisition and verification, contrast is key when creating disruptive camouflage colour doesn't matter at all, which is why you get brightly coloured hunting gear like this. Humans can see and avoid the bright colour in good light but the colourblind Deer you're stalking sees only the pattern that disrupts your otherwise threatening outline. Light amplification basically makes everyone colourblind, contrast and pattern become the camouflage attributes that matter and they're actually easier to achieve in bright colours. Sure if you get caught in the open during the day exposed to marque-1 eyeballs you're toast but the environment will kill you pretty quickly, but not fast enough for comfort, anyway.


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