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Queer Eye for the Straight Navy: An Argument to Paint Aircraft Carriers Rainbow Colors

Eric C and I love the free market. Economics, historical experience and classically-liberal political thought all demonstrate that the free market, through competition, weeds out weaker competitors in favor of better, more efficient, more effective rivals.

War weeds out weaker competition too. Unfortunately, only war weeds out weaker competition; peacetime militaries mostly have to guess whether or not they’ve prepared adequately/properly for the next war. Doubly unfortunately, most armies hate change. Conservatism and tradition, embodied by bureaucracy, rule the day.

Today, I want to describe an innovation (admittedly, a 100 year old innovation) in naval camouflage that I think could save lives--possibly hundreds of American’s lives--that will never, ever in a million years happen:

The Navy should paint its warships rainbow colors.

Okay, okay, okay. You probably expect me to make a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” joke right about now, and I’m not going to give it to you, because I am 100% serious. In addition to multi-colored hues, I believe the U.S. Navy should paint all its ships in zig-zags, stripes and swirls.

It’s called disruptive camouflage. Instead of blending with the background, you confuse your enemy. Think zebras. At first, its like, “Man, zebras suck at camouflage. They blend into nothing. That’s the worst camouflage ever.” Unless they’re not trying to blend into the background, but each other...that might actually trick lions.

Disruptive camouflage works in naval warfare. In World War I, when German U-boats surfaced to fire torpedoes at enemy ships and cargo vessels, they only had a few seconds to determine the distance and direction of these ships. They would then dive again to avoid being spotted, resurface, locate the enemy ship and fire. Since torpedoes traveled slowly, U-boats had to lead their targets by several nautical miles, trying to predict where their prey would end up in a few minutes time.

Seems tricky, right?

Well, British and American warships knew that U-boats needed to predict within eight degrees the direction of their victims, so they developed some counter-measures. Since blending in with the ocean is pretty much impossible, they tried to confuse their opponents instead.

By painting zigzags of different colors all over their battleships, when the U-boats surfaced, they could spot the American and British vessels; they just didn’t know where they were going. Or how far away they were. The different colors, swirls, zigzags and shapes made vessels appear to be traveling forward or backwards, slower or faster. When the U-boats resurfaced, they would often be aiming in the complete wrong direction, and would have to start the entire aiming process over.

Eric C’s favorite model of disruptive camouflage is the “fake wake”. On the back of a boat, the painters would paint a large white wake as if the boat was steaming full speed in the opposite direction. Instead, it sailed off going forward.

The Navy called this camouflage, “razzle dazzle”. Since every second counted, the longer it took a U-boat to aim and fire, the more chances the allied ship had of discovering the U-boat and radioing for help. This 99% Invisible podcast keyed me into this entire phenomenon, and how, as host Roman Mars narrates, the US Navy looked like “a flock of sea-going Easter eggs” or “a cubist nightmare”.
I can hear the skeptics. The clever Navy officer has an easy counter to Michael C, faux naval surface warfare expert. “Yeah, Michael C, razzle dazzle worked when the enemy manually fired torpedoes. Our missiles and torpedoes rely on sonar and radar. Razzle dazzle won’t help a damn bit.”

The hypothetical Navy officer would be right...if all America cared about was fighting high-intensity warfare against the Chinese or Russians. In that case, naval warfare would happen at distances of hundreds of miles, and each side would use advanced imagery and surveillance to find naval flotillas. However, I think a war with either of those two counties is incredibly unlikely, despite how much the defense establishment prepares for that scenario.

But the single most likely nation the U.S. might fight a war against, especially a naval war, in the next year--or next five years--is Iran. As this post from last year lays out, Iran plans to prey on the U.S. Navy’s geographical limitations with low-tech weaponry. They will use mini-subs, speed boats and anti-ship cruise missiles to swarm our ships in very shallow and narrow waterways.

While razzle dazzle won’t help in a high intensity naval war, it could help in an asymmetric war like this. A suicide boat is essentially a surface torpedo. In the effort to swarm larger U.S. ships, timing is everything. Every second Iran’s small boats remain undetected is another second likelier they are to sink a U.S. ship. Imagine entire flotillas of Iranian vessels setting out in the wrong direction, finding themselves further away from their targets rather than closer because of American razzle dazzle camouflage. This could mean the difference between the U.S. Navy sinking a couple dozen Iranian small boats or an American aircraft carrier (with 6,000 sailors) sinking.

I’m a realist (not in foreign policy terms) though. I know I will never see razzle dazzle paint jobs on U.S. Navy vessels. I’ll address why on Wednesday.

five comments

I remember hearing about dazzle camouflage, probably on History. Something makes me think that pink was especially effective, but I remember neither how nor why.

By the way, dazzle camouflage has uses beyond deterring Iranian and Somali gunboats. It has great potential for brown-water navies.

I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I remember hearing that the reason the UN wears sky blue helmets was so that it would be impossible to confuse UN soldiers for anything but what they were, UN soldiers. You couldn’t say that you didn’t know you were shooting at the UN, since the soldiers stuck out so much.

I like the idea of the US painting their ships really strange colors. It also helps fight against really tragic accidents (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Liberty_incident). If the US is supposed to be the world’s superpower, may as well let subtlety go out the window anyways.

Black and white paint have necessarily different reflexivity. A very sensitive infrared sensor may be able to discern the difference (because the black is going to be warmer), and that’s suboptimal.

IR backup and ID sensors are increasingly relevant on anti-ship missiles (see Hsiung Feng III for an old example), so navies may want to introduce (or may already use) infrared camo paints (which are surprisingly effective on land vehicles at least when clean and new) to counter IR sensors a little bit.

Half the time it’s dark. In the dark most everything is just a shadow of some kind, color notwithstanding. Radar can’t tell the difference either.

Pink has more or less been a desert camouflage color since WWII.

The attack on the U.S.S. Liberty was not a tragic accident. It was intentional. The only reasons the ship didn’t go down was the courage and proficiency of the crew, the stout construction of the ship and the Israeli air force and navy didn’t have much practice attacking big ships and didn’t do such a good job.


Everyone, Carl linked to an article on the sequel post that describes in detail the various effectiveness of dazzle camouflage in WWI and WWII. It definitely provides different perspectives, but I still hold that this seems like an interesting experiment that will never happen again.

Sven- The IR is something I hadn’t considered, but again I doubt it matters much more than the metal already on the boats. Plus, most long distance missiles use IR.