Special Ops Wants Commandos to Have Invisible Faces
By Katie Drummond
November 18, 2011
Photo:U.S. Marine Staff Sgt. Michael G. Walker applies camouflage face paint during a Rear Area Operations Field Exercise at the Central Training Area, Japan, on June 22, 2005. Ensuring proper application of the paint was one of the many concepts that were reinforced during the exercise. Walker is a maintenance chief with the Motor Transport Company, Headquarters Battalion, 3rd Marine Division. DoD photo by Pfc. C. Warren Peace, U.S. Marine Corps. (Released)
Special ops commandos are already the savviest, most covert of all soldiers: They fly in stealth helicopters, wear high-tech camo suits and use nothing but the best face paint Pentagon cash can buy. But they’ve still got weak points. Most importantly, their own body heat and even the swiftest of movements can give them away.
That’ll change if U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) gets its way. The agency in April announced that “invisibility” equipment for commandos was one of their top priorities. Already, commandos have uniforms that can block most of the heat they emit. But as SOCOM notes in their latest round of small-business solicitations, they’ve gotta be able to “breathe, see and hear,” making it tough to keep their faces concealed from sensors. Now, SOCOM is asking for proposals that’d “reduce the warfighter’s facial signature” in marine environments, to minimize their risk of heat-based detection by infrared sensors or motion-based spotting via electro-optical surveillance.
Sounds crazy, but they just might have a shot. In 2008, the Army Military Research Office boasted that they were a mere two or three years away from developing metamaterials that could deflect light to conceal a given object. Since then, experts at various institutions have made impressive progress. Researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas have shown off an invisibility cloak that harnesses the “mirage effect,” defense company BAE Systems has developed a system that renders vehicles invisible to the entire infrared spectrum and physicists from St. Andrews University broke new ground with a meta-material that comes even closer to all-out undetectability.
SOCOM wants prototypes to zero in on what scientists already know about creating undetectability: The University of Texas’ device works best in water, for example, while metamaterials are optimal at night. So SOCOM’s after just those attributes: Something that works in aquatic scenarios, including open ocean, surf or on the beach, and is effective in various nighttime lighting conditions. The prototype should also work year-round, in freezing or scorching temps.
And if commandos are gonna make it ashore, a successful prototype will need to be nearly as discreet as they are. The solicitation notes that “an operator’s ability to swim” is a top consideration in the finished product’s design.