Military uniform materials are getting a boost – now. Powered by Northrop Grumman
Time passes and military uniform technology keeps pace. As the Spartans flattened the dusty earth with their sandals, their crimson capes and round shields prefaced the ferocity of their intent. Spiked Roman helmets and 2-meter-high spears emphasized their wealth as a fighting force. Military uniform technology has come a long way since then, with tremendous advancements over the past century.
Let’s take a look at some historical military uniform materials, what military forces wear today, and what we can expect tomorrow.
Materials of historical military uniforms
The British have made history with their iconic uniforms. The red coats provided a cohesive look – but also showed them off as they walked through the swamps and forests of pre-Revolution America. After declaring independence, to set themselves apart from Britain, America’s First Continental Army wore blue woolen coats, red sashes, and tricorn hats. By the next official battle with the British, these hats had grown tall, tapered and feathered. The blue coats had white collars rising steeply just below the ears. During the Mexican-American War and the American Civil War, wool remained, but army caps became short, stubby “forage” caps – hats that could be worn in the woods and fields while looking for horse feed. Necklaces flattened and deployed in the army as well as in the increasingly powerful American navy. Blue wool was sometimes replaced with gray, depending on what was available and which side of the conflict the American soldier was on.
The Spanish-American War came at the turn of the 19th century – and with it the shift from wool to cotton, as well as a new color palette: khaki. The persimmon was popularized in the mid-1800s by (again) the British, who lived in tropical climates. The four tones of khaki darkened to olive and maroon for WWI and WWII. Lightweight windbreakers and cargo pants became a combat fashion in Korea and Vietnam. Like the Marines, during Operation Desert Storm, army combat dress adopted a collage of camouflage patterns, culminating in 2004 as army combat uniform (UCA). These digital patterns incorporated nearly every color seen to date, including grays, browns, beiges, browns and tans, and green tones never before seen in the war. These multicolored palettes allowed the wearer to visually blend in – to be masked, so to speak, by their surroundings.
The desire to stand out from a distance may have faded, but the need to project power and protect soldiers remains strong. Where protection from close-range damage was once provided by swirling cloaks, solid wood panels, or woolen cloaks, modern uniform technology now blends shields into the body of the cloth itself. Advanced functional materials, sometimes called smart skins, use adaptive nanoscale carbon tubes and layers of polymer tough enough to filter out chemicals, water, and even viruses.
These military uniform materials act as masks but are fashioned into shirts, pants, and underwear. the uniform responses are dynamic, modifying the properties as needed. Is the soldier standing in the sun, running around in a sweat? These factors forced a switch to more breathable cotton uniforms in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, the polymer layers can transform at the molecular level to let the fabric breathe that moisture. In other words, the cooling can be integrated directly into the smart skin. If it rains, the smart uniform materials can tip over an atomic penny, preventing water from penetrating through the layers. Where soldiers had to wear gas masks, these new materials wrap the soldier in a full gas mask. The polymer layers can collapse to seal the fabric from the outside in.
These reinforced fibers don’t just benefit people going into battle. Carbon fibers – once so expensive they could only be used on high-end jets and airplanes – are being glued to car chassis to improve strength and safety. Ultra-thin materials help hazmat teams clean up accident sites while protecting the rescue team. In the 1940s, citizens sacrificed silk and nylon for war effort parachutes. Today, firefighters, surgeons, pilots, athletes and many more benefit from enhancements originally invented to protect the military.
The military uniforms of tomorrow
The materials of military uniforms have continually changed, optimized and adapted to fit the times. White socks turned black. the Combat Cloth Face Covering changed from multicolor to solid. What is worn on the modern battlefield not only reflects our priorities and cultural norms, but it can also literally reflect the sun, repel rain, draw strength away from the wearer’s body, absorb sweat, or deflect sarin gas. Updated threats require upgraded military uniform materials and technology. Changing demands to stay connected and concealed have resulted in flexible integrated electronics that can track, link and even potentially protect the wearer from detection by light vision or infrared radiation. Perhaps the fiercest cloak of all is, ultimately, the one the enemy never saw coming.
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