In 1972, the U.S. Army briefly flirted with the idea of using helicopters to spray camouflage material over troops and vehicles. The concept was short lived due to its complexity and post-Vietnam budget cuts.
By the end of the 1960s, the ground combat branch realized that having troops literally cover their tracks every day required a lot of effort. The Army wanted a way to quickly hide its forces from prying eyes.
At the same time, the majority of the service’s vehicles were also painted a single color—olive green. The Army felt that repainting tanks and trucks for different environments was simply impractical.
The Army’s Land Warfare Laboratory suggested that spraying some sort of camouflage material from a helicopter might speed up both processes. A single helicopter could theoretically quickly camouflage multiple items in one go.
In early 1972, the AAI Corporation designed a prototype system that consisted of a UH-1 Huey helicopter with two tanks that would spray the camouflage solution. The solution was a water-soluble masonry paint.
The paint had to last between 60 to 90 days and stick to wood and metal—oh, and also penetrate soil so everything would blend together. The final solution came off with just soap and water.
LWL requested desert-color paints because it planned to test the complete system at Fort Hood in Texas. AAI, with the help of the Columbia Coatings Company, made up batches in “Sand,” “Weed Green” and “Beach.”
Initial tests happened at Aberdeen Proving Ground and the results were uninspiring. The most immediate problem was that only three of the eight tanks functioned reliably.
The main problem was that the batteries that powered the pumps inside the tanks were dying. To save money, LWL had given AAI old tanks it had already used in tests spraying tear gas from helicopters.
LWL sent one of the failed tanks back to the manufacturer to see if it could work out a solution. Everyone agreed that new batteries and stronger pumps would probably solve the reliability problem.
Unfortunately, the tanks were not the biggest issue. The helicopter itself presented more serious challenges. The aircraft had to hover close to the ground to spray the desired area. The rotors would kick up anything that wasn’t nailed down.
Twigs, leaves and other loose debris on the ground might get painted, but then also got tossed aside by the down-blast. The patches with no paint stood out.
After the tests, LWL recommended using a truck-mounted sprayer instead of a helicopter. The program’s funding ran out before this could happen and the Army terminated the project in July 1972.
However, the ground combat branch didn’t immediately give up on the idea of quickly camouflaging its forces. The Army also considered camouflage foam, mirrors and even fake foliage.
In the end, post-Vietnam budget cuts stopped those programs, as well. Traditional camouflage patterns and materials won out and these creative—and possibly silly—projects have been largely forgotten.