The U.S. Army says it will develop technology block the heat signatures of ground troops and armored vehicles. Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley said the future of warfare, in which soldiers will operate in a “highly lethal” environment, demands that the service develop the means to hide its soldiers.
Milley in front of the House Appropriations Committee. Responding to a member of Congress, Milley said: "We know that adversary [target] acquisition systems are very, very capable in that, if you can see a target with precision munitions, ... you can hit a target. So camouflage systems that break up electronic signatures and break up heat signatures are critical."
For most of the history of warfare, soldiers needed only camouflage themselves against the human eye. This involved hiding from view or breaking up the profile of a human, tank, or other object to make it more difficult to pick out.
Today, the presence of electronic sensors on the battlefield, particularly passive infrared sensors, gives forces the ability to detect enemies at night, as well as those obscured by smokescreens or stationed behind other objects. A soldier’s body heat could give him away at nighttime, while the exhaust plume of a tank parked behind a large object could tell the enemy there is a large armored vehicle there.
In November 2018, SAAB of Sweden snagged a $66 million contract with the U.S. Army for ultra-lightweight camouflage net systems (ULCANS). The U.S. Army has ULCANS since 2003. ULCANS is a “multispectral” camouflage system, meaning it operates in multiple bands of the electromagnetic spectrum, including visible light. It protects against near-infrared, thermal infrared, and broad-band radar threats.
Here’s a photo of ULCANS in action:
Does this mean that individual soldiers could be hidden from enemy sensors? The Army’s current does have some infrared shielding capability baked in. Ballistic helmets and gloves can diffuse away some of a soldier’s heat signature, but completely hiding a soldier would be a difficult--and expensive--task.