NATO Three-Color Camoflage

A s the US Army began the transition to CARC paint, it also began the changeover to the NATO 3-color camouflage. This new paint scheme was to be used by all the NATO ground forces and consisted of a base green (Federal Standard–‘FS’–# 34094) a brown (FS# 30051) and black disruptive bands (FS# 37030). Army Regulation (‘AR’) 750-1 states that any tactical vehicle with more than nine square feet of area on any side will be painted in the three-color pattern. If no approved pattern was available the base green was to be applied until an officially approved pattern became available.

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    All vehicles operating in a wooded or other green vegetated area as well as some arctic and partially snow-covered areas were to be painted the standard three-color camouflage. Vehicles operating in a completely snow covered environments were to be painted solid white, and vehicles desert environments were to be painted sand (FS# 33303) this was changed to tan (FS# 33446) during the Gulf War. No other patterns were approved for use. The paint scheme that best matched a unit’s primary contingency plan was to be used; paint schemes were not to be changed for training exercises.

    “Approved Camouflage Pattern Painting” (CPP) drawings were published in TB 43-209; however, as the Army moved toward being “paperless,” new patterns were often posted in cyberspace.


    AR 750-1 spells out the following as being exempt from camouflage pattern painting.

a.)    Equipment not requiring open area concealment
b.)    Nondeployable equipment and fixed installation systems.
c.)    Equipment that must be painted per regulation or policy established by other services or government agencies.
d.)    Rotary and fixed wing aircraft. However, ground support equipment must be pattern painted.
e.)    Components of systems or items that can be transported in various modes and can be constructed or assembled into multiple configurations.
f.)    Stackable containers, except missile containers that are a component of a weapons system

    Responsibility and authority to decide what scheme was to be used was given to the commanders of the major subordinate commands.


    The adoption of CARC ended the days when units and crews were responsible for applying the camouflage pattern to their vehicles upon issue. Vehicles that had 3 color patterns approved for them rolled off the assembly lines with camouflage paint already applied.


    Prior to the 1991 Gulf War, most everything came off the assembly line painted in the NATO colors, During Desert Shield and Desert Storm production was rapidly switched over to tan.

    After the war, the intended mission determined how a vehicle was painted, purchase contracts spelled out what percentage of production or what vehicle variants would be painted tan and what would be painted in the 3-color pattern. TM 43-0139 gave four methods for applying the camouflage pattern to a piece of equipment; they were listed in order of preference and accuracy.

    Robotic Method: An automated robotic program is used to apply the disruptive bands and patches simultaneously. Considered the most accurate, repeatable and desirable of the four methods, it is used extensively by the manufacturers. When a new pattern program is created, it goes through a certification process. Equipment painted by a certified program only need to be spot-checked on a random basis.

    Template Method: Makes use of rigid or soft templates to locate and mark the color boundary lines on the item. Templates could be made of rigid materials such as wood or aluminum, or they could be flexible, made of Mylar or plastic sheet. The piece of equipment is first painted in overall base green, the template is then carefully positioned on the item and the outline is transferred using chalk or soapstone. The painter then fills in the outline using the appropriate colors. This method is also considered accurate and repeatable. Like the robotic program, once a set of templates are made and certified, only random spot checks are required to ensure accuracy.

    Projection Method: As the name suggests, transparencies of CPP drawings are projected onto the object to be painted and the pattern is drawn on by hand. As with the template method, the item is pre-painted in the base green color. This method is considered to be inaccurate and inconsistent. It is considered appropriate to use when the number of items to be painted is small, and the cost to develop a robotic program or templates cannot be justified. Every pattern applied by the projection method is to be inspected, no random sampling is allowed.

    Manual Method: The manual method falls back to the way the patterns were applied in the MERDEC days, drawn on freehand over the base green color, using the CPP drawing as a guide. This is the least favored method and is to be used as only as a last resort. Once again each pattern must be inspected, no random sampling allowed.


    There are three levels of inspection spelled out in TM 43-0139, with Level I being the most lenient and Level III the strictest.

Level I: In this level, the inspector visually compares colors, shapes, and boundaries applied to the item against the approved CPP from a distance. Items less than 20 ft. in length are to be viewed from 50ft. Items 20-40 ft in length should be viewed from 75ft away and items longer than 40 ft. should be viewed from a distance of 100 ft.  The inspector is to pay close attention to the size, shape and location of the black disruptive bands, which are considered especially important to the effectiveness of the pattern. Failures are to be marked on the item in chalk or soapstone, and the item must be re-inspected once they are corrected.


Level II: This level takes the level I inspection and adds an overspray test. After performing the visual inspection from level I, the inspector would lay an overspray gauge (see illustration) on the color boundary line and check if any overspray extended into the “fail zone” on the gauge.
The three-color patterns were designed to have sharp, hard edge definition between the colors. Hard-edged patterns are said to break up a vehicle outline better than those with “softer” color transitions, excessive overspray also diminished the special UV reflective properties of the individual CARC colors.

Level III: Level III incorporates all the aspects of levels II & I and adds in measurements. The CPP drawings have reference points and dimensions on them, dimensions are given for location of color (i.e. black band is 3″ from door handle) and actual width of color. The inspector is to measure the pattern on the vehicle using these dimensions, a tolerance of +/- one-inch is allowable.
    To be certified, the first vehicle painted using a robotic program or template must pass all three levels. All vehicles painted using the projection and freehand methods are supposed to be checked to level III criteria.

    That being said, it does not always happen by the book, one must only look at the vehicles of units returning to Europe after the Gulf War. All in all, as compared to the days of MERDEC, the patterns were at much more consistent and the standard was adhered too much more closely than any previous scheme.


    One of the interesting side effects of CARC during the Gulf War and beyond was the problem of repair part colors. As vehicles entered the Gulf, many were hastily pained tan, but most all of the repair parts remained green, so seeing a tan vehicle with the odd green hood, wheel or door etc…is not an uncommon sight.

    Many of the units left the Gulf region after Desert Storm and returned to Europe to find themselves deployed directly to the Balkans to support operations in Serbia (SFOR) and Kosovo (KFOR). Since unit level painting was not allowed, and many parts in the Army inventory were already painted Tan, some mixing occurred. Mine clearing was a major part of the KFOR mission, and many photos show 3-color painted M1 tanks mounting tan mine clearing equipment. The situation is much the same now in Iraq and Afghanistan.


    One major change resulted from the adoption of the NATO three-color CPP, no longer was black the sole color for the application of markings. The color of the marking would be determined by the base color applied. If the base color was Brown 383 or Green 383, the markings were to be applied in Black (FS 37030 or 37038), If the base color was black, the markings would be Green 383, and when the base color was White or Tan 686 the markings were to be applied in Brown 383.

    As with anything, there were exceptions many units painted tan rectangles on their vehicles and placed the markings in these, this practice was allowed in certain overseas areas in order to comply with international agreements on vehicle bumper numbers.

    As can be expected, the rules were not always followed, from 1990-2007 a multitude of articles were printed in PS Magazine about this subject, the October 1999 issue stated “There’s no secret in adding unit identification numbers to a wheeled or tracked vehicle. But if you check around your post or installation, you’ll probably see several different methods in use.” Even a peacetime army has problems keeping regulation.

    As the mission of the of the US Army continues to move from a European to a Middle Eastern scenario, more and more equipment gets the tan paint scheme, and given the number and duration of rotations, most keep the tan color. But the fact remains, when the mission calls for it, the three color CPP is currently the only authorized camouflage pattern.

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