Russian invasion of Ukraine shows the importance of visual identification

What insignia and colors would the Spanish Armed Forces use in the event of a war?

Some people will be surprised by what seems like a question with an obvious answer. But it is not as obvious as it seems.

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It has been more than a century since the armies renounced their ancient and colorful uniforms and the use of showy flags to go to the battlefields, and opted for uniforms with greenish, brownish and sandy colors to blend in with the environment. Today most armies wear camouflage uniforms, and their vehicles are painted with mimetic schemes whose purpose is to obtain a visual advantage: the one that allows them to attack before the enemy detects you.

A Leopardo 2E tank of the Brigade "Guadarrama" XII of the Spanish Army (Photo: Ejército de Tierra).

Curiously, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has marked a curious trend due, to a large extent, to a fact that had not happened in other wars: the use of very similar equipment by both sides. Both Russia and Ukraine use tanks of Soviet and Russian origin that are very similar in appearance, and very often take advantage of material captured from the enemy.

Russian soldiers in Multicam camouflage uniforms (Photo: AP).

This has also happened with uniforms, due to the popularization of Multicam , a complete camouflage created in the US by Crye Precision in 2004 and which US forces have already used in Afghanistan. Today many armies use this camouflage or derived schemes, and in the case of the aforementioned invasion, it is used by many Ukrainian and Russian soldiers, mainly from special operations forces.

Ukrainian soldiers in training in September 2019, wearing yellow armbands (Photo: NARA).

In World War II it was easy to distinguish a British soldier (Brodie plate helmet) from a German (with his characteristic Stahlhelm) or an American (M-1 helmet). However, today most modern kevlar helmets have a similar shape, to properly cover the head. This leads to soldiers on both sides looking very similar. In the Ukraine, both sides have had to resort to armbands of various colours in order to correctly distinguish their troops.

Soldiers from the Army's Special Operations Command (MOE). They wear accessories with Multicam camouflage and uniforms with the Spanish M09 forest pixelated camouflage (Photo: Ejército de Tierra).

In the event of being immersed in a war, Spain would find itself with a very similar problem, since its pixelated M09 forest camouflage , used by the different units of the Army and also by the Marine Infantry in officer training, was developed from the Multicam and at a certain distance it is easily confused with it.

A Spanish Leopard 2E main battle tank, displaying maneuver emblems (Photo: Ejército de Tierra).

Unlike German military vehicles, which carry the Iron Cross clearly visible, Spanish military vehicles carry very small National Flags on their frontal part, which would have practically no use for identification purposes in the field. battlefield. Other NATO armies have the same problem. Ukraine has seen different solutions. In the case of the Russians, the letter "Z" has become popular both in their land vehicles and in their aircraft. Ukrainians have opted for a white Greek cross, with the four arms of the same length, as an easy solution to decorate their vehicles.

An old Russian tank T-62 Obr. 1967 captured by the Ukrainians in November 2022. The tank bears several letters "Z" to identify it, and Ukrainian soldiers wear yellow markings on their arms, vests, and helmets (Photo:

It is not the first time that this problem has arisen in modern warfare. During the Gulf War (1990-1991), the allied forces used orange panels that were placed on the vehicles or on their rear, always oriented so that they were visible from the air. Its purpose was to prevent attacks by friendly fire by allied aircraft, since in the Iraqi desert, and under certain conditions, it was easy to confuse friends with enemies.

A Ukrainian BTR-80 sporting various white crosses (Photo: balakleya_live).

In addition to those orange panels, the British also used red paint and red panels for their tanks. Other painted markings were also used on tank turrets, often to distinguish the position of certain vehicles in a particular column. Thus, in today's war there is the paradox of having to combine camouflage so that you cannot be seen and badges so that you can be distinguished on the battlefield.

M-109 self-propelled howitzers of the British Army in the Gulf War in 1991, sporting the orange panels worn by allied vehicles (Photo: The Tank Museum).

A common resource in the Russian invasion of Ukraine is the use of flags. The Ukrainians use their bicolor flag, and the Russians interchangeably use their tricolor flag and red flags of Soviet origin. In the end, the need to hide a vehicle is subordinated to its need to identify it and avoid casualties from friendly fire.

A Challenger tank of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards of the British Army in the Gulf War in 1991, with red paint on one of its rear drums and a red tarpaulin on its turret, to distinguish itself from enemy vehicles (Photo: The Tank Museum).

In the event of war, Spain could resort to its history to equip itself with symbols and an identifying color. As for symbols, the Spanish Armed Forces continue to regularly use the Cross of Burgundy, introduced in Spain in the 16th century, so it would be enough to paint large blades on Spanish military vehicles. This does not exclude the use of the Spanish Flag, which in terms of identification is one of the most effective in the world.

A Spanish Leopard 2E main battle tank in Latvia (Photo: eFP Battle Group Latvia).

As for colors, let us remember that historically the Spanish Tercios used red cockades and bracelets to identify themselves on the battlefield. Thus, in case of war, that would be the natural color that Spanish soldiers should use to identify themselves on the battlefield. That, of course, if we only stick to history. But that would greatly limit our chances of identification in the event of war.

Portrait of Don Juan de Austria (1547-1578), Spanish admiral of the Battle of Lepanto, painted by Juan Pantoja de la Cruz. He wears the traditional Spanish cockade, which was red, on a bracelet of the same color.

The reality is that, in the event of war, these marks and colors end up being improvised, depending on what the enemy uses and to better distinguish themselves from him. It must also be taken into account that if Spain entered the war together with its NATO allies, we would have to look for common symbols with them, since the priority would be to distinguish itself from the enemy rather than to distinguish each other from each other. the various allied armies.

AAV-7 amphibious armored vehicles of the Spanish Marine Infantry with the three-color NATO camouflage (Photo: Armada Española).

This, by the way, was the raison d'être of the three-color NATO camouflage introduced in the 1980s and still used in Spain by the Marine Infantry and some Army vehicles (specifically, the Leopard 2A4 tanks, since they were bought from Germany and the camouflage with which they came from that country was maintained). It would not be a bad idea to reconsider this option instead of the traditional uniform olive green color used by the Army.


Main photo: Ejército de Tierra.

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