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Saab Global

The move towards more sustainable camouflage

5 min read + Video

Could Barracuda static camouflage nets deliver the same high level of protection if they were made using recycled materials or plant-based fibres? Our research and development team is looking at the possibilities.

Sustainability has been one of the major trends within the global manufacturing sector in recent years. The realisation that the Earth has a finite supply of natural resources has prompted many companies to look for more planet-friendly raw materials when manufacturing products for customers.

But could such an approach work in the defence sector, where the reliability of end products often means the difference between life and death? Could “greener” materials be introduced into products without sacrificing the key properties that enable users to defeat the enemy? It’s a question that intrigues our research and development team at Saab's business unit, Barracuda.

While our camouflage solutions deliver industry-leading performance in defeating enemy sensors, using sustainably-sourced materials has not traditionally been a central focus for us during their manufacture. Even
though we are not yet seeing high customer demand for more sustainable nets, we want to be ready if and when this requirement arises.

Saab has joined the United Nation’s Race to Zero campaign to achieve Net Zero by 2050 and is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

In an effort to investigate the potential for using more sustainable materials and approaches in manufacturing our solutions, our R&D department recently launched a major research project with two key streams. Our static nets are made largely from virgin polyester, therefore, the first part of our
project is to investigate the potential use of recycled polyester. Our hope is that this might provide a relatively simple and easy way to improve product sustainability. However, reliability must not be impacted.

The second part of our project involves taking a much wider view and investigating the use of alternative fibres, such as those derived from plants. In addition, we are examining questions such as whether it is desirable
for a net to eventually biodegrade.

Potential use of recycled polyester

The first step in our project involved sourcing a suitable grade of recycled
polyester – something that initially proved challenging in a tight global market. During 2023, this recycled material will be incorporated into prototypes at our R&D laboratory in Sweden. Tests will then assess characteristics such as durability and effectiveness at managing signatures.

Investigating alternative fibres

Stage two of our project, which is also due to commence in 2023, will involve assessing the suitability of a range of alternative fibres for use in our nets. Cellulose fibres, such as those in cotton, flax, hemp, bamboo, sisal
and jute, are increasingly being used in non-defence products and may have some potential. Work will involve examining the availability of certain candidate fibres and then assessing their performance with regard to factors such as fire resistance, durability and compatibility with various pigments and coatings. Attention will also be paid to how close to our production facility the candidate fibres are located – a factor in reducing our carbon footprint.

“The solution may be camouflage nets with varying levels of sustainability, depending on a customer’s needs and requirements.”

A key consideration is that alternative fibres should not in any way compromise the integrity of our camouflage systems. In the best-case scenario, a candidate fibre might even be able to bring new, desirable
properties to camouflage nets. For example, with sensors increasingly able to distinguish between natural and synthetic materials, a plant-based net could one day offer enhanced levels of signature management.

Should camouflage nets be biodegradable

As part of stage two of our project, attention is also being paid to the lifespan of camouflage nets, in line with the whole-life approach to
sustainability. Our R&D team will examine what happens to camouflage nets that are left on the battlefield and whether these should quickly biodegrade.

The issue of whether a net should biodegrade or not is a complex one. In the field, camouflage users may be forced to leave their nets behindas a battle unfolds. Some customers might prefer a product that, in such circumstances, would break down into nature reasonably quickly. Certain threads could be used that allow this to happen. But other customers might be more interested in a camouflage product that has a very long shelf life and is still in perfect condition 10 years after being put into storage. So, the solution may be camouflage nets with varying levels of sustainability, depending on a customer’s needs and requirements.

Focus on the entire lifecycle

Thought is also being put into reusing nets at the end of their lives. We are looking at how the choice of material affects the whole life cycle. For example, can a net be reused at the end of its life? Can another net be made out of it, closing the loop? Or can an open-loop strategy work, where an old net is used to create a completely new product?

While work is still in its early stages, we are hopeful that we will be able to offer customers more sustainable solutions as early as 2024. It is a continuation of the work we have been doing toward more sustainable operations for many years. Our goal is to become Net Zero by 2050, following science-based targets, and we believe that more sustainable camouflage has the potential to contribute further to these efforts.

Article author

Ann-Sofie Olovsson

M.Sc. & Develop Engineer

is a Develop Engineer specialized in chemistry. After several years of experience within the coating industry, she joined Saab in 2014. At Saab she is working at R&D with focus on new materials and coatings for adjusting signature in the electromagnetic spectra. The work in the laboratory gives her the possibility to create new camouflage and at the same time improve and optimize the products on the market. She also has a roll as project leader for development of new camouflage systems.