Why are navy warships typically gray in color?

by | Oct 2, 2009 10:00 AM ET

You Asked:

Why are navy warships typically gray in color? --- Debo, Ikorodu, Nigeria

Marshall Brain Answers:

The U.S. Navy definitely has a gray color scheme for its ships. Aircraft carriers, battleships, oilers, etc. are all painted gray.

Why? The overriding factor is the desire to reduce the visibility of the ship as much as possible. Some sort of invisibility cloak would be ideal, but until that is invented, paint is all we've got.

So what color should the paint be? Black is one possibility. The sky is black at night, and it is night half the time. A black ship, therefore, would be nearly invisible half the time. The problem is that, during daylight, a black ship stands out like a strobe light. That same visibility problem eliminates most colors like red, green, yellow, purple, etc.

What we are left with are three possibilities: the color of the water, the color of clear sky (light blue) and the color of overcast/foggy/misty sky (gray). The Navy apparently believes that skies are overcast/foggy/misty more often than they are clear. For example, this page notes:

The new light gray, (know during the inter-war period as Standard Navy Gray #5), was selected because of the following:
I. That the ship be as invisible as possible to an observer on a surface ship and on a submarine.
II. The weather be mostly overcast, or hazy or foggy, as in the North Sea area.
III. That the chosen gray was the best color under the above weather conditions.

This page says: "The gray color reduces the contrast of the ships with the horizon, and reduces the vertical patterns in the ship's appearance. It is the color of USN combatant and auxiliary surface ships, as opposed to the dark gray or black color of submarines, the bright colors of ceremonial vessels and aircraft, or the white of hospital ships."

There was a time when navies experimented with other color schemes, as discussed in this video:

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