If you've spent time driving down a highway, how many times have you seen a different vehicle and wondered about its paint job? I'm guessing not too many times unless that vehicle has a spectacular color scheme or impressive graphics.

Now instead of driving down a highway, you're home watching TV. On the small screen, you find a documentary or news story about our military. Have you wondered about how they're painted?

Specifically, do you know the difference between the respective paint methods of military vehicles and civilian?

On the surface, pun intended, the process is the same for both types of vehicles. The difference, however, is found in the details.

Painting Commercial Vehicles

Much has changed since the first cars rolled off Henry Ford's assembly line, they were painted by hand. As good as those painters were, they wasted paint, and the application wasn't uniform.

Commercial Auto Industrial PaintingThese problems were solved when robotics revolutionized the auto industry by automating paint lines in US auto plants.

There is a preparation phase for any painting procedure. In our case, components start with a degreasing stage, removing any contaminants remaining from the manufacturing process.

Next, the metal is treated and coated with zinc providing better corrosion protection and greater adhesion for the upcoming painting steps.

After taking these baths, a primer coat is added. Components are introduced to an electrostatic process using a current that attaches paint more economically than a handheld spray gun. This e-coat uses less paint and provides more excellent uniform coverage than earlier methods.

The second layer is adding a clear coat to the parts. The clear coating not only protects the vehicle from sun damage, but it also plays a crucial role in minor dings. The clear coat takes the hit instead of the paint. Any chance for rust diminishes when preventing moisture from reaching the metal substrate.

CARC: Military Coating

CARC Coated Missile RadarWhat does CARC stand for? Chemical Agent Resistant Coating. CARC is a matte military version of the polyurethane paints developed and used on commercial products. 

What makes CARC different than commercial coatings is how it protects chemical and biological contaminants from soaking in. Preventing absorption is key. Dangerous contaminants bead up on the surface, making decontamination relatively easy.

CARC Coated Military GeneratorThe CARC finish is resistant to fading and more durable than the paint the military used in the past. The new process lasts up to four times longer, meaning vehicles wouldn't need to be repainted, saving maintenance costs.

Vehicles aren't the only pieces of equipment requiring CARC paint. Missile launchers, rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, artillery pieces, water purification units, generators, forklifts, and communication vans also receive the military coating.

CARC Evolution

There are several theories of how the concept of CARC developed. One theory tells of the story of dismantling and analyzing a captured Russian tank in the early 1970s. Results showed the Russians possessed a coating system providing easy decontamination against chemical attacks.

The US Army adopted the CARC process in 1983 and issued guidelines to transition from older methods to CARC. This transition began in earnest in 1985.

In his book, America's Struggle with Chemical-Biological WarfareAlbert J. Mauroni wrote about the importance of survivability for equipment and personnel:

As part of survivability studies conducted to see how military equipment stood up to CB agents and decontaminates, scientists had observed that oil-based military paints had a tendency to absorb chemical agents, holding them in the paint and extending the standard contamination times. 
Chemical Agent Resistant Coating (CARC) was developed in early 1980 combatting this problem. By utilizing an alkaloid-based polyurethane paint instead of oil-based paint, military equipment could resist chemical agent absorption, making decontamination easier. The program successfully passed its agent tests and a final in-progress review in 1981. This feature became Army policy in 1983 for all equipment.

CARC Specifications

The US Department of Defense (DoD) outlined new specifications vendors are required to meet for the primer and topcoat:

      Type I Coating—epoxy-based primer, chemical agent resistant coating.
      Type II Coating—an epoxy-based primer for interior components, chemical agent resistant coating,
      Type III Coating—camouflage top coatings, chemical agent resistant coating. The primary colors required by the ARL are 383Green, 686 Tan, Aircraft Green, Black, and Brown.
      Type IV Coating—coatings for ammunition containers.

Prospective companies undergo a long, strict process hoping to win approval from the DoD.

CARC Benefits

These military coatings benefit our armed services in many ways, but there are three primary benefits:

Chemical Resistance

CARC protects equipment and people from biological and chemical agents. If exposing a military vehicle to such weapons, the coatings provide easy decontamination. Most importantly, these military coatings protect people and equipment inside those vehicles because chemicals can't penetrate the exterior of the vehicle. 

Reduction in Signature/Camo

You can't shoot what you can't see. CARC provides signature-reducing properties diminishing the effectiveness of enemy systems.

Improved Durability

Military vehicles using CARC benefit from the durability the finish provides. Using nonsiliceous polymeric beads, CARC is a water-dispensible surface providing superior mar resistance, weather durability, and flexibility.

CARC-Related Health Concerns

Respirator Protecting Against VOCsEarly versions of CARC paint contained volatile organic compounds (VOCs) hazardous to people and the environment with continuous exposure. 

Luckily, CARC benefits from continuous research and improvements in painting methods and technology. Providing stringent guidelines to vendors, the US military receives homogenized painted components with consistent applications and improving VOC emissions.

In Sum

US metal fabrication companies producing CARC components play an essential part in keeping costs reasonable without compromising quality and effectiveness.

The technology producing CARC paints and procedures has evolved and improved over the years. Current military coatings are much higher in quality than versions used generations ago.

Paint on a vehicle doesn't seem to be significant other than for aesthetic reasons. Yet when taking a closer look, CARC paints provide a layer of protection that civilians never consider necessary.

God forbid any branch of our military fall under chemical or biological attack. If they do, CARC's necessity becomes blindingly apparent.