In a move with potential ramifications for everything from NATO maneuvers to G.I. Joe toys, the Army is going to repaint its millions of jeeps, tanks and other vehicles with a new camouflage design that it claims will save as much as $100 million a year.

The new war paint is a simplified design using three colors--brown, green and black--rather than the familiar four-color pattern that used assorted shades of brown, green, black and tan.

Army officials say the new pattern, which features broad patches of color, is intended to make a vehicle blend into its background. The old camouflage, which used complicated lines and shapes, was designed just to make it harder to identify the vehicle's outline.

"At certain distances, you resolve simply a light and dark blob, which could be anything," Henry R. Atkinson, chief of the countersurveillance and deception division at the Army's mobile equipment research and development command (MERADCOM) at Ft. Belvoir, said of the new color scheme.

The first Army vehicles with the new paint job--a new line of cargo vehicles--will begin rolling off the assembly line in the fall. Over the next few years, the Army will paint the new camouflage on its existing fleet as each vehicle comes due for its regular repainting.

Each of the Army's 1,000 types of camouflaged vehicles, ranging from self-propelled guns to tractor-trailers, has its own camouflage design, based on its shape and the percentage of each color used.

"We're talking several years before everything is painted," Atkinson said. One reason it will take time is the difficulty in freeing vehicles from service so that they can be painted, he explained. "If you have three cars and you have to figure out how to get the antifreeze in all of them changed in the winter, you can imagine how long it will take to repaint all of the Army's vehicles," he said.

The Army said that the savings will come from the need to keep fewer colors of paint in stock at transportation depots, a switch to cheaper types of paint, and the less-complicated design. In addition, the Army is using computers to design the paint scheme for each specific type of vehicle and is considering replacing hand-painting of vehicles with computerized robotic painting systems.

The new paint also will be more chemically resistant, so that it cannot absorb the toxins used in chemical warfare.

The new camouflage design grew out of discussions with West German officials over standardizing the camouflage used by NATO countries so that enemy surveillance could not pick out a vehicle's country of origin based on its the way it was painted.

Over the past year, the two countries conducted a series of tests to come up with the best camouflage design. "The test was to see which one had the greatest obscuration," Atkinson said. "The test was to see which one you could get the closest to without seeing."

The West German design won. Atkinson said that, at one field test he attended, he walked over to a truck painted with the American design without realizing that a West German vehicle was parked nearby.