House approves measure to have military branches share one camouflage pattern


Brig. Gen. Rich McPhee, left, and Col. John Norwood on Feb 8, 2005, while their troops from the 48th Infantry Brigade, Georgia Army National Guard receive the new Army Combat Uniform at Fort Stewart, Ga. (Stephen Morton/AP)

The U.S. House approved a measure Friday that would require all branches of the military to share the same camouflage uniforms — instead of the 10 different camouflage patterns in use today.

The measure, written by freshman Rep. William Enyart (D-Ill.), was passed as part of the broader National Defense Authorization Act, which sets the Pentagon’s budget. The measure passed by a vote of 315 to 108.

The proposal still needs to be approved by the Senate. But there have been some signals of support there.

On Thursday, for instance, the Senate’s Armed Services Committee approved its own version of the defense-authorization bill — with a new provision added, to require the services to move toward using a single camouflage uniform at some point in the future. That change was suggested by committee chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a committee spokeswoman said.

In the House, Enyart’s provision would require all armed services to share the same camouflage uniform by October 2018. It would still allow for variations in that shared uniform, adapted to different environments such as woodlands and desert.

Enyart proposed his measure after a Washington Post article detailed the expensive proliferation of camouflage patterns among the services.

In 2002, the entire U.S. military shared just two camouflage patterns — one forest green, one desert brown. But since then, individual services began creating their own patterns. That process became a case study in government duplication: As services repeated each other’s work, the results were both expensive and uneven.

The Marine Corps spent just $319,000 to develop its widely praised pattern, according to an analysis by the Government Accountability Office. But the Army spent $2.63 million to develop a “universal” camouflage pattern, only to discover that it didn’t work in Afghanistan. That required a new, Afghanistan-
specific uniform at a cost of $2.9 million.

The Air Force, for its part, spent about $3.1 million on a camouflage “Airman Battle Uniform.” But after criticism that it provided poor camouflage, the Air Force told airmen in Afghanistan that the uniform should not actually be worn in battle.

In all, the varying camouflage uniforms cost more than $12 million to develop, and millions more to distribute to service members in the field.

“Congress needs to exercise its oversight to make sure we don’t do silly things,” Enyart said in a telephone interview when the measure was introduced.

It was added to the defense authorization bill in the House Armed Services Committee by a narrow vote of 32 to 30.

The Obama administration has not signaled a formal objection to the idea.

On Friday, a Pentagon spokesman responded to a question about the bill with a one-
sentence statement.

“The Department of Defense is always interested in being efficient,” spokesman Mark Wright said.

Still, the camouflage provision could face opposition from within the armed services — particularly the Marine Corps.

“Over the past decade, Marines have worn the best camouflage pattern in the world. There are tactical and psychological advantages unique to our [uniform] in terms of morale and culture,” said Sgt. Maj. of the Marine Corps Micheal P. Barrett, the corps’ top enlisted man, in a written statement this week.

Barrett said that if Marines no longer wore a distinctive camouflage pattern, something crucial would be lost.

“It’s part of our Corps’ identity. Where we (Marines) walk or sail, people are safer — unless you screw with us!” Barrett said.

That statement was first reported by the Marine Corps Times and confirmed by the corps’ public affairs office.

In contrast, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus — the civilian leader of the Navy and Marine Corps — said Thursday that he was open to reducing the number of camouflage patterns in use.

“The notion that we’ve got all this camouflage doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me,” Mabus said in a breakfast with reporters from the Defense Writers Group. “I think it’s worthwhile to see if we can shrink the numbers here.”

Mabus did not say anything specifically about the House measure. He suggested that “two or three” patterns might be sufficient for all the branches of the armed forces.

Mabus even made fun of one of the Navy’s camouflage patterns — a blue-tinted design for use on ships. Sailors derisively refer to these uniforms as “blueberries.”

“The great camouflage it gives is if you fall overboard,” Mabus said.

Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.

David A. Fahrenthold covers Congress for the Washington Post. He has been at the Post since 2000, and previously covered (in order) the D.C. police, New England, and the environment.
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