Why camouflage uniforms aren’t uniform
By Walter Pincus,
When it comes to dressing the U.S. military for combat, uniformity and belt-tightening apparently haven’t been in fashion recently.
Between 2003 and 2010, the Army spent more than $4 billion developing and producing a new camouflage uniform, the Army Combat Uniform (ACU). It decided on the camouflage pattern before testing was completed. And it began providing the uniform to troops before its Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center finished its evaluation and recommended a different pattern, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Friday.
In 2009, an Army study found the ACU “offered less effective concealment than the patterns chosen by the Marine Corps and some foreign military services, such as Syria and China,” according to the GAO report.
Meanwhile, soldiers in Afghanistan complained to the late Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), then chair of the House Appropriations Defense subcommittee. In a June 2009 report, the House panel directed the Defense Department to take “immediate action” to supply new uniforms.
So, after the U.S. Army had spent billions over several years to outfit its troops, the Army in 2010 began replacing the ACU for the soldiers in Afghanistan, who got a new camouflage pattern that cost $3.4 million to develop and $300 million more last year to procure.
The new Operational Enduring Freedom Camouflage Pattern is in use, but since 2010 the Army has also been studying “three color variations, desert, woodland and transitional, as future uniform options,” according to the GAO. Army senior leaders will be briefed on the study and development plans, the GAO said.
More important, according to the GAO, if “the Army chooses a new camouflage uniform, officials estimate it may cost up to $4 billion over five years to replace its [current] uniform and related protective gear.”
The fashion story involving camouflage uniforms hardly ends with the Army.
Not so long ago, all the services were wearing what was known as the Army’s Battle Dress and Desert Camouflage uniform. However, since 2002 each service has introduced its own camouflage uniform.
Of course there are Defense Department policies and regulations that encourage the services to coordinate research and testing of such things as uniforms, and even a regulation that promotes standardization in combat clothing to reduce costs, the GAO said.
It was Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Jones who in 2000 broke away from the pack. He directed that a new camouflage uniform be developed with increased durability and combat utility. The Marines, according to the GAO, spent $319,000 to develop their unique camouflage pattern. They started with 70 patterns and picked one that was created digitally by computer-pixelated shapes rather than the more traditional organic, leaflike ones.
The final pattern was tested in 2001 by 284 Marines who wore the uniform in field operations and in their garrisons. Though 25 percent of them found durability problems such as rips at the knees during training, two-thirds liked its appearance because after laundering the fabric retained “hard creases that were sharp enough for garrison wear.” The old Army combat uniform had to be ironed to get the crease needed for inspections. The Marines also did 20-year life-cycle cost estimates for their own camouflage uniform, which came to roughly $502 million.
The final version was initially placed in the field in 2002. As if to emphasize the service’s uniqueness, the Marine Corps in November 2001 got a U.S. government patent on its camouflage “uniform, pattern, fabric and design.”
In October 2002, the Air Force chief of staff ordered his own development project for a new combat uniform, one that would be distinct from the Army’s and less costly to maintain, according to the GAO. The Air Force spent about $3.2 million to develop the Airman Battle Uniform. It was not permanently pressed, but Air Force personnel had a different standard from the Marines for appearance on duty at bases.
By 2005, though, with the Iraq war underway, the Air Force found through tests that the noncombat uniform’s fabric caused heat buildup. The GAO criticized the Air Force selection process, which chose a tiger-stripe pattern and one fabric weight for both trousers and blouses for use in hot and cold climates. A year later, Air Warfare Center observers, testing the Air Force combat uniform, found its camouflage was “marginal or unsatisfactory for concealment 58 percent of the time,” the GAO reported.
In 2010, Air Force Central Command decided personnel in Afghanistan would be safer wearing the Army’s camouflage uniform because they risked standing out to enemy forces when operating jointly.
The Navy went its separate camouflage way beginning in 2006 when it approved a concept for its own desert and woodland uniforms for ground forces. The Navy spent $435,000 on the final design, which it began using in the field in 2011. Approval was given to use two patterns developed by Navy Special Warfare Command.
“The Navy’s goals were to adopt a set of uniforms that reflected the requirements of a 21st century Navy and its navy heritage,” according to the GAO. One Navy camouflage uniform is blue.
By law, the services are permitted to have their own uniform designs. The Marines and Navy even printed their service logos into their camouflage fabric, making it difficult for another service to adopt the uniform.
The camouflage uniform history is another reminder that despite 26 years of laws and regulations to push standardization of uniforms, service rivalries remain — even though the country can no longer afford them.
For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.