The armed services have spent millions of dollars on separate efforts to develop new camouflage patterns in recent years, a GAO report found. (STEPHEN MORTON/AP)

In 2002, the U.S. military had just two kinds of camouflage uniforms. One was green, for the woods. The other was brown, for the desert.

Then things got strange.

Today, there is one camouflage pattern just for Marines in the desert. There is another just for Navy personnel in the desert. The Army has its own “universal” camouflage pattern, which is designed to work anywhere. It also has another one just for Afghanistan, where the first one doesn’t work.

Even the Air Force has its own unique camouflage, used in a new Airman Battle Uniform. But it has flaws. So in Afghanistan, airmen are told not to wear it in battle.

In just 11 years, two kinds of camouflage have turned into 10. And a simple aspect of the U.S. government has emerged as a complicated and expensive case study in federal duplication.

The U.S. military's changing camouflage

Duplication is one of Washington’s most expensive traditions: Multiple agencies do the same job at the same time, and taxpayers pay billions for the government to repeat itself.

The habit remains stubbornly hard to break, even in an era of austerity. There are, for instance, at least 209 federal programs to improve science and math skills. There are 16 programs that teach personal finance.

At the Pentagon, the story of the multiplying uniforms has provided a step-by-step illustration of how duplication blooms in government — and why it’s usually not good.

“If you have 10 patterns, some of them are going to be good. Some of them are going to be bad. Some of them are going to be in the middle,” said Timothy O’Neill, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who studied camouflage patterns as a West Point professor. “Who wants to have the second-best pattern?”

The duplication problem grows out of three qualities that are deeply rooted in Washington. Good intentions. Little patience. And a lust for new turf.

When a bureaucrat or lawmaker sees someone else doing a job poorly, those qualities stir an itch to take over the job.

“You don’t have empirical information on what’s working and what’s not working” in the profusion of new programs, said Gene Dodaro, who heads the Government Accountability Office (GAO). He hopes the country will finally decide it can’t afford this. “The fiscal situation . . . will begin to force that kind of decision to be made,” he said.

President Obama and congressional Republicans say they’re trying to prune back decades of redundant programs. Obama, for example, is seeking to kill or consolidate more than 100 of those science and math programs. But the problem lives on in many other places.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for instance, has a new congressionally mandated Office of Financial Education. It costs $7.87 million a year and is authorized to employ 14 people.

It is, by the GAO’s count, the 16th government program aimed at teaching the public better money management. And that shows.

The new office’s Web site offers answers to common consumer questions, such as, “How do I dispute an error on my credit report?” In that case, however, the Federal Reserve answered a similar question on its site: “How can I correct errors found in my credit report?” The Federal Trade Commission also offers advice on “Disputing Errors on Credit Reports.”

At the Pentagon, a GAO study commissioned by the Senate Armed Services Committee found that the military services have spent more than $12 million on designing new camouflage patterns. The cost of buying, stocking and shipping 10 different types of camouflage uniforms is believed to be millions more.

Is anybody trying to fix this?

“The Department of Defense continues to look for ways to streamline processes and implement better business practices,” a Pentagon spokesman said this week. He gave no details.

Uniform, but unique

This, in brief, is how two camouflage patterns became 10.

The Marine Corps started it. The branch spent two years and $319,000 testing patterns to replace the green and brown ones. In the end, the Marines settled on a digital design, which used small pixels to help troops blend in.

There was a desert version and a woodland version — camouflage pattern Nos. 3 and 4.

The Marines did not intend to share them.

“The people who saw this uniform in a combat area would know [the wearers] were United States Marines, for whatever that might mean,” said retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, who initiated the uniform design and later became Obama’s national security adviser.

After that, the Army set out to duplicate what the Marines had done, spending at least $2.63 million on its own camouflage research. The Army produced what it called a “universal” camouflage, in shades of green, gray and tan. Pattern No. 5.

It was not as universal as they said.

After complaints that the pattern didn’t work in Afghanistan, the Army had to spend $2.9 million to design a camouflage specific to that country. The GAO found that the Army then spent more than $30 million to outfit troops with the new design, called Operation Enduring Freedom Camouflage. Pattern No. 6.

Now, the Army is working to replace that replacement, with a new camouflage-design effort that has cost at least $4.2 million so far. The branch has given up on “universal.”

“A uniform that is specific to the desert and one that is specific to a woodland environment . . . outperform a single pattern, a universal camouflage pattern,” Brig. Gen. Paul A. Ostrowski, who oversees the Army’s uniform and equipment research, said in testimony before Congress last month. “We’ve learned that.”

Pattern No. 7 came from the Air Force. On the surface, that did not make a whole lot of sense: Only a subset of Air Force personnel fight on the ground, including rescuers of downed pilots and battlefield air controllers. But the branch still spent $3.1 million to come up with its own ground combat uniform. It was a “tiger stripe” pattern, a throwback to camouflage used in the Vietnam War.

But it was not well-suited to Afghanistan.

“They were not designed to hide anybody. They were designed to look cool,” said O’Neill, the West Point camouflage expert, giving his outside appraisal of the Air Force design. “It’s what we call ‘CDI Factor.’ Which is, ‘Chicks dig it.’ ”

Finally, in 2010, the Air Force ordered its personnel in Afghanistan to ditch the Airman Battle Uniform and wear Army camouflage instead. The Army pattern “provides the higher level of protection and functionality our airmen need,” an Air Force spokeswoman said this week.

Lost in the camouflage

The next three camouflage patterns arrived in 2011, from another unlikely source: the Navy.

“The Marine Corps, Air Force and Army had either all shifted, or were shifting. Which meant that if we wanted to continue using [the two original patterns], the Navy was going to have to pick up the entire contract,” said Terry Scott, who was the service’s top enlisted man at the time, the master chief petty officer of the Navy. “We knew we had to change.”

He said, “I remember saying, ‘Why don’t we just use the exact same thing’ ” as the Marine Corps? “Well, the Marine Corps had embedded . . . their symbol in the actual uniform pattern.”

It was true. The Marines had inserted tiny eagles, globes and anchors into the camouflage — betting that no other service would go to war with another branch’s logo on its pants. It worked.

The Navy spent more than $435,000 on three new designs. One was a blue-and-gray pattern, to be worn aboard ships. Pattern No. 8.

Sailors worried that it would hide them at the one time they would want to be found.

“You fall in the damn water and you’re wearing water-colored camouflage. What the hell is that?” said one active-duty petty officer. He asked that his name be withheld because he was criticizing a decision by the brass. “It’s not logical. It’s not logical at all to have water-colored uniforms.”

For the desert, the Navy came up with another design, a tan pattern that resembled the Marines’ desert pattern. Except theirs had a small USS Constitution embedded in the pattern. No. 9.

To the Marines, the Navy pattern was still too close a copy.

“We objected to that. We just said, ‘Look, there are plenty of patterns that are out there that are effective,’ ” said Gen. James F. Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, recounting that complaint during a Senate hearing in 2010. The reason was not battlefield safety, it was Marine pride.

“Even though [the Navy] is not using the patented pattern, I guess that it’s so very, very close,” Amos said. “It’s a point of pride, sir. It’s internal pride.”

That seemed a good enough reason for the Senate committee: “Well, pride and unit elan is certainly an important factor. I appreciate your response,” said then-Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.). The next question was about helicopters.

It was also good enough for the Navy. After the Marines objected, the Navy decreed that its new desert uniform would be given only to a select few: Navy SEALs and other personnel serving with them.

The rest of the Navy personnel who might serve in the desert — more than 50,000 of them — were issued a different camouflage pattern.

This was pattern No. 10. The Pentagon’s long and expensive search for new camouflage uniforms had previously defied logic. Now it would defy camouflage itself.

It ended with U.S. service members wearing green in the desert.

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