Camouflage: The Military’s Magical World of Color, Fashion, and Cash

As I noted in my last last entry, the military spends massive amounts of money on the development of new projects. In recent years, there has been competition for new battle rifles, new hand guns, and new uniforms, among other things. All of which take time and funds to through bidding, testing, and the acquisition process. One of the most mind boggling decisions I have seen in the past 15 years has been the battle among the services to be different and to mark that difference with their work uniforms. Think camouflage, or lack thereof.

In 1981, the US military moved away from an olive drab to a camouflaged uniform, known as the woodland Battle Dress Uniform (BDU).1 All four branches wore this uniform until around 2001 and 2002. This was the standard uniform that was adopted with the expectation it would function well in the wooded areas across Europe, should the Cold War have become hot. A separate, Desert Camouflage Uniform (DCU) was also adopted, and later modified, for all branches serving in a desert environment.
Woodland Battle Dress Uniform pattern
Woodland patterns

By 2002, the US Marine Corps had a new digital camouflage pattern in woodland, desert, and urban gray. (The gray was not adopted). Development of these patterns cost a paltry $319,000. 2 Six years later, the Air Force would spend over $3 million to develop a tiger stripe gray uniform while the Army spent roughly the same to develop the short-lived, and now being phased out, Army Combat Uniform (ACU). The ultimate cost to the Army was $15 billion once the ACU pattern was selected. This would cover the cost of the new uniforms, new helmet covers, new equipment for soldiers, etc. 3 Woodland and Desert Marpat
Woodland and Desert Marpat patterns

This does not seem so bad until looking at the ACU pattern. It was meant to blend in with multiple environments, from desert to woodland to urban, while also offering low visibility to night vision devices. The only one it remotely worked with was the urban environment, and in that it still stuck out. Soldiers deploying to Afghanistan have been trading in the ACU for a new pattern known as multicam. Multicam had been tested alongside the ACU in the initial testing phase, and was preferred by the soldier on the ground. 4 As of this writing, as soldiers deploy throughout Afghanistan, they will be issued a type of camouflage known as Operational Camouflage Patter (OCP), which is very similar to the multicam that is part of the transition from ACU to OCP. Some refer to the OCP pattern as Scorpion.
Multicam pattern
Multicam pattern

That may be a little hard to follow so I will quickly summarize. The Army chose the ACU pattern to replace the old BDU, largely because the Marine Corps changed their uniform and had something distinctive to their branch. After a few years, Congress got involved and told the Army command that soldiers complained and said their uniform and its camouflage did not work. So the Army issued the multicam uniform to soldiers deploying to Afghanistan. The multicam had originally “competed” against the ACU, and ultimately lost. Multicam will now be used until the Army developed OCP pattern will be phased in. Crye Precision owns the trademark on the multicam pattern. Due to the fee licensing, Army decided to develop their own pattern and renamed it OCP. 5 With the switch to OCP costs are are estimated at almost $39 million. 6

The question now is why did the Army pick the ACU when it was not a well-tested pattern? That has been a hard question to answer. I cannot find a solid answer, only speculation. If any readers can find something, please pass your information along. The best I can determine is service rivalry. The Marines developed a new pattern and it was adopted. Not to be outdone, the Army leadership picked up the ACU to be different. (The Army actually approached the USMC about their MARPAT, but the USMC refused to share. They went so far as to have the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor emblem embedded in the fabric). From various sources I have read the Army did not actually have the ACU in the uniform competition, instead it was a compilation of various patterns. So it was probably never truly tested by warfighters, but tested by personnel sitting in an air-conditioned office. This area of research is odd simply because I cannot find much information about the how and why of the ACU pattern. My gut tells me there was a financial benefit to the decision makers in the Army once they made the decision…and eventually retired. ACU pattern
ACU pattern

ACU v Multicam
ACU and Multicam applied to the same environment

ACU vs. Multicam vs. OCP (Scorpion)
ACU vs. Multicam vs. OCP (Scorpion)

When it comes to wasted money, the Army is not the only culpable party. The Air Force also decided to make a change from the old BDUs to a new pattern called Airman Battle Uniform (ABU). This tiger stripe pattern is very similar to the colors of the ACU and development cost about $3 million. However, this pattern is pointless outside of a rock yard and the Air Force issues the Army OCP to airmen headed downrange.7 So again, what is the purpose of this uniform if it is only worn stateside and doesn’t blend with anything? Maybe to be different?
ABU pattern (almost the same color ACU)

The Air Force did not bother with testing the tiger stripe pattern. Why issue a uniform that is untested and will not actually be used on the battlefield? The Air Force has shown no inclination to develop a new camouflage uniform.

Just to offer equal criticism, the Navy also felt the need to get a new camouflage uniform. One would think if a sailor fell overboard in the middle of the ocean the military would have provided them with something bright that would stand out against the dark ocean water. Apparently in 2007, the Navy brass felt differently and developed the NWU-1. This blue digital camouflaged uniform cost about $435,000 to develop. 8 Rumors have abounded the pattern was developed and adopted in order to hide grease and dirt from working aboard ships or in maintenance shops.

NWU-1
NWU-1

NWU-2

However, when Navy personnel deploy in on a land based mission, they are issued another uniform called the NWU-2. This is limited to special operations and sailors who support them.9 So the question comes to mind, why spend money on something that is not practical? Just to be different? Is that not a waste of taxpayer money?

Due to the Defense Authorization Act of 2014, the services are expected to have common uniforms in order to save money.10 With the new requirement again coming down the pipe, why is the Navy still acquiring uniforms that are being phased out? In 2015, the Navy spent $15.4 million on the blueberry uniform. Money still being spent on a product that is not working.

In the grand scheme of year to year budgeting, the cost of uniforms is not that big. However, in a time of war, the military needs quality, functional uniforms to wear. The different branches turned the digital camouflage debate into a fashion show in order to be different from one another. Each branch wants to be distinct and that is completely understandable. However, they are distinct in the mission they perform. They are unified in the nation they serve, hence the term, uniformed services. The same nation, same flag.

Of the many soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines I have spoken to over the years, none of them think the Army, Navy, or Air Force got it right in regards to camouflage uniforms. Most of them feel the Marines did right with their uniforms. They also feel the OCP, which again is just a variation of multicam, is also extremely effective.

The military must ask itself, what is the purpose of camouflage? Is it to help protect soldiers on the battlefield, or make a fashion statement? If it is the latter, then leadership needs to be questioned and replaced. Military leadership owes it to the troops to provide the most effective equipment possible. That same leadership answers to Congress. Congress should be ensuring taxpayer money is being spent wisely. After all, those taxpayers are the one’s footing the bill for the military fashion show.

Sources

1 Mighty, We Are The. “Here’s How the US Military’s Uniforms Have Changed over the past 250 Years.” Business Insider. 2015. Accessed June 03, 2016. http://www.businessinsider.com/heres-how-the-us-militarys-uniforms-have-changed-over-the-past-250-years-2015-7.

2 “Amos: Marines Sticking to Their MARPAT “like a Hobo on a Ham Sandwich”.” Battle Rattle. 2013. Accessed June 03, 2016. http://battlerattle.marinecorpstimes.com/2013/07/22/amos-marines-sticking-to-their-marpat-like-a-hobo-on-a-ham-sandwich/.

3 “The $5 Billion Camo Snafu (Army Retiring ACU).” The $5 Billion Camo Snafu (Army Retiring ACU). Accessed June 03, 2016. http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/2899388/posts.

4 Dickson, Caitlin. The Daily Beast. Accessed June 03, 2016. http://www.thedailybeast.com/the-hero-project/articles/2013/10/14/the-army-s-5-billion-new-uniform-already-being-replaced.html.

5 Campbell-Dollaghan, Kelsey. “The Strange, Sad Story of the Army’s New Billion-Dollar Camo Pattern.” Gizmodo. 2014. Accessed June 03, 2016. http://gizmodo.com/the-strange-sad-story-of-the-armys-new-billion-dollar-1616285708.

6 “With 10 Patterns, U.S. Military Branches out on Camouflage Front.” Washington Post. Accessed June 03, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/us-military-has-10-kinds-of-camouflage-uniforms-government-duplication-at-its-finest/2013/05/08/58f2fe4e-b67c-11e2-bd07-b6e0e6152528_story.html.

7 Ibid.

8 “The U.S. Military’s Changing Camouflage.” Washington Post. Accessed June 03, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/apps/g/page/politics/the-us-militarys-changing-camouflage/140/.

9 Ibid.

10 “Joint Service Camo and the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 – Soldier Systems Daily.” Soldier Systems Daily RSS. Accessed June 03, 2016. http://soldiersystems.net/2013/12/20/2014-ndaa/.

For Further reading

“Pentagon Spends Billions on Duplicative Camouflage Outfits, GAO Says.” Center for Public Integrity. 2013. Accessed June 03, 2016. https://www.publicintegrity.org/2013/04/12/12482/pentagon-spends-billions-duplicative-camouflage-outfits-gao-says.

“Report Slams Military’s Recent Camouflage Uniforms.” Military.com. Accessed June 03, 2016. http://www.military.com/daily-news/2012/09/28/report-slams-militarys-recent-camouflage-uniforms.html.

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Chris McMillan

I consider to be myself somewhat of a pretty cool nerd. I have a BBS in History from Hardin-Simmons University and I graduated with honors with an MA in Military History with a concentration on War Since 1945 from the American Military University. Needless to say I love history. When I'm not studying history I'm also keeping track of MLB and my Texas Rangers. I'm also an avid fan of fitness and putting rounds downrange when the time presents itself. I enjoy shooting so much I got Uncle Sam to pay me to do it for a bit. However, the best part of my life is being the husband to a wonderful wife and mother and the daddy to a bouncy, energetic little girl.

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