The U.S. military developed at least seven new combat utility uniforms over the past decade as one service after the other set out to create its own unique designs. Now, having invested billions to develop and field a multitude of patterns, it appears that only one of those uniforms is effective at concealing troops in combat ()
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The U.S. military developed at least seven new combat utility uniforms over the past decade as one service after the other set out to create its own unique designs.
Now, having invested billions to develop and field a multitude of patterns, it appears that only one of those uniforms is effective at concealing troops in combat.
What began with then-Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Jones musing that the Marine Corps could develop a better combat uniform than the then-ubiquitous battle dress uniforms of the 1980s and '90s ended up revolutionizing military camouflage.
Jones argued at the time that he could create a better uniform that would cost less for Marines to maintain — the old-school BDUs routinely required starch to meet appearance standards — and would be unique to the Marines, allowing leathernecks to pick each other out in a joint crowd.
And he was right: The digital Marine Pattern, or MARPAT, uniform that resulted from his push is today recognized as the best and most effective combat uniform among what has become a surprisingly vast array of colors and patterns, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.
The report concludes that the services have wasted billions of dollars and put troops' lives at risk in a vain effort to create unique combat uniforms for their services. A failure to share methodology, insight and experience, and a drive to have a unique appearance, trumped combat effectiveness — even in the midst of two wars, the GAO says.
In the years since Jones started the camouflage fashion trend:
• The Army botched development of its Army Combat Uniform, or ACU, selecting a pattern before its own testing process was completed. Used pervasively in Iraq, the ACU is nearly eliminated from wear in Afghanistan, where the Army has adopted a commercial camouflage pattern called MultiCam instead. And the service plans to identify three color variations as future uniform options and is seeking to identify one camouflage pattern for protective gear that blends with all three uniforms. If the service chooses to pursue a new camouflage uniform, the GAO estimates that replacement costs could run as high as $4 billion over five years.
• The Air Force spent years developing a distinctive "tiger-stripe" uniform and fielded it in 2007. But in 2010, the service determined its Airman Battle Uniform was not viable in combat, and most deployed airmen were ordered to wear the Army's combat attire instead.
• The Navy, meanwhile, developed its Navy Working Uniform, a blue-gray camouflage utility known as "blueberries" or "aquaflage." But the NWU was never intended for ground combat duty, and the Navy developed a series of combat camouflage uniforms for use in the war zone and elsewhere.
When the camo was announced in January 2010, sailors were told only SEALs and their support sailors could wear the pattern, called NWU Type IIs, because Marines complained the pattern looked too much like their MARPAT, sources said.
Meanwhile, some Navy officials are pushing to dump the blue-toned camouflage uniform, just three years after fielding it, and put sailors in the new woodland pattern NWU Type III.
No central control
Who's to blame? The Pentagon exercises virtually no central control over uniform development — and it should, the GAO says.
"Standardizing the development of camouflage uniforms and partnering to share inventory fees could increase efficiency in uniform development programs and potentially save [DoD] tens of millions of dollars over the life cycles of the services' combat utility uniforms," the report concludes.
The GAO stops short of recommending the Pentagon require a single combat uniform, as was common practice during the Cold War years, when all services wore either green or desert BDUs.
But Cary Russell, GAO's acting director for defense capabilities and management, suggests that developing a new common uniform may be a simple way to avoid having to draw up the complex rules needed to ensure all variants meet the same standards.
"If they don't go [for a single uniform], they'll have to do a lot of work to find joint criteria and policies to provide equal protection and consistent development processes to make different uniforms effectively and efficiently," he said.
Culture vs. effectiveness
Jones, the former Marine commandant who went on to head the joint U.S. European Command and served as President Obama's first national security adviser, is not swayed.
The uniform, he says, is central to service identity.
"I think for cultural reasons, this is important not to fool with," Jones said in an interview. "This is part of a larger discussion of service integrity and service morale."
But camouflage experts outside the military say pattern and uniform development are a hard science, not a fashion statement, and that extensive research can definitively determine whether one pattern is superior to another. That, they argue, should be the determining factor — not morale.
"Terrain should play the biggest part — period," said Jim Crane, owner of PowerPleat Tech, an Illinois-based company that produces patented camouflage gear. "If you have a Marine and a soldier in the same area, their camouflage needs to be pretty similar to both be effective."
One advantage to uniformity across the services is instant recognition, which is increasingly important in multinational coalition warfare, said Guy Cramer, head of HyperStealth Biotechnology, which produces camouflage gear for foreign militaries and has worked with the U.S. Army.
"When you start adding other nations into the mix, it can become difficult to tell who's who, and it becomes more important to be able to identify a pattern with a particular country," Cramer said. "I'd say you want that sense of, ‘OK, he's an American, he's on my side.' "
That was one of Jones' arguments when he embarked the Marines on the path to MARPAT. He wanted a uniform that would allow Marines to differentiate one another at a distance from soldiers, sailors and airmen without having to get close enough to read the service tags on their chests.
Cramer argues that uniform distinctions like that might ultimately benefit an enemy more than the joint team.
"The enemy may have some intel on how many people are in a platoon," Cramer said. If they don't count that many in a particular group, they'll know there must be "others out there somewhere."
But Jones said uniform distinctions aren't limited to pattern.
"For tactical reasons, what works well for one might not work well for others," he insisted. "We all do different things."
Congress orders ‘joint criteria'
In 2009, Congress began to question the military's growing array of ground combat uniforms and ordered the Pentagon to develop "joint criteria" for camouflage fatigues.
That hasn't happened.
In a formal response to GAO's report, DoD acknowledged the delay and said those rules will likely be finalized early next year by the Joint Clothing and Textile Governance Board, a little-known panel established in 2008 that is made up of logistics officials from the Defense Logistics Agency, the Joint Staff and the services.
The law calls on senior defense officials to hammer out rules to "ensure new technologies, advanced materials and other advances in ground combat uniform design may be shared between the military services and are not precluded from being adapted for use by any military service due to service-unique proprietary arrangements."
By proprietary, Congress was making a not-too-subtle reference to the Marine Corps' aggressive efforts to prevent other services from mimicking its pattern.
Former Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Carlton Kent, who retired last year, makes no apology for being protective.
MARPAT is "proprietary," he said in a 2010 interview. "Those designs are reserved for Marines."
But government officials say the Corps cannot legally restrict other services or agencies from using its camouflage pattern.
And while the Marine Corps was initially strongly territorial over its pattern, that position has softened over time. After the Army and Navy publicly floated the idea of using MARPAT last year, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett said that was not a problem and tried to downplay the notion that the Corps needs distinctive uniforms.
"I encourage all services to research our MARPAT during their tests to field a new combat uniform," Barrett said last year. "We have the best camouflage pattern in the world, and I believe that it helps save the lives of our Marines and sailors. Our uniforms are distinctive, but what distinguishes [Marines] is our ethos, combat mindset and martial spirit."
The GAO report declined to examine the Navy's blue-toned camouflage-patterned uniforms, formally known as the Navy Working Uniform Type I, which rolled out in 2009. That's because the uniform does not fall into the category of "ground combat" camouflage, the GAO said.
But the so-called blueberries — and their $224 million development and fielding cost — raise questions about development procedures. The uniform remains a hot topic inside the Navy, with behind-the-scenes talk about eliminating it.
Some Navy officials see no reason for the non-combat-worthy blue uniforms when sailors could instead wear the Navy's combat desert pattern Type II or combat woodland pattern Type III uniforms introduced in 2010.
Today, those uniforms are largely limited to Navy special warfare troops and other expeditionary units. But extending their use is now the reality, as the Corps appears to have dropped its opposition to sailors wearing the Type II desert pattern, which is nearly identical to the Marines' MARPAT. Commanders can now request the Type IIs for their units heading to the desert.
While jokes abound about "aquaflage" being best suited to camouflaging a sailor who falls overboard, some sailors complain the uniform is uncomfortable in hot climates, ill-fitting and unable to stand up to the Navy's shipboard industrial washing machines.
So now proposals are being discussed to ditch the Type I aquaflage altogether, according to a senior official and member of the Navy Uniform Board who asked not to be named. The official said eliminating the blue cammies would save the Navy millions.
Army's $3.2 million mistake
The GAO report saved its most scathing criticism for the Army, which spent two years and about $3.2 million developing its Army Combat Uniform, or ACU.
When it was fielded in 2005, the uniform was initially well received, but it proved far more effective in Iraq, where desert and urban fighting were the norm, than in the hills and mountains of Afghanistan. The Army initially resisted calls for a change. But in 2009, under pressure from Congress, the service began looking for an alternative and settled on a commercial pattern known as MultiCam.
Those tests cost at least $3.4 million, the GAO said. Now the Army is back at the drawing board, producing a whole new family of camouflage patterns: one for desert, one for woodland and one that's "transitional." The final recommendations will come this year, an official said.
The original "universal camouflage pattern" now worn throughout the garrison Army is not in the running.
The ACU's colors were wrong, Army officials say. Its green and brown tones were difficult to see from a short distance, and the entire palette is more like a faded gray than desert or woodland colors.
The GAO said the Army's process for developing the ACU was flawed from the start and noted that top officials failed to include "testing results or an evaluation of performance" with their final briefing to the service's top brass.
Air Force's ‘tiger stripes'
The Air Force began working on a new uniform in 2002, but that process was also flawed and, like the Army's, failed to incorporate a "knowledge-based approach," the GAO said. The Air Force team working on the uniform selected the so-called "tiger-stripe" pattern without testing other camouflage patterns.
The Air Force also opted to use a single fabric weight for all gear, regardless of hot and cold climates — ignoring a specific recommendation from the Air Force's Air Warfare Command Center suggesting the uniforms were too hot.
Indeed, heat buildup was ultimately cited as a major problem with the new clothing.
Then in 2010, Air Forces Central Command ordered deployed airmen to wear the Army's MultiCam after concluding the distinct Air Force pattern "contrasted with the Army's camouflage, increasing the risk of personnel standing out to enemy forces … in a joint operating environment," the GAO said.
This year, the Air Force began fielding a lighter-weight version of the tiger stripes in direct response to complaints from airmen that the uniform was too hot.
The GAO report drew attention from government watchdogs who say it's another example of costly and duplicative bureaucracy.
"With budget cuts looming, the Pentagon can't afford to waste money like this," said Ben Freeman, a defense expert with the Project on Government Oversight.
"Interservice squabbles over uniform ownership only increase costs and do nothing to help win battles," he said.
Even among troops, the changing uniform requirements are a source of frustration for those who fail to understand why senior leaders can't pick a variant and stick with it. Their cynical view can be summed up in the sentiments of an Army captain who asked not to be named.
"Why doesn't somebody get up and say, ‘Hey, why are our boys … having to pay to get this? The money is coming out of their pockets,' " he said. "The general sentiment is that some retired general got into some company and he convinced a sitting general to spend a lot of money on uniforms."
An enlisted sailor who also asked to remain anonymous echoed the sentiment.
"It's just somebody in the officers club who wants to change something to make his mark on the Navy and say, ‘Hey, see that uniform? That was my idea,' " he said. "It's ridiculous."
Staff writers Lance Bacon and email@example.com?subject=Question from AirForceTimes.com reader">Mark D. Faram contributed to this story.