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Lawmakers make new push for a single combat uniform

Uncle Sam wants you ... to look like a soldier, sailor & airman

Jun. 10, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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An airman and a Marine take part in a 2010 role-playing exercise at the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif. A government report slammed the military's fragmented and expensive uniform development process, saying several uniforms, such as the Air Force's, are ineffective. (Cpl. Andrew S. Avitt / Marine Corps)
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An airman and a Marine take part in a 2010 role-playing exercise at the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif. A government report slammed the military's fragmented and expensive uniform development process, saying several uniforms, such as the Air Force's, are ineffective. (GovMedia)

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The Marine Corps is deeply protective of its uniforms, and none of the services wants a single camouflage pattern that would rob them of their individuality, but Congress appears poised to force it upon them.

House lawmakers have latched onto criticism of the military’s myriad combat uniforms — there are 10 versions now and more under development, with total development and fielding costs running into billions of dollars — as a symbol of waste and inefficiency in the Defense Department.

And they’re pushing ahead with a proposed law that would require the services to share a common combat uniform no later than October 2018. The House Armed Services Committee narrowly passed the measure June 5.

“Doggone it, we can save some money if we stop playing in the sand,” said Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Ill., a Vietnam veteran and retired Air National Guard major general who is spearheading the latest effort. “This is something we can stop, and should.”

The bill would permit variants for geography, such as desert or woodland patterns. Exceptions also would be allowed for headwear, footwear and special operations units.

But the end result would be most troops wearing the same combat uniform when deployed to the same location or environment.

Capitol Hill’s effort to require a common combat uniform still has a long way to go before it becomes law. Already, lawmakers anticipate pushback from the military — an early indication of which came from Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett, who told Marine Corps Times that Marines’ distinctive combat uniforms are a part of their identity.

“There are tactical and psychological advantages unique to our [combat uniform] in terms of morale and culture,” Barrett said in a written statement. “Like our dress blues, the [combat uniform] is a visible indicator of our identity as United States Marines, globally! It’s part of our Corps’ identity. Where we walk or sail, people are safer — unless you screw with us!”

Moreover, while the full House is likely to go along with its armed services committee’s proposal, Senate approval will be needed. And the outlook there is unclear; the Senate Armed Services Committee has yet to begin drafting its version of the defense bill. But at least one influential senator supports a common combat uniform.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a lawyer in the Air Force Reserve, said the idea makes sense.

“I’m now in favor of having some common standards,” said Graham, who has had brief combat-zone assignments. “As much as I love the Air Force, I’ve grown to understand we have too many designs. I have four different sets at home because I try to make sure I deploy with the uniform everyone else will be wearing. It seems excessive.”

Graham will be in a position to push the issue forward; he will be one of the chief negotiators this year when House and Senate lawmakers meet to reconcile differences between their respective versions of the defense bill.

Prohibiting the services from spending billions of dollars developing and fielding new uniforms is a way to reduce the Pentagon’s nearly $500 billion budget in an era of sequestration, said Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who helped get the amendment attached to this year’s defense bill.

It “cuts down on the waste of ... unnecessary duplication of the camouflage our men and women so proudly wear,” Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran who is in the Illinois National Guard, told the House Armed Services Committee.

“There are a lot of things that could be done with that money, including expanding programs for personnel, families and weapons programs,” she said. “If this were a time when we didn’t have any budget issues, I would not be doing this.”

A decade of churn

A common combat uniform is not an especially new idea. As recently as 2001, the four services shared a camouflage pattern and design. The green version was known as the battle dress uniform, and the brown variant was known as the desert camouflage uniform.

But that began to change when then-commandant Gen. Jim Jones decided the Marine Corps could develop a superior pattern. In 2002, the service adopted its digital-style Marine Pattern camouflage, or MARPAT. In addition to being effective, its wash-and-wear fabric saved Marines money on starch and laundry services.

But efficacy was only part of the impetus for Jones’ initiative. The uniforms also were intended to set Marines apart in a joint-service crowd. In fact, the inclusion of the eagle, globe and anchor — discreetly printed throughout the uniform’s pixilated camouflage — was likely intended to keep other services from poaching it.

The Marines started a fashion trend. Once used to prevent detection and reduce troops’ vulnerability, camouflage had became a way for the services to distinguish themselves, and a cascade of new uniform initiatives by the other services followed. Many were fielded with great fanfare but later deemed failures.

The Army spent $3.2 million to developed an “Army Combat Uniform,” but Army officials said it did not perform well in Afghanistan, so today, soldiers there are wearing a different camouflage pattern specifically designed for that environment. And the Army is planning to unveil yet another new combat uniform soon.

The Air Force spent years and about $3.2 million to design a unique “tiger-stripe” pattern that was fielded in 2007, but the service later decided it was a flawed design and ordered deployed airmen to wear the Army version.

The Navy developed a camouflage pattern for ground combat, but curtailed its use when Marines protested that it looked too much like MARPAT. The Navy also spent years developing the blue-gray camouflage utility known as the Navy working uniform, but tests showed that it was insufficiently fire resistant and its melting nylon fibers could worsen severe burns.

The Army could save $82 million if it partnered with another service in developing and buying a new uniform, according to a report issued last year by the Government Accountability Office.

Yet some defense experts say uniform costs are a drop in the overall military budget bucket, and Congress should be tackling the hard issues that would save much more.

“They are shooting at the wrong target,” said Arnold Punaro, a member of the Defense Business Board, which advises the Pentagon on cost-saving measures and business practices. He added that he thinks lawmakers should focus instead on acquisition reform and health care costs.

A simmering issue

Congress has been inching forward on this issue for years. The 2010 National Defense Authorization Act ordered the GAO to study the costs and performance of combat uniforms, which led to the substantive report unveiled last September. That report singled out the Marine Corps as the only service with a good camouflage pattern, acquired through sound testing and procurement.

But the NDAA also ordered the Pentagon to “establish joint criteria for future ground combat uniforms.” The deadline for developing those joint criteria is coming this month.

Yet defense officials say they have no plans to dictate to the services what kind of camouflage pattern they should use.

A Pentagon panel known as the Joint Clothing and Textiles Governance Board is finalizing the “joint criteria,” which are limited to textile standards such as fire and insect resistance and field life, defense officials said. Those criteria were approved in February, and formal instructions on how to implement them will be provided to the service chiefs this summer, Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright said.

But the board opted not to include a specific camouflage pattern among the joint standards, in part because the individual services have historically had control over designing their uniforms to fit their services’ missions, according to a defense official familiar with the process.

However, panel members are aware of the proposed law and may have to consider adding specific camouflage patterns before the joint criteria are formally issued this year, the official said.

Despite growing interest on Capitol Hill in the idea of a common combat uniform, some lawmakers are reluctant to get involved in an area that traditionally has been left to the individual services to manage.

Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who initially supported the GAO review of combat uniforms, said he’s not keen to have Congress micromanaging that process.

Asked if he would support the proposed House legislation, Burr said, “No, no. Hopefully, that is something DoD can figure out on its own.”

'Proprietary' Marines

Up to now, the Marine Corps not only has sought to prevent other services from mimicking its pattern but has aggressively opposed congressional incursions into its “appearance and standards” territory.

Despite Congress’ criticism of service-unique patterns, former Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Carlton Kent said in a 2010 interview with Marine Corps Times that MARPAT is “proprietary” and reserved for Marines.

His successor, Barrett, has taken a softer tone, however.

“I encourage all services to research our MARPAT during their tests to field a new combat uniform,” he said in 2011. “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.”

Despite the shift in tone, a congressional effort to foist a common uniform on the services may not sit well with rank-and-file Marines — who have resisted even internal changes to their coveted uniform.

When Commandant Gen. Jim Amos announced in October 2011 that Marines would no longer be permitted to roll their sleeves during summer months, there was an outpouring of protest. Many saw rolled sleeves as yet another way to immediately distinguish Marines from soldiers.

Amos still receives questions about rolling sleeves while touring the fleet, but said he has no intention of reversing the decision.

After two long wars, the first part of the drawdown and a string of scandals, it’s not a particularly auspicious moment to mess with the uniform — a symbol of Marine pride. Online, reaction to news of the proposed legislation was almost universal condemnation.

“As a Marine, the only other service members I want to see in Marine Corps digi’s are Navy corpsmen,” said Matthew Smith.

“This [news] just crapped on what little day I had left,” said Alex Acosta.

In an interview late last year, the man who started it all, now-retired Gen. Jones, said he disagrees with the notion that the services should have a common uniform, even if it saves money.

“This is part of a larger discussion of service integrity and service morale,” he said.

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