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Congress Orders Pentagon to Adopt Common Camouflage Pattern (Again)

The defense authorization law requires the Defense Department to go back to a single camouflage pattern.

Military Times (“Congress wants common camouflage uniform“):

The compromise defense authorization bill for 2014 includes a provision that directs the Defense Department to “to adopt and field a common combat and camouflage utility uniform, or family of uniforms, for specific combat environments, to be used by all members of the armed forces.”

And if that becomes law, as appears likely, it would change the future image of the joint force.

For years, lawmakers have been annoyed by the military services’ increasingly elaborate wardrobe of camouflage variants designed for the same forward-deployed environments. Over the past decade, the four services have developed at least seven new combat utility uniforms, each with its own unique design.

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 uniforms. But the Pentagon was slow to respond and ultimately opted to check the box with “standards” that addressed textile quality rather than pattern and clothing design, which many experts said was the lawmakers’ intent.

The new law would mark a return to Cold War-era fashion, when for years all troops wore the same uniform when deployed to the same place. The so-called Battle Dress Uniform had only “woodland” and “desert” variants.

That began to change when the Marine Corps fielded its digital-style MARPAT camouflage pattern in 2002, in turn prompting each service to develop its own new pattern — some of which have come in for criticism in the ranks, such as the Air Force’s “tiger stripes” and the Navy’s “aquaflage.”

In several instances, those efforts were botched, scrapped and replaced with more new designs, costing millions of dollars in design fees and replacement costs, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Inside the ranks, the issue is controversial. While distinct uniforms may be good for morale and cultivate a sense of pride among the individual services, others say the array of stripes and pixelated patterns is an unnecessary expense and makes no sense, since the underlying goal is to make troops less visible in a field environment, regardless of their service branch.

This year, the Joint Staff’s top enlisted adviser, Marine Sgt. Maj. Bryan Battaglia, said the mix of uniforms makes the U.S. military look like a “Baskin-Robbins” and signaled his support for a common uniform.

But Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos recently said preserving the Corps’ MARPAT pattern is a top priority and declared that his service will stick to it “like a hobo to a ham sandwich.”

The report was published Thursday; the law was passed Friday, shifting the subjunctive to the indicative. Few things spark more consternation in military circles than changes to the uniform—witness the furor over Eric Shinseki’s making the black beret the official Army headgear or the recent flap over the rumored shift to the Dan Daly hat for Marines—but Congress is likely to prevail here. It’s expensive and silly for American forces deployed to the same tactical environment to wear different camouflage.

The Washington Post recently documented the sheer number of patterns out there and the associated costs:

us-military-camouflage-patterns

The Marine Corps, my employer since August, rightly prides itself on its “uniqueness.” But Marines managed to hold on to their distinct ethos during the two decades they wore the same cammies as not only their sister services but most of our NATO allies as well. It’ll survive going  back to a common look.

Indeed, given that MARPAT was the first US variant on the computer-pixilated camouflage pattern (our Canadian brethren were a few months ahead) and that none of the other services have any affection at all for theirs, the obvious way to make both Amos and Battaglia happy is to put everybody in MARPATs.

While we’re at it, I’d propose the radical suggestion that, in addition to adopting a common camouflage pattern for tactical operations, the services should also go back to a cheaper, non-camouflaged, utility uniform for fatigue and garrison duty. We went from dirt cheap, wash-and-wear olive drab fatigues to massively expensive camouflage unies for daily wear. Our troops don’t need to be camouflaged at the motor pool or sitting behind a desk at Fort Polk.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. In general, I agree the kerfuffle here is stupid, but there was one bit of thought that went into the NWU. As the blue/white/black/gray pixelization is that of shipboard paint colors, other dirty things like grease et al. the uniforms are more durable because they hide those stains.

    Even if they did accept, as you suggest, MARPAT across the board, it will still have to be changed as the EGA is embedded in the pixelization ;)

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  2. James Joyner says:

    @Allan Bourdius:

    As the blue/white/black/gray pixelization is that of shipboard paint colors, other dirty things like grease et al. the uniforms are more durable because they hide those stains.

    Right. But it was a move in the wrong direction: Why have a camouflage uniform aboardship at all? Go back to dungarees or coveralls.

    Even if they did accept, as you suggest, MARPAT across the board, it will still have to be changed as the EGA is embedded in the pixelization ;)

    True, although that’s essentially mythological. Before a policy change that required National Capitol Region Marines to wear Bravos or Charlies to work everyday, I was working with Marines dressed in desert MARPAT. I never once noticed the EGA; it’s essentially invisible to the naked eye.

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  3. Just Me says:

    My guess is the people making decisions about creating so many uniform styles aren’t the enlisted people who have to pay for them. Uniforms can become expensive-especially for those who work daily in a messier environment (somebody on a desk is going to stay a lot cleaner than somebody who maintains ships, cars tanks etc). I think cheap and sturdy is better than having a unique pattern.

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  4. DC Loser says:

    I loved the old olive drab utilities, because they were flexible and comfortable. The BDUs by comparison were cumbersome and uncomfortable.

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  5. sam says:

    @James Joyner:

    “Why have a camouflage uniform aboardship at all?”

    I smile when I see that? I mean, what’s that swabbie camo for? Hiding in the water?

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  6. James Joyner says:

    @Just Me: @DC Loser: Exactly. I’m all for high tech camouflage uniforms when you’re hiding from somebody trying to kill you. That’s worth $100 a pop. But $20 OD permapress makes a hell of a lot more sense for fatigue duty.

    @sam: There are times when swabbies need camies. But it’s an odd affection on board a vessel at sea. And, to me limited knowledge, they weren’t wearing them until the Navy went to the blueberries a while back.

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  7. DC Loser says:

    The Navy had serious camouflage envy and the swabbies were the butt of endless jokes about their “Man Overboard” camo when they came out.

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  8. sam says:

    “their “Man Overboard” camo when they came out.”

    Ah, that’s beautiful. “Man Overboard” camo.

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  9. sam says:

    “I loved the old olive drab utilities, because they were flexible and comfortable.”

    Yeah, when I was in Corps, that was it. The helmet covers were camo. Order of the day: Green side (or brown side) out.

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  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The Marine Corps, my employer since August, rightly prides itself on its “uniqueness.” But Marines managed to hold on to their distinct ethos during the two decades they wore the same cammies

    Heh. Marines manage to hold on to their uniqueness for decades after they leave the service. Once a Marine, always a Marine.

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  11. beth says:

    @Just Me: Wow, please excuse my ignorance since I have no military experience but we make our soldiers pay for their own uniforms? That’s really disgraceful – have we always done that? (I thought it was bad enough that my kid had to pay for her uniform shirt at the grocery store.)

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  12. James Joyner says:

    @Just Me: @beth: Officers have always had to pay for their uniforms. They’re issued a paltry one-time payment upon entering active service (it was $200 back in 1988 when I got it) and have to maintain their kit forever. Enlisted personnel get a one-time issue of most of their clothing bag and periodic, smallish payments for upkeep. It’s generally not enough, especially if they have a dirty or destructive job.

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  13. matt bernius says:

    @James Joyner:

    Why have a camouflage uniform aboardship at all?

    Or in an office? True story on this: My friend, who worked in Navy Communications, was stationed in Bahrain during Gulf War II. As the Navy was trying to keep their visual presence to a minimum, he and his fellow office mates were expressly forbidden to wear their camies outside of the office.

    So each day, he would go to the office in his civies and, once their, change into his camies while on duty doing office/coms work, and then change back before he left the office.

    Pretty much everyone there felt that their uniforms should feature paper clip, computer, and printer patterns if they were going to do anyone any lick of good.

    Here’s to James suggestion of going back to the utility uniform for people who don’t need camies.

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  14. beth says:

    @James Joyner: Thanks for the info. I never cease to be amazed at how much we spend on defense yet we still can’t manage to give soldiers basic items they need. I’m not sure why someone volunteering to defend their country has to spend a single penny on anything they need to do that.

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  15. walt moffett says:

    @beth:

    The troops do get various clothing allowances according to the DoD however there’s always a need for extras and satisfy the whims senior NCOs.

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  16. Todd says:

    @James Joyner:

    Enlisted personnel get a one-time issue of most of their clothing bag and periodic, smallish payments for upkeep. It’s generally not enough,

    I’m going to push back on this one a little bit. The annual enlisted clothing allowance for each of the services is between $300-$600 (link). Over the course of my career, I found this was more than adequate to replace the uniforms I wore on a daily basis … especially since every time I deployed I got issued a new set of uniforms (with whatever pattern was required for the theater) that I didn’t have to pay for. Even now after just retiring, I’ve got a closet full of boots, jackets, and various uniforms that I never had to pay for … out of my clothing allowance, or regular pay.

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  17. Rafer Janders says:

    Our troops don’t need to be camouflaged at the motor pool or sitting behind a desk at Fort Polk.

    Nor do they need to be camouflaged while walking through Manhattan during Fleet Week or while traveling through the nation’s airports. Servicemen and women are walking around as if the US is a battlefield.

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  18. James Joyner says:

    @Todd: That’s good to know. Back in the day, troops complained all the time. Part of the problem, I think, was that the old woodland BDUs would fade with repeated washing and sergeants major demanded that soldiers be in pristine unis, especially for dog-and-pony stuff.

    @Rafer Janders: The Navy and Marines tend to go too far in the other direction, forcing people to wear civvies to and from work and change once the get there. They’re allowed to drive to and from and get gas but can’t even pick up their kids or make a 7-11 run in their cammies.

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  19. Todd says:

    @James Joyner:

    About the only time recently that I saw Air Force members really spending their clothing allowance was in 2008 when the COS Gen Schwartz ordered that we had to wear our Blues every Monday (since 2001 most people had worn BDUs or flight suits even to office jobs). The AAFES clothing store was a mad house for a couple of weeks. :-)

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  20. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    The Navy and Marines tend to go too far in the other direction, forcing people to wear civvies to and from work and change once the get there. They’re allowed to drive to and from and get gas but can’t even pick up their kids or make a 7-11 run in their cammies.

    I’d prefer they just go back to requiring service uniform be worn, as was the case during WWII and for most of the decades thereafter. Depending on the climate, season and circumstances and rank, a basic shirt, tie (or no tie), tunic (or no tunic inside or in warmer weather), trousers and black shoes should do for most situations. It looks smart, respectable, and is the equivalent to a business suit or office casual for the civilian population, and wouldn’t look out of place when picking up the kids or at a restaurant.

    There’s no cause to be walking around civilian areas in battle camo and combat boots.

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  21. FMF Doc says:

    The Navy Working Uniform (Blueberries) is useful for hiding behind filing cabinets and other pogie traps.

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  22. Ron Beasley says:

    @James Joyner: I was in the Army from 68 to 71. I got the initial issue but nothing after that. I remember when we got promotions the first months pay increase was used to upgrade uniforms. I did get an allowance when it became necessary for me to wear civilian clothes most of the time.

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  23. dazedandconfused says:

    James,

    http://i41.tinypic.com/2pzig5h.jpg

    Hiding from a Sr. Chief is going to be a lot more difficult.

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