U.S. military has 10 kinds of camouflage uniforms

Last modified: 5/9/2013 10:55:04 PM
In 2002, the U.S. military had just two kinds of camouflage uniform. 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 blessedly simple aspect of the U.S. government purchasing system has emerged as a complicated and expensive case study in federal duplication.

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.

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

At the Pentagon, the odd saga 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 deep-rooted in the Washington soul. Good intentions. Short patience. And a lust for new turf.

When a bureaucrat or congressman sees someone else doing a job badly, those qualities stir an itch to start doing the job oneself.

“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. He hopes that the country will now, finally, decide it can’t afford this. “The fiscal situation . . . will begin to force that kind of decision to be made.”

At the Pentagon, a GAO study commissioned by the Senate Armed Services committee found that the services have spent more than $12 million on their separate efforts at designing new camouflage patterns. The cost of buying, stocking and shipping 10 different 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.

This, in brief, is how two kinds of camouflage became 10: The Marines started it.

The Corps spent two years and $319,000 testing different patterns to replace the old green and brown ones. In the end, the Corps settled on a digital design, which used a riot of small pixels to help soldiers blend in. There was a desert version, and a woodland version – camouflage patterns No. 3 and 4.

The Corps 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 general James Jones, who initiated the uniform’s design and later became Obama’s national security adviser.

After that, the Army set out to duplicate what the Marines had already 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.

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 an additional $2.9 million to design a camouflage specific to that country. The GAO found that the Army then spent an additional $30 million-plus to actually outfit troops with the new design, called “Operation Enduring Freedom Camouflage.”

No. 6. The Army is already working to replace that replacement, with a new camouflage-design effort that has cost at least $4.2 million so far. It has given up on “universal.”

Camouflage 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. But the Air Force 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 Vietnam. 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 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 next three patterns arrived in 2011, from another unlikely source – the U.S. Navy.

The Navy thought to use the Marines design but discovered the unit’s logo had been imprinted on the uniforms. So, the Navy spent more than $435,000 on three new designs. One was a blue-and-gray pattern, to be worn aboard ships. That was camouflage No. 8.

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

“You fall in the damn water and you’re wearing water-colored camouflage. What the hell is that?” asked one active-duty petty officer. He asked that his name be withheld, since 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 a tan pattern that resembled the Marines’s desert pattern. Except theirs had a small U.S.S. Constitution embedded in the pattern.

No. 9. To the Marines, it was still too close a copy. After the Marines objected, the Navy decreed that its new desert uniform would only be given 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 camouflage No. 10. It was a “woodland” pattern.

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. servicemembers wearing green in the desert.

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