The Quest for Camo

In the latest installment of the ongoing military camouflage saga, the U.S. Army is said to have abandoned its $10 million investigation into replacing the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP), a design that was so reviled by military operators in Afghanistan that the Army was pressed to authorize – at a cost of over $38.8 million – the use of an alternative.  It is unclear how or why the UCP, which itself cost $5 billion, was ever selected to begin with.  As a 2012 GAO report details, the UCP was not included in the Army’s evaluation of 13 camouflage patterns, nor was it tested “prior to the June 2004 approval of the pattern by the Chief of Staff.”  Furthermore, a 2009 Army study concluded that the UCP “offered less effective concealment than the patterns chosen by the Marine Corps and some foreign military services, such as Syria and China” [emphasis added].   

This most recent decision, which will leave the UCP in place for the foreseeable future, occurs against the broader backdrop of camouflage proliferation across the services.  Since 2002, patterns have skyrocketed from two – woodland and desert – to eleven, several of which have been beset by complications.  Like the UCP, the Air Force’s Airman Battle Uniform was found to be ill-suited to combat in Afghanistan (this time due to unacceptable heat buildup) and quickly swapped out for the Army’s own replacement uniform.  Meanwhile, Navy restrictions on the use of the Type II desert uniform temporarily forced the service to outfit some of its Afghanistan units with woodland camo.  And finally, in a light-hearted review of the Working Uniform Type I – more entertainingly known as “aquaflage” or “blueberries” – Navy Secretary Ray Mabus concluded that the uniform was capable of camouflaging only a man overboard. 

Indeed, there has been no shortage of memorable quips on the matter, ranging from Marine Sgt. Maj. Bryan Battaglia’s observation that the military’s numerous camouflage patterns have made deployed forces appear as a veritable “American Baskin-Robbins” to Commandant Amos’ insistence – in the face of calls to return the services to a common combat uniform – that the Marines would be sticking to their highly-rated MARPAT design (thoughtfully protected from interservice piracy by tiny embedded USMC logos) “like a hobo on a ham sandwich.” (Side note:  In its assessment of camouflage selections across the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps, the GAO wryly noted that only the Marines had employed a “knowledge-based” approach.  So, really, who can blame him?  Certainly not the Army, which briefly considered borrowing elements of the MARPAT before being curtly informed that the Marine design was proprietary.) 

It would be easy to dismiss the camouflage affair as a relatively unremarkable, if farcical, example of business as usual within the Defense Department, but it stands as a microcosm of the deeper and far more insidious problems that pervade the Department.  Everything from redundant layering and inefficient business practices to interservice rivalries and vested interests is on display here.  And if they are present within such a seemingly innocuous corner of DOD, then one can only imagine the challenges that lie ahead.