Out of sight
Expense and stupidity too big to camouflage
“I WEAR camo so I can feel safe,” says Sean, amember of the navy reserve. He cannot quite fathom why his combat uniform is differentfrom that of other American servicemen in the field, depending on whether they are members ofthe army, the air force or the marines. And soon it may be different no longer; for after years ofludicrously expensive design rivalry, the defence appropriation for 2014 prohibits the servicesfrom designing new uniforms, unless they will be used by all members of the armed forces.
Remarkably, the Department of Defence has no single department dedicated to researching,developing and procuring the best uniforms for all troops. This caused no problems before2002, when nearly every serviceman had a choice between a greenish camouflage uniform ora “coffee stain” desert pattern. But over the past 12 years the services have each created theirown style of camouflage. The effect has been both costly, and occasionally embarrassing.
The marines led the way in 2002 with a versatile and effective new combat uniform, whichalso served to boost corps morale because the marine insignia was embedded in the design.This inspired a cascade of one-upsmanship among the other services. The air force, forinstance, spent several years and more than $3m designing a new “tiger-stripe” uniform thatproved unsuitable for combat—the camouflage was ineffective, the trousers wereuncomfortable and the fabric was too heavy, leading to “heat build-up”. The navy spent a lotless money developing the “aquaflage” uniform; but that is a silly blue ensemble that worksbest where sailors may least wish to blend, in the water.
The worst offender has been the army. The service spent years and about $3.2m developing itsown “universal” camouflage. This pattern was designed to work anywhere, but proveduseless nearly everywhere. Soon after it was introduced in 2005, soldiers in Iraq andAfghanistan began complaining that the pattern turned them into targets. Troops from Syriaand China were clearly better equipped. Reports suggest that a high-ranking military officialhad chosen the pattern without consulting the data from years of studies. The army is said tohave spent at least $5 billion on uniforms and equipment printed in this camouflage, which isstill in use. In an emergency measure, the army kitted out soldiers in Afghanistan in a newpattern starting in 2010, spending more than $38.8m on replacement gear in fiscal 2010and 2011.
Part of the problem, explains Timothy O'Neill, a retired lieutenant-colonel and camouflageexpert, is that officers can be a bit too preoccupied with a uniform's “CDI [chicks dig it] factor”.This vanity, together with bungled trials, missteps and a lack of co-operation, put the cost ofdeveloping these uniforms at more than $12m, according to a report from the GovernmentAccountability Office (GAO) in 2012. This does not include the extra costs—which the GAOestimates in the tens of millions of dollars—of managing the stock and supply of so manydifferent combat uniforms. Nor does it include the high costs of replacing ineffectivecamouflage in the field. The armed forces spent around $300m on camouflage uniforms in2011 alone.
Stunned by these price tags, Congress in 2010 directed the Department of Defence to raisestandards and cut costs. But little has been done. Many soldiers see the wisdom of returning toa shared uniform. But not the marines, who will stick to their pattern “like a hobo on a hamsandwich”, in the words of General James Amos, commandant of the marine corps.
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It is unclear what all this means for the army, which has been spending millions of dollarstesting different patterns for a new camouflage since 2010. It recently started tests forpossible new uniforms, which will continue until the end of September. Replacing the service'sflawed camouflage and equipment could cost another $4 billion over five years, according tothe GAO. “Research and development in government is always a long and painstakingprocess,“ says Mr O'Neill. “But if it were easy, then the government would waste even moremoney, and faster.”