Out of sight
Expense and stupidity too big to camouflage
“I WEAR camo so I can feel safe,” says Sean, a member of the navy reserve.
He cannot quite fathom why his combat uniform is different from that of other American servicemen in the field,
depending on whether they are members of the army, the air force or the marines. And soon it may be different no longer;
for after years of ludicrously expensive design rivalry,
the defence appropriation for 2014 prohibits the services from 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 before 2002, when nearly every serviceman had a choice between a greenish camouflage uniform or a “coffee stain” desert pattern.
But over the past 12 years the services have each created their own 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,
which also 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, for instance, spent several years and more than $3m designing a new “tiger-stripe” uniform that proved unsuitable for combat—the camouflage was ineffective,
the trousers were uncomfortable and the fabric was too heavy, leading to “heat build-up”.
The navy spent a lot less money developing the “aquaflage” uniform;
but that is a silly blue ensemble that works best 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 its own “universal” camouflage.
This pattern was designed to work anywhere, but proved useless nearly everywhere.
Soon after it was introduced in 2005, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan began complaining that the pattern turned them into targets.
Troops from Syria and China were clearly better equipped.
Reports suggest that a high-ranking military official had chosen the pattern without consulting the data from years of studies.
The army is said to have spent at least $5 billion on uniforms and equipment printed in this camouflage, which is still in use.
In an emergency measure, the army kitted out soldiers in Afghanistan in a new pattern starting in 2010,
spending more than $38.8m on replacement gear in fiscal 2010 and 2011.
Part of the problem, explains Timothy O'Neill, a retired lieutenant-colonel and camouflage expert,
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 of developing these uniforms at more than $12m,
according to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2012.
This does not include the extra costs—which the GAO estimates in the tens of millions of dollars—
of managing the stock and supply of so many different combat uniforms.
Nor does it include the high costs of replacing ineffective camouflage in the field.
The armed forces spent around $300m on camouflage uniforms in 2011 alone.
Stunned by these price tags, Congress in 2010 directed the Department of Defence to raise standards and cut costs.
But little has been done. Many soldiers see the wisdom of returning to a shared uniform.
But not the marines, who will stick to their pattern “like a hobo on a ham sandwich”,
in the words of General James Amos, commandant of the marine corps.
It is unclear what all this means for the army, which has been spending millions of dollars testing different patterns for a new camouflage since 2010.
It recently started tests for possible new uniforms, which will continue until the end of September.
Replacing the service's flawed camouflage and equipment could cost another $4 billion over five years, according to the GAO.
“Research and development in government is always a long and painstaking process,“ says Mr O'Neill.
“But if it were easy, then the government would waste even more money, and faster.”