In 2004, the Army decided to scrap the two traditional camouflage uniforms that had long been used by the military—one meant for woodland environments, another for the desert—and claimed to have come up with a universal pattern that could be worn anywhere and blend in with any environment. The $5 billion dollar experiment with the universal pattern is over as the Army is phasing out the uniform after less than a decade of use. But many soldiers and observers are wondering why it took this long and cost this much to replace an item that performed poorly from the start during a period when the money could have been spent on other critical needs, like potentially life saving improvements to military vehicles and body armor.
Less than a decade after the so-called Universal Camouflage Pattern, or UCP, was introduced the Army is back to the drawing board, set to announce a new camouflage pattern and standard uniform to be worn by the more than million members of the active duty and reserve forces.
Evidence of the UCPs inadequacy as a combat uniform is easy to find—just look at pictures of soldiers currently serving in Afghanistan, they’re not wearing the UCP, which was deemed unsuitable for operations there, but a different uniform known as the MultiCam. In 2009, Congress responded to soldiers’ “concerns about the current combat uniform which they indicated provides ineffective camouflage given the environment in Afghanistan,” by passing a bill in the appropriations act requiring that the DOD “take immediate action to provide combat uniforms to personnel deployed to Afghanistan with a camouflage pattern that is suited to the environment of Afghanistan.” The result was the MultiCam. But that uniform, while it is currently worn in Afghanistan, was not a replacement but an interim substitution for the UCP, which is still the Army’s official uniform and the one worn by all soldiers not overseas.
Only 5 years after it was introduced the UCP’s failures had already become glaring enough to compel congressional intervention but despite the moratorium on its use in Afghanistan, it will have taken another 5 years for the Army to field its replacement.
Eventually, after mounting criticism and reports of the uniforms problems, the Army started looking for something better. This time, instead of hoping for a universal, one-size-fits-all design, an Army source who wished to remain unnamed explained that the Army solicited designs from companies for patterns with three variations, one for the desert, another for woodlands and jungles and a third, traditional semi-wooded pattern similar to the one currently used by soldiers in Afghanistan. After several rounds of testing, four patterns with three variations for each, from companies in New York, Virginia and Alaska were submitted to the Army to choose a winner.
Critics say this has been a huge waste of money.
Last year, the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog agency, issued a report taking the Army to task for spending $5 billion on UCP-covered uniforms and field equipment, only to spend an estimated $4 billion replacing them with whatever design it picks next. The Natick Army Soldier Systems Center, which does research and development on things like food, clothing, shelter for the military, conducted two studies on the Universal Camouflage Pattern, once in 2006 and again in 2009, both times finding that the UCP’s performance came up short when compared to other, more popular camouflages, like the Marine Corps desert pattern or the MultiCam. Natick scientists also went on record alleging that the Army had already selected the UCP before testing on it was completed and a full evaluation could be made of its performance compared to other designs.
Representatives from Natick did not return requests for comment on this story and the Government Accountability Office is currently closed due to the government shutdown.
But these reports only reinforce the views expressed by, arguably the most important critics of the Army’s near-decade long quest for the perfect uniform: the soldiers who have to wear them.
During former Army Officer Matt Gallagher’s 15-month deployment to Iraq from 2007-2009, he became well acquainted with the shortfalls of the universal camouflage pattern. In an attempt to blend in with all kinds of environments, the pattern instead wound up sticking out everywhere, its grey, gravel design that only a help to soldiers hoping to blend in with a parking lot. Gallagher said his soldiers would call the uniform pajamas, “both a testament to its comfort and its inability to look right on anyone, no matter their build.” But Gallagher found that the biggest concern with the UCP in Iraq was shoddy velcro.
“On a night raid, if it gets caught on a wire or something, it would make a crunchy sound that might alert insurgents to a soldier’s location,” he said. “That wouldn’t happen with just cloth.”
Army Sergeant Matt Pelak laughs at the mention of the universal camouflage pattern.
“It is one of the things that drives me craziest about the army I have to admit,” he told The Daily Beast. We started rolling it out in ‘05 and everyone was baffled by it.”
While Pelak admits there were some upsides to the design, such as easy-to-access pockets, his complaints outweighed the positives.
“Even currently, in my unit that I’m in now, we wear the normal uniform, the UCP when we’re back on base, but when we go in the field we wear MultiCam,” he said. “We have to carry two uniforms around, one that functions properly and one that’s merely administrative.”
Pelak points out this is hardly the first time the Army has spent billions of dollars on insufficient equipment just to spend more money to replace it, recalling the $20 billion Future Combat Systems program that launched in 2003 to develop a fleet of universally used lightweight armored vehicles and was canceled in 2009, ultimately considered a failure.
“It’s as ridiculous as buying 20 million humvees to go to war in that weren’t armored and then when the war started they had to build all new humvees that were bullet proof,” he said. “It’s that absurd.”
Pelak is not hesitant to admit that, within the ranks, the seemingly unnecessary and wasteful uniform program smells like “a giant conspiracy.”
“People in the military associate certain projects with nepotism, a Good Old Boy network,” Pelak said. “Maybe someone’s brother owns the company that designs the uniforms, or he’s on the Defense Appropriations Committee. No one knows exactly, but there are a lot of theories that all involve some sort of cronyism or backhand deal.”
If it were up to Gallagher, the billions that have been spent on two rounds of designing, testing, issuing new uniforms would instead go to finishing a water treatment plant that was started when he was in Iraq. “The local citizens need that treatment plant far more than we need a new batch of uniforms,” he said.
Neither Gallagher nor Pelak are sure that the ambitious goal of designing a universally functional pattern is realistic, but they both agree that the MultiCam design or the Desert Camouflage Uniform, are the best options they’ve been given so far.
For his part, Pelak would like to see less money spent designing uniforms and more money spent on better quality field equipment, such as more durable boots and lighter backpacks.
“It took 12 years to develop body armor for women,” he said. ‘I thought that was a joke when they announced body armor for women at the end of both wars and that’s absolutely needed. Not a lower budget version of a backpack you can’t even jump out of an airplane with.”
Unfortunately, Gallagher said, “What’s best for soldiers in the field is usually not a primary decision-maker. This is all about defense industry contracts, and just one example of the labyrinth that is that messy, nepotistic world.”
The Army, however, downplays the conspiracy theory. “It’s not like someone pulled the UCP out of their posterior and said let’s use it,” said the unnamed Army source. “They actually did a test and it performed pretty well, but as you can imagine, anything that’s universal doesn’t work that well in all situations.”
The Army source’s claim that the UCP tested well is contradicted by two different studies conducted by Natick showing that the MultiCam outperformed the UCP in various environments and the statements made by Natick scientists accusing the military of selecting the UCP before the full testing on it was complete.
The same source also insists the fuss over wasted money is overblown. “It’s like if you spent $5 billion on Hanes t-shirts and then 5 years later decided you should have bought Under Armor,” he said. “It’s not like you wasted money on those shirts because you got use out of them. We used those uniforms for their lifespan.”
The criticism made by many soldiers and Army watchdogs is that clothing that costs $5 billion dollars and is made for Soldiers going into combat ought to be of higher quality and last longer than a Hanes t-shirt. Despite the Army’s initial claims about fielding a universal uniform of the future, the UCPs nine-year lifespan is less than half the length of its considerably less expensive predecessor, the BDU uniform, which lasted for two decades. What’s more, the UCP wasn’t even worn by soldiers in Afghanistan during the last four years of its duration.
Over the past decade the Army has utilized four different uniforms, with each representing a considerable expenditure and investment of time and resources that could have been applied to other commonly cited needs, like upgrades to field equipment and improvements to tactical vehicles.
Whether the current quest for the consummate camouflage will prove time and money well spent or yet another waste remains to be seen. In the meantime, Pelak said, “We’re stuck with a uniform we can’t wear in the field.”