A few months ago it looked like the ongoing saga of US military camouflage patterns had finally settled down for a while, after the Army formally adopted the Scorpion design as its Operational Camouflage Pattern. Now the can of worms has been reopened, however, as Congress turns up the pressure on the Pentagon to adopt a single pattern across all four services.
The USA is almost unique among major militaries in having different camo patterns for each branch; the British, Germans, French and just about everyone else in NATO uses a single pattern (or set of patterns) across the board. The USA used to be that way too, all of 12 years ago; it only broke down when the USMC introduced their temperate and desert MARPAT designs. There’s no doubt MARPAT is a big step forward over the old Woodland and Desert camo and the ideal solution would have been to roll it out to all the services. Unfortunately politics got involved and the Marines refused to let anyone else use it. Whether “corporate branding” has any place in military decision making is a separate issue, but the upshot was that the Army, followed by the USAF and USN, decided to develop their own patterns too.
What followed would have been funny, if it hadn’t wasted billions of dollars at a time when service budgets are being trimmed. The Army, for reasons that have never been properly explained, rejected Crye’s Scorpion design in favor of the Universal Camouflage Pattern. UCP’s distinguishing feature is that it doesn’t blend in with any environment anywhere, except maybe a cement factory on the moon. Then, when the brass realized it practically glows in the dark, they started replacing it with MultiCam – a commercial version of Scorpion. Now, finally, Scorpion has been officially adopted. The Army could have had it 10 years ago and saved $5 billion, but at least it’s in production now.
Meanwhile the Navy came up with a neat gray and blue pattern that was all about branding; it has no camouflage capability at all. Actually that’s not quite true; it turns out that anyone wearing it becomes invisible as soon as they fall overboard, which is not an advantage. To deal with Navy Working Uniform’s tactical uselessness, two more patterns were developed, based on MARPAT but different enough to only annoy the Marines slightly.
The USAF has developed its own camouflage too, using the useless colors of UCP combined with a Vietnam-style tiger stripe pattern.
There are multiple disadvantages with this variety of patterns. The first and most obvious is the cost of developing nearly a dozen separate patterns instead of two – one temperate and one desert. Then there’s the fratricide issue; allies, and even many US personnel, are most familiar with UCP and MultiCam, and might not recognize some of the others as belonging to US personnel. Finally there’s the fact that branding issues seem to have taken priority over usefulness with several of them, most notably the USN and USAF efforts but with some serious questions around UCP as well.
Now Congress has had enough, and it’s moving to add an amendment to the National Defense Appropriation Act that will bar the services from developing their own patterns in future. The aim is to develop a single pattern for all US military personnel by 2018. Whether that will be a new one or one of the existing patterns is unclear; the most cost-effective solution is to choose one that’s already in service, with Scorpion probably being the best option. There’s going to be a lot of resistance, especially from the USMC, but it’s a long overdue move. The current situation is an embarrassing mess.
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