Don’t panic. Over the last year, rumors have flown about the Air Force’s potential switch to the Operational Camouflage Pattern (OCP), otherwise commonly referred to as the Multicam uniform that the Army has been wearing for more than a few years now. Finally, the Air Force announced that they would be switching to OCP uniforms starting with the new fiscal year on October 1st, with a mandatory wear date of April 1st, 2021.
Uniform switches are a big deal; they can be a monstrous expense for both Airmen and the Air Force itself. A slide deck leaked back in March revealed that a ‘quick’, two-year transition could cost the service as much as $450 million, a cost that includes disposal of stored inventory and doesn’t include the cost of adopting outerwear to the new colors. The Air Force’s official announcement reveals a rollout of similar scope, with only 2 ½ years between first hitting shelves and the mandatory wear date. Added to that, the clothing replacement allowance rarely covers the full cost of refitting your entire uniform wardrobe while still maintaining uniform adjustments and replacements that occur from promotions, awards, and general upkeep.
Thankfully, Airmen have been anticipating this announcement for some time. Rumors of the Air Force’s switch to OCP started well before the slide deck made its way to the Facebook page, Air Force amn/nco/snco (sic). Airmen deploying to Afghanistan have been wearing OCPs since at least 2013, maintaining a different garrison pattern to the one used while deployed. After the Army announced their transition to the pattern, Airmen began questioning whether they’d see the same uniform adoption. Late last year, Senior Enlisted Advisor to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff CSM Troxell shot down the whisperings of a joint camo pattern that would standardize uniform patterns across the services. And just last month, CMSAF Wright was sporting OCP during a trip to Cannon AFB, New Mexico. He assured Airmen that they were “really – like really – close to making a decision”, so few were caught off guard with the news of the eventual fate of the Air Force’s current ABUs.
First off, what’s wrong with ABUs? Much like the discarded ACU pattern that preceded the Army’s adoption of OCP, it uses a digitalized pattern in olive/grey that, quite frankly, blends in better with gravel and furniture than the operational environments that troops find themselves in today. The idea behind digital patterns was that it helped break up silhouettes and that it embodied the idea of a modern, interconnected force. The rhetoric worked well, the pattern … not so much. Multicam is a strictly better pattern than the digitalized versions from the turn of the millennium, and their short-lived lifespan compared to the classic BDUs (that lasted decades) shows that the services are finally figuring this out.
As an Army veteran who served during the ACU to OCP transition, I’m all for the now-confirmed swap. Soldiers welcomed the new uniform despite the mild chaos that ensued. The three-year timetable may feel like an eternity of mixed uniforms in the ranks, but it will help alleviate the cost associated with the swap while allowing servicemembers to plan around ETS and other separations. There is one line under Key Obstacles in the slide deck is worth concern, “Air Force will lose configuration control over uniforms/accessories.” This statement doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in context, and digging further didn’t reveal what they meant. Does this mean that Air Force would have to conform to the uniform accessories that the Army agreed to when they contracted the pattern? It’s not clear, but the maintenance of spice-brown text on nametapes and rank insignia leans toward at least some control over how the uniform is handled.
So, do you need to prepare for the transition? Not immediately, as there are five months until it’s authorized for wear, but you can make life easier for future-you by taking a few precautions. First, don’t get rid of any OCP uniforms lying around. Unlike the Army’s transition that included a new uniform along with the pattern, the Air Force will allow wear of any OCP that’s been in inventory since 2012. If you have any serviceable sets from deployments, now’s the time to get them out.
The last and most important preparation you can make is budgeting your clothing allowance appropriately; use the afforded transition time to absorb the cost of the uniform transition over the entire period rather than waiting until the last year to buy a complete set.
For other information, the Air Force published a list of FAQs available here.
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