For most of the 20th century, when US soldiers fought they did it wearing various shades of olive drab. Camouflage uniforms were issued to specialist units and on a limited scale in some theaters. A lot of US Marines in the Pacific theater got early versions, and the ERDL and tiger stripe patterns were used a lot in southeast Asia, but mostly combat uniforms were the familiar olive. By the late 70s that was starting to look a bit old fashioned as the rest of NATO moved to disruptive patterns and in 1981 the new woodland pattern BDUs went on widespread issue. Woodland wasn’t a great pattern – the shapes were too big, and didn’t break up the soldier’s outline enough – but it was OK, and as the emphasis started to shift to desert and arid climates in the 1990s it didn’t matter much anyway. Then came Afghanistan.
The terrain in Afghanistan is extremely varied. Troops can go from desert, to urban terrain, to densely overgrown “green zone” in the space of a single patrol, and that was a challenge for existing camouflage. Desert pattern didn’t work well in the green zones. Woodland didn’t work well in urban or desert environments. Reasonably enough, the Army started looking for a pattern that would work well anywhere. Tests were carried out in 2003 and 2004, comparing a total of 13 different patterns. All of them performed pretty well except for one, Urban Track, which was terrible. The Army then tossed away the trial results, combined the excellent pattern of the USMC’s MARPAT with the useless color palette of Urban Track, made it even worse by removing the contrasting dark colors, and adopted it as Universal Camouflage Pattern. Nobody ever explained why they chose a pattern that hadn’t even been tested, or why a specialized urban pattern had been selected for all-environment use, but the rumor was it had to do with that key element of combat effectiveness, “branding.”
To be fair, UCP is equally effective in most environments – it’s pretty much useless everywhere, with the possible exception of on the moon. Its three colors are all about the same brightness, so at a distance there’s no contrast to break up the shape. The blue-gray and sage green shades are too cold to work well in deserts and the whole thing is too pale to work in a green environment. Special forces deploying to Afghanistan took one look at it and chose one of the rejected patterns, Crye MultiCam, instead. MultiCam is a much more conventional-looking woodland style pattern using seven subdued shaded of tan, green and brown; it’s quickly become very popular and the British have even chosen a modified version to replace their beloved DPM.
“The Army tossed away the trial results, combined the excellent pattern of the USMC’s MARPAT with the useless color palette of Urban Track, made it even worse by removing the contrasting dark colors, and adopted it as Universal Camouflage Pattern.”
It didn’t take long before the Army realized their mistake, and new trials were started. These included field trials in Afghanistan, where selected units were issued with one of the two test patterns as well as standard ACUs. One of the test patterns was UCP with coyote brown added and the gray and sage areas reduced. The other was MultiCam, which predictably won. Since 2010 large numbers of troops deploying to Afghanistan have already been issued MultiCam, under the name “OEF Camouflage Pattern.” Despite having been rejected in favor of UCP, it’s now become the standard for the Afghan mission.
The Army’s next plan is to move on to a new camouflage system, with three patterns available – woodland, desert and “transitional.” Either the transitional pattern or a neutral color like coyote will be used for personal equipment, allowing it to be used effectively with any of the three uniform patterns. The plan is for rigorous tests to be run on each pattern and the winner to be chosen purely on performance.
Hopefully the Army has learned from its experience – it’s estimated the UCP fiasco cost over $5 billion, and replacing it will probably cost at least as much again. It would have been much simpler just to choose MultiCam in the first place.