Monday, April 18, 2011

Its called a "Uniform" for a reason...

Due to recent budget hand-wringing and clear indications that serious cuts are coming for the Department of Defense, I am starting a list of things we can do to save some scratch.  While these certainly aren't intended to solve our budget issues, they are things that can be accomplished quickly and cheaply.  This is the first.

Return all Services to a single utility uniform:

By my count we are currently fielding 13 variations of different general purpose utility uniforms (for the purpose of this post I'm ignoring flight suits, coveralls, maternity, etc).  The US Army is currently fielding the ACU in both UCP (Universal Camouflage Pattern) and a MultiCam variant [1,2].  They are also rolling out a new ACU version specifically cut to better fit female soldiers [3].  The Marines (who I should point out, started the uniform arms race back in 2001) support two variations of their MARPAT uniforms (woodland and desert) [4,5].  They have also tested variants for female Marines (but have not fielded them).  The Air Force rolled out the Airman Battle Uniform (ABU) [6] but still authorizes the BDU for homestation wear (until 1 Nov 2011) [7].  They have also fielded a female version of the ABU [8].  Additionally, the USAF has also begun fielding the ACU MultiCam variant for Afghanistan deployments (which is the only instance of reutilization in this list, so that actually doesn't count against them).  This brings us to the US Navy, which deserves special ridicule for the Navy Working Uniform (NWU) [9] that they are currently fielding as their primary uniform and the fact that they are still supporting both the BDU [10] and DCU [11] for "tactical environments."  They have also recently started fielding the 'Type I' and 'Type II' variations [12,13] to replace the BDU and DCU.  Unfortunately, these uniforms looks so much like the Marine Corps Combat Utility Uniform (MCCUU) that General Conway explicitly complained about the confusion that would be caused.

While I think that most people would agree that our current rainbow coalition of uniforms is ridiculous, there doesn't seem to be agreement on what a tactical uniform is supposed to accomplish.  As I see it there are only two fundamental questions that need to be addressed:

1) Can military personnel safely and adequately be supported by a single pattern (Army approach) or will it require multiple patterns for the variety of operating areas (Marine Corps approach)? 
My belief is that a quality, generic pattern (something akin to MultiCam) could serve as the single style for utility uniforms across the DoD, but this is a legitimate question to be answered.
2) Is it necessary to support different uniform cuts for females?
I'm wholly unqualified to speak on this, but there seems to be consensus among the females that fielding a female uniform cut would yield benefits.

The bottom line is that over the last 10 years the utility uniforms supported by the military have expanded from 2 variations; unisex BDUs and DCUs to the current mess of 13.  Its not just the lack of clarity on the issue that is disturbing, these changes carry with them the requisite expansion in regulations, support and logistics.  If these changes met a compelling need for highly specialized camouflage for specific tactical environments I would fully support it, but that is clearly not the case.  They are an effort by each Service to highlight their own "uniqueness."  This is not a legitimate function for a utility uniform.  Service members should receive the most effective pattern and they should all receive it.  I don't believe that Service identification should be placed above tactical utility or the efficiencies that would come from having a single pattern.

Camouflage does not become less effective as the number of people wearing it increases.  There isn't a limited amount of concealment in the universe. 


  1. The NWU is actually a different beast, and I would contend it doesn't fit into this category. Since it replaces dungarees for junior enlisted folks and working khakis for Chiefs and officers, it's actually consolidating two uniforms into one.

    And why should the different services have the same camouflage uniform? None of their other uniforms match each other, so why should this one? Just because everyone used to have the same cammies?

  2. @Boyd, Fair point regarding the NWU, technically this is not a ground combat uniform (which was the focus of this post), so it may be misleading to include in this way (that would reduce the number from 13 to 12).

    However, with regards to why the Services should have the same camouflage uniform, I would argue (again) that the point should be utility (i.e. concealment) not uniqueness. There is also a logistical and financial costs to maintaining multiple styles of utility uniforms. Since the dress uniforms don't serve the same purpose of concealment (aka no uniform is objectively 'better' than another) I don't have an issue with each service having a unique service uniform.

  3. It seems to me that the Army and Marine Corps have enough people to where it's not unreasonable for them to have their own warfighting uniforms.

    The Navy isn't on the ground enough to justify their own uniform(s), and should just use the Marines' (the Marines are apt not to like that, but...too bad).

    The Air Force folks are just playing soldier when they're on the ground anyway, so it doesn't matter what they wear (typed with tongue planted firmly in cheek as a retired sailor who spent way too many years assigned to Air Force bases).