Oh my God! Another uniform change? But my sage green boots still have tread! Sigh… As of April 1, 2021 (April Fools!!! No, not really), the Operational Camouflage Pattern (OCP) became the standard uniform for the USAF. The OCP replaces the Airman Battle Uniform (ABU) that the AF “borrowed” from the Army’s Combat Uniform (ACU), which THEY “borrowed” from —

Sorry, gotta snap out of that rabbit hole…

Uniform History

When I raised my right hand and swore an oath, all the way back in the prehistoric late ’90s, the Air Force wore the Battle Dress Uniform (BDU). Just like the Army and the Marines… not the Navy, though. The Navy was still in those Village People dungaree combos.

In 2011, the AF officially dropped the BDU to usher in the age of the tiger stripe. The digital tiger stripe was a throwback to special operator tiger-stripe patterns from the Vietnam War. The first patterns tested weren’t great, but they got better.

Navy SEALs in Vietnam wearing tiger-stripe uniforms
U.S. Navy SEALs wore locally produced tiger-stripe uniforms in Vietnam – and yes, blue jeans were also commonly worn by the frogmen. (U.S. Navy)

The tiger stripe pattern was never an official uniform but was used extensively in Vietnam both by operators and by anyone else who could get their hands on it. It looked cool, though, so in the mid-2000s, the Air Force went for it.

But Why?

In 2001-02, the U.S. Marine Corps developed and rolled out the MarPat camo pattern and uniform. The Marines wanted something highly functional and easy to wear and maintain. Further, the camo pattern helped them “blend in” when needed. 

The Uniform of the Day for MCB Hawaii is currently the Woodland Marine Pattern (MARPAT) Marine Corps Combat Utility Uniform (MCCUU) with the sleeves rolled up. (Photo by Cpl. Adam Korolev/USMC)

Oddly enough, the Marines went with the most distinct pattern around. Apparently, the Corps wants its Marines to be instantly recognizable, but able to go chameleon when needed. Hooah!

The Army and Air Force jumped on that bandwagon, and within five years, both branches had their own distinctive uniforms, just like the Marines. That reminds me of a saying: “You are your own unique individual. Just like everybody else.”

The ABU Uniform

ABU Uniform vs the OCP Uniform
The U.S. Air Force Airman Battle Uniform. (Photo by Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith/U.S. Air National Guard)

The Airman Battle Uniform, to most of the Airmen I knew, was just another set of BDUs with different colors. Originally, the ABU only came in one weight, which was “chainmail.” At least compared to the BDU. The uniform was heavy, did not fit right, and had this weird map pocket — that no one used — for maps. I used it for smokes, myself. So did a lot of other guys.

Once the wear testing was done and a little of the feedback filtered its way up, a lighter uniform came about. With the exception of having to buy new boots, this was met with grudging acceptance. Man, no creases and unpolished boots?!? Sign me up! Hell, maybe we can do away with dress and appearance altogether! I do like my beard…

U.S. Air Force maintainers from Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, work 24/7 servicing and inspecting the B-1B Lancer. (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Arthur Mondale Wright/U.S. Air Force)

Probably the biggest gripes in the maintenance community were the lack of durability, the fact that grease stains showed up SO WELL, and that once those boots got dirty, they would always be dirty. Maintainers always get dirty.

Did I mention the colors? When these uniforms rolled out, troops looked like a subdued rainbow with all the color variations. You could grab a blouse and pants from the same rack and they would be of different colors. No longer could the flight chief light up a guy whose uniform didn’t match; nobody’s did!

The OCP Uniform

In October 2011, right before the ABU became the mandated uniform for Air Force personnel, yet another uniform became available. After the immensely slow rollout of the ABU, in 2010 the Air Force began deploying airmen with the Operation Enduring Freedom Army Combat Uniform, aka, the OCP uniform. 

ABU Uniform vs the OCP Uniform
From the fall of 2018, the Operational Camouflage Pattern (OCP) uniform became the standard-issue uniform of the U.S. Air Force. It featured Air Force-specific “Spice Brown” name tapes. (Photo illustration by Tech. Sgt. Daniel Ter Haar/U.S. Air National Guard)

In 2012, the last time I deployed, was right in the cusp of the ABU/ACU/OCP transition. Al Udeid crawled with every uniform type imaginable. As more people rotated in and out, though, the OCP emerged as the dominant pattern. 

Airmen and soldiers alike wore the same uniform. Distinctive insignia and patches differentiated them. The OCP was lighter than the ABU or ACU, fit better, and had more accessible pockets, in battle-rattle or out. I spoke with an Army Specialist who told me the OCP took some getting used to, but now he prefers it over the ACU. Airmen, fresh from basic or tech training, have never known anything different. To them, this is the uniform, and some pissed-off sergeant with a lot of stripes told them, very loudly, how to wear it.

Camouflage: Congress Steps In

Read Next: Camouflage: Congress Steps In

ABU Uniform vs the OCP Uniform
U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Sharon Collado, 326th Training Squadron military training instructor, helps her basic military training trainees with their uniforms after receiving the first operational camouflage pattern (OCP) uniforms during initial clothing issue, October 2, 2019. (Photo by Sarayuth Pinthong/U.S. Air Force)

Current airmen lament the swap to yet another uniform, but there is hope among the ranks. When the ABU came online, unit patches and hats were discontinued. My units all had cool patches, and no one can tell what an occupational badge is from farther than 12 inches away. The OCP allows for squadron and HQ patches to be worn. Once heritage committees design unit patches in “spice-brown”, whatever color that is, unit pride can be revivified.

Airmen do not really mind the uniform they are made to wear (except dress blues, nobody likes those). As long as it is comfortable, lightweight, long-lasting, easy to clean, cheap, looks cool, mixes and matches with civvies, holds four cans of Rip-It, hides grease and tobacco stains, etc.

In other words, issue the uniform and they will wear it. And they will complain the whole time.