After four long years, the Army is soon to announce its next camo pattern. It’ll likely look like a bigger version of MARPAT, but the decision is being closely guarded. Soldier Systems Daily (SSD) is doing an excellent job keeping up on that issue, but before the decision comes out and the screaming starts, I wanted to discuss some camo issues that have been ‘camouflaged’ over the last decade.
Camouflage? ACUs, MARPAT, MultiCam, ABUs, NWU (Aquaflage), AOR 1 & 2… (Sigh) Reams have been written. Enough epithets have been thrown out there for the spit to fill a virtual lake. HOW did we get from two pretty effective patterns to eight? Where are we? Who messed up and where? How can we ensure we don’t do this again? I’ll likely write a dozen pages someday, if for no other reason than a case study for how not to do things. In the meantime, let’s look at this decades-old controversy in a new way.
Just like ACUs, it’ll be sure to make everyone angry.
The camo saga, where to start? I could go back to BDUs, but most start with ACUs. Unfortunately, the current fiasco started with MARPAT, and it’s shocking how the narrative has ignored where the problem started. Why? I don’t think it’s just because MARPAT is effective and ACU’s (or UCP, to be technically accurate) were not. *Universal Camo Pattern is what the pattern is actually called. Technically, ACUs apply to the style/cut of the uniform. ACUs have been fielded in coffee stain, UCP and MultiCam.
Why did we develop MARPAT? Were woodland (BDUs) and desert (DCUs aka “coffee stain”) patterns ineffective? This question hasn’t been asked much, let alone answered, but it’s been asked many a times about UCPs. If BDUs were not as good as they could have been, then there’s justification for improvement. Where’s the evidence? Again, it’s often asked of ACU/UCP. If the decision was based on the desire for a fresh or unique look like the Marine commandant said, would that make the Army’s later decisions any more wrong/right? “Well MARPAT works!” TRUE! Does that make the decision to develop a new pattern (when there wasn’t a need) any more justified? Wisdom based on hindsight isn’t wisdom.
Why did we develop ACUs? That’s a good question and it’s been asked/answered plenty. For brevity’s sake, it was for the same reasons the Marines developed MARPAT. A service wanted a “new look,” and yes, technology to print camo had advanced, but with one incredibly important and central caveat. MARPAT was not an option for the Army. What is undeniable is that the development of MARPAT definitely played into the decision to develop ACUs. Does another branch’s development justify a reason to match it? I think not, but to accuse one of the “Gucci” factor, when both did the same thing for the same reason, is hypocrisy.
OK, the Marines developed a spiffy and EFFECTIVE camo pattern. The Army has to wonder if it’s being left behind both on the style and substance fronts. This gets the wheels rolling, but, for the first time in our history, a roadblock is thrown in its way by the Marine Commandant, who not only copyrights a camo pattern for the first time in our history, but states emphatically it’s only for Marines. Again, this is an issue that has rarely, IF EVER, been discussed. Heck, even the GAO study commissioned to look at the issue, glossed over that past decision to copyright a pattern and its impact. They even recommended that the DoD work together in the future by developing joint criteria, so that uniforms provide the same level of protection, and that services pursue partnerships to reduce cost, inventory and fragmentation.
Allow me an aside (on camo history trivia) to illuminate how singularly different the decision to not allow a sister branch the use of a camo pattern is. The US military (specifically the Army) has shared camo patterns for 60 years. The pattern the Marines wore storming across the Pacific to Iwo and beyond? Developed by the Army. (It was worn in Europe very briefly and pulled over concerns of fratricide because only the Germans had used camo up until that point.) Willow or Mitchel pattern for late Korea/Vietnam helmet covers? Yes, Army developed. ERDL? Yep, an Army pattern that is also Army-copyrighted, and one that the Marines adopted post-Nam and slapped an EGA on it. BDUs (woodland), chocolate chip, DCUs…
All Army patterns were adopted by the other branches, except that the Marines printed an EGA on the chest pocket – sometimes something that was done in WWII when there weren’t enough Marine utilities. This seemed effective enough for our grandfathers to feel unique. (There’s a lesson there.) So since our military started issuing camo uniforms, we’ve shared patterns. What changed? Why would one branch copyright a pattern and refuse to share it?
Why didn’t the Army elevate the decision to copyright MARPAT? Contesting another branch tends to be avoided. It sows bad blood, distracts from other important issues like the ongoing mission, and costs political capital (ever wonder why the Army doesn’t own its own CAS like the Marines and Navy do?). To be honest, it was a combination. The Army folded and took the easy way out, which ultimately led to the doomed UCP. It did have other issues, like a war on the front burner. Was picking a fight with the Marine Commandant over camo (after such a lame decision on his part) worth it? In hindsight, I say yes, but I’m a confrontational kind of guy. The Army may have just thought “we can pull this off” and do it better! Considering its history of 60 years of patterns, it’s not a bad approach, but unfortunately someone didn’t yell “DANGER! DANGER! Will Robinson!” when the train came off the tracks.
The Army got cocky and made a HUGE mistake. The Army, just like a certain Marine Commandant, decided to do something that’s never been done before. Let’s create one pattern that works for everything! WHY I ask? Despite developing all our nation’s camo patterns for the last half century (and doing an adequate job of it), the Army forgot the first rule of camouflage: “Blend into your surroundings.” Surroundings change. It’s impossible to blend into everything and there are numerous studies that prove it.
So why? Why make such a fundamental error? To one-up the Marines? Don’t underestimate Army hubris. It’s not much less than Marine hubris. It was incredibly stupid, but would have seemed genius had the Army pulled it off. The Army could have been heroes. Instead they came up zeroes.
OK, if we are going to shoot ourselves in the head with one pattern, let’s do the best job we can, right? So much has been said for MultiCam, and its fans are numerous. It’s a good pattern, though it’s not the best. According to the ’08 analysis, desert MARPAT and MultiCam beat UCP equally (11 of 12 tests p.15), but desert MARPAT beat MultiCam in eight of those 12 tests! If the fans of MultiCam really wanted the most effective pattern, why the heck were they not screaming for MARPAT?
So, why so much noise over MultiCam? I suspect it’s because of its adoption by the Spec Ops community and the ‘cool guy’ factor (which is hypocritical in so many ways). More importantly, if MARPAT beat the pants off of MultiCam, why didn’t we revisit the decision of issuing the most effective camo pattern to all our forces? Once again, the Corps, this time the Sergeant Major, pulled the copyright card and succeeded at keeping the BEST pattern (at the time) from use by any other branch. This kind of hubris is a sin, and I’m amazed at the lack of attention the issue gets.
The same phenomena occurred when the Navy developed AOR1 & 2 (very similar to MARPAT, with a slight change to the colors and removal of the subtle EGA in the pattern). The Marines actually pressured the Navy not to issue AOR1 (closest to desert MARPAT) to any sailors outside of the NSW community, so as not to have sailors being confused with Marines.
While we’re here, here’s another question that hasn’t been asked. Why did Spec Ops adopt MultiCam? Is it more effective than BDU and DCU? Where are the tests and the same questions that the Army received over its decision to field a new pattern? Did Spec Ops fall for the same “let’s do something new for the sake of being new” fallacy? As effective as MultiCam is, is it as effective as the ability to switch between BDU and DCU depending on the environment? Subjectively, I say no. In the woods, someone will blend better with BDUs; while in the desert DCUs work best. If one is going to say “well, one pattern is less to worry about”, then you really can’t argue the Army’s approach to UCP. Subsequently, if you’re one to crow about the effectiveness of MultiCam, you can’t justify its performance over the two previously fielded patterns without evidence.
Where’s the outcry?
Now, how did UCP beat out MultiCam? It’s never been adequately explained. Did someone say it has to be digital despite what the tests say? Dumb, but possible. Where’s the evidence? Did someone just pick the three best colors and slap them together on a digital pattern as has been alleged? Again dumb, but still it’s possible. Where’s the evidence? I was told there was an all or nothing deal with MultiCam and its body armor, and that the Army wouldn’t bend; nor would Crye give up the rights to let others print their pattern and the Army wanted a solution NOW. Dumb but possible. Where’s the evidence? One thing that isn’t mentioned is that at the time, the labs doing FCS were looking at fighting in Asia against a peer competitor in urban environments. Was that the driving factor? Don’t know, there’s no evidence, which is the biggest problem, and rightly so, with condemning the Army over its decision.
(Featured Image Courtesy: Soldier Systems Daily)