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House panel's proposal pushes services to wear common camo

Jun. 10, 2013 - 07:01PM   |  
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The camouflage soldiers wear in Afghanistan is one of four patterns soldiers have worn in the past decade. (Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson / Air Force)

Service-specific camouflage will be outlawed if the House Armed Services Committee has its way.

Service-specific camouflage will be outlawed if the House Armed Services Committee has its way.

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Service-specific camouflage will be outlawed if the House Armed Services Committee has its way.

The committee June 5 approved an amendment that would require troops from each branch of service to wear a common camouflage pattern no later than October 2018.

The Government Accountability Office has recommended such action for years, and the plan has moderate Pentagon support. But it’s not a done deal.

While the full House is likely to go along with the committee’s proposal, Senate approval still would be needed for it to become law. And House members worry that service leaders will take a strong stand against it in the Senate,which could derail the effort.

Anticipating service objections, the House included a number of exceptions in an effort to ease service opposition, said Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., who heads the Armed Services Committee panel that is responsible for clothing purchases. For example, the bill would permit variants for geography, such as a desert or woodland patterns. Exceptions also would be allowed for headwear, footwear and special operations units.

An early indication of service pushback came from Sgt. Maj. Mike Barrett, the top enlisted Marine. “There are tactical and psychological advantages unique to our [camouflage uniform] in terms of morale and culture. Like our dress blues, [it] ... is a visible indicator of our identity as United States Marines, globally. It’s part of our Corps’ identity.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee has yet to begin drafting its version of the defense bill. But at least one influential senator supports a common combat uniform.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a lawyer in the Air Force Reserve, said the idea makes sense.

“I’m now in favor of having some common standards,” Graham, who has had several brief combat-zone assignments, said in an interview. “As much as I love the Air Force, I’ve grown to understand we have too many designs. I have four different sets at home because I try to make sure I deploy with the uniform everyone else will be wearing. It seems excessive.”

Graham will be in a position to push the issue forward; he will be one of the chief negotiators this year, when House and Senate lawmakers meet to reconcile differences between their respective versions of the defense bill.

Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., initiated a September GAO report that recommended common camo. Both are members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Law or not, this political wrangling is sure to slow — and maybe halt — the Army’s effort to field a new camouflage pattern of its own. The multimillion-dollar effort kicked off in 2010, and final recommendations were submitted April 11 to Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno.

Sergeant Major of the Army Raymond Chandler, at the time, told Army Times the service has reached a “90 percent solution” and that he expected a decision within two months.

This amendment would prohibit the services from adopting any new combat uniform unless it will be an item shared by all of the services or unless the design is already in use by another service.

Temporary cost increase

The amendment was authored by Rep. Bill Enyart, D-Ill., a retired major general and Vietnam veteran who has served in the Air Force, Air Force Reserve and Army National Guard before retiring in 2012 to run for Congress, and Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., an Iraq War veteran who serves in the Illinois National Guard.

“Doggone it, we can save some money if we stop playing in the sand,” Enyart said. “This is something we can stop and should.”

Prohibiting the services from spending billions of dollars developing and fielding new uniforms is one way to reduce the Pentagon’s nearly $500 billion budget in an era of sequestration, Duckworth said.

It “cuts down on the waste of ... unnecessary duplication of the camouflage our men and women so proudly wear,” Duckworth told the House Armed Services Committee. “There are a lot of things that could be done with that money, including expanding programs for personnel, families and weapons programs. If this were a time when we didn’t have any budget issues, I would not be doing this.”

Indeed, the military has come under much criticism for its myriad combat uniforms — there are 10 versions now and more under development, with total development and fielding costs running into billions of dollars.

The amendment could cause a temporary increase in uniform costs, Wittman said. This largely is due to the gear soldiers carry — called Organizational Clothing and Individual Equipment — which costs more to produce. Giving soldiers four Army combat uniforms costs about $1,100 per soldier, according to Army data. But the cost of outfitting them with OCIE adds $2,500 per soldier. Multiply that by the Army’s 1.1 million soldiers and the price is $2.75 billion.

But the September GAO report said a common camouflage design would save money in the long run.

The only disparaging word on the amendment — which passed by a 32-30 vote — came from Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who has served in the Army and Marine Corps. He said the potential savings would be small and perhaps not worth the complaints and potential harm to morale.

A decade of churn

A common combat uniform is not a new idea. As recently as 2001, all four services shared a single camouflage pattern and design. The green version was known as the battle dress uniform, and the brown variant was known as the desert camouflage uniform.

But that began to change in 2002, when the Marine Corps adopted the Marine Pattern, or MARPAT. Its wash-and-wear fabric saved Marines money on starch and laundry services and gave them a distinctive look that reinforced their self-propelled image as an elite force.

That started a new fashion trend. Camouflage, once used as a tool to prevent detection and reduce troops’ vulnerability, became a way for the services to distinguish themselves. The Marines unwittingly triggered a cascade of new uniform initiatives by the other services, many of them fielded with great fanfare but later deemed failures.

The Army spent $3.2 million to develop an ACU, but Army officials said the camouflage pattern did not perform well in Afghanistan — or anywhere else. That’s where MultiCam comes in, and is the reason the service is looking to change its camo pattern across the board.

The Air Force spent several years and about $3.2 million to design a unique “tiger-stripe” pattern that was fielded in 2007, but later decided it was a flawed design and ordered deployed airmen to wear MultiCam.

The Navy developed a camouflage pattern for ground combat but curtailed its use when the Marines protested that it looked too much like MARPAT. The Navy also spent years developing the blue-gray camouflage utility known as the Navy working uniform, but tests showed that it was insufficiently fire resistant and its melting nylon fibers could actually worsen severe burns.

Yet some defense experts say uniform costs are a drop in the overall military budget bucket, and Congress should be tackling the hard issues that would save much more.

“They are shooting at the wrong target,” said Arnold Punaro, a member of the Defense Business Board, which advises the Pentagon on cost-saving measures and business practices. “I would hope that Congress would spend more time in oversight of things of much more significance in terms of savings, like the overhead at the Defense Department and reforming the acquisitions process or dealing with the runaway costs of military health care.”

Joint criteria for camo

Congress has been slowly inching forward on this issue for several years. The 2010 Defense Authorization Act ordered the GAO to study the costs and performance of combat uniforms, which led to the substantive report unveiled last September.

And the same law ordered the Pentagon to “establish joint criteria for future ground combat uniforms.” The deadline for developing those joint criteria is coming this month.

Yet defense officials say they have no current plans to dictate to the services what kind of camouflage pattern they should use.

A Pentagon panel known as the Joint Clothing and Textiles Governance Board is finalizing the “joint criteria,” which are limited to textile standards such as fire and insect resistance and field life, defense officials say. Those criteria were approved in February, and formal instructions on how to implement them will be provided to the service chiefs this summer, Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright said.

But the board opted not to include a specific camouflage pattern among the joint standards, in part because the individual services have historically had control over designing their uniforms to fit their services’ missions, according to a defense official familiar with the process.

However, panel members are aware of the proposed law and may have to consider adding specific camouflage patterns before the joint criteria are formally issued this year, the official said.

Despite the growing interest on Capitol Hill in the idea of a common combat uniform, some lawmakers are reluctant to get involved in an area that has traditionally been left to the individual services to manage.

Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who initially supported the GAO review of combat uniforms, said he’s not keen to have Congress micromanaging that process.

Asked if he would support the proposed House legislation, Burr said, “No, no. Hopefully, that is something DoD can figure out on its own.”

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