Editor's note: This article was first published on April 22 at 4:23 p.m. EDT and has been updated.
After six years in the fleet and some controversy, the blue-and-gray cammies could be headed for Davy Jones' seabag.
The digital blue Navy Working Uniforms were a fleet mainstay until 2013 after they were found to be unsafe to wear while fighting a fire. One plan is ditching these blue Navy working uniforms in favor of their green cousin. The service could potentially save millions by switching to the woodland cammies already worn by Seabees and master-at-arms. The green-and-tans are also not flame-resistant but would be the standard for ashore wear; flame-resistant coveralls and flight suits are mainstays for at-sea wear.
Dumping the digital blues, also known as the NWU Type I, is a move that's been quietly discussed by leadership in recent years.
“I think that there are a lot of folks who wouldn’t be sad, I guess, if Navy working uniform Type I went away,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said in an interview.
He’s heard sailor's complaints that the heaviness of the fabric makes it hot from shoulders to boots. Sailors have told him it's “very uncomfortable,” he said.
Sure, the blue NWUs have been popular with those who like the battle dress-styling. But its camouflage is an open joke. Sailors have called it their “blueberries” and gagged that their foremost value is concealing paint spills. Even the Navy secretary has mocked it, saying three years ago that “the great camouflage it gives is if you fall overboard.”
Time to ditch the blue cammies? Send us your uniform suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richardson, who signs off on all uniform decisions, wants to make sailors' uniforms more functional and to achieve the aim of many previous CNOs: slimming down the seabag, a move that will save the service millions of dollars. Another option to accomplish that is to dump the poly-cotton utility coveralls; like the NWU, these uniforms will melt in a fire but are still issued to every sailor. There's a possibility that the service could make a custom seabag for different types of duty or add a flame-resistant uniform to the seabag.
"Let’s take a look at the whole sea bag and see if we can’t make it a little bit more sensical, where the elements of that sea bag are more suited to their mission," he said. "They are comfortable, they are effective, we can wear them more broadly so that we don’t have people having to change in their workspace before they have to drive home."
The future of fleet uniforms is also up in the air. Fleet sailors are testing two prototypes of flame-resistant uniforms: one a traditional coverall design and the other a blue flightsuit style. In addition, Navy officials have blueprinted a hybrid of the coverall and flight suit.
Walking away from aquaflage in favor of the woodland pattern NWU type IIIs is a tough decision and won’t be easy to execute, but it is being discussed.
“In terms of NWU Type I, NWU Type III, [and] the coverall: All of those things are being considered,” he said. “Those things I think would allow us to look each other in the eye and say, 'This makes a lot more sense than some of the schemes that we have now.'”
It could be a good time to dump the blueberries. Congress is pressing for cost-savings by consolidating the explosion of service-specific camouflage to what conceals best.
The Navy has spent $224 million just to develop and initially field the NWU Type I's, according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office report.
Then there’s the logistics.
Currently the Navy stockpiles more than a year’s supply of the NWUs with the Defense Logistics Agency, spending $15.4 million in fiscal 2015 to buy 200,059 trousers and 224,232 blouses; plans as of mid-2015 called for the spending even more in fiscal 2016.
Another issue is modifying or breaking the existing contracts through DLA. In 2015, DLA told Navy Times that two contracts that govern the purchase of NWU Type I trousers and blouses. That agreement will expire in 2018.
A separate contract for the poly-cotton coveralls, which can't be worn in the fleet, will expire in 2019.
The good news is that these "indefinite-delivery indefinite-quantity" contracts give the Navy some flexibility to draw down its stocks, but the Navy must still purchase a minimum amount.
One contract has a minimum buy of 50,000 units. The other is a bit tricky. It encompasses production of four different types of uniforms, with a minimum of 104,000 units per year.
The NWUs were envisioned as the service's everyday uniform, to be worn in classrooms, at shore-based commands and in ships and squadrons. Accessories like the fleece and parka were offered to make it wearable in cold and wet weather. But the uniform has since been ruled unfit for wear aboard ships while underway after revelations it would melt and burn up in a fire, and officials are asking whether it should continue to be a seabag item.
Declining sales and lack of use underway prompted the service to cut the seabag requirement from four pairs to three last year. At the time, officials hinted that move would start a gradual phase out. Even so, the service has spent money developing lightweight blue NWUs.
Greening the seabag
Many prefer the woodland cammies, saying they're more comfortable in a wide range of climates.
What’s more, outfitting all hands with the same cammies would make the service more uniform and likely save millions every year.
According to Navy Uniform Regulations, all enlisted sailors are required to maintain their complete compliment of aquaflage uniforms in working order — including the three sets of blue NWUs.
With seabag items, enlisted sailors get an initial issue and then are required to maintain those uniforms with their annual clothing allowance.
Not so with organizational clothing, where Type IIIs fall now. When sailors wear out those items, they simply turn in the worn-out item to the supply office and get a new one issued for free.
Thousands in the Navy wear woodland cammies full-time, including Seabees, SEALs, explosive ordnance disposal sailors and divers; they rarely, if ever, take their blue-and-grays out of the closet.
Others, like sailors attached to Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, won't wear their blueberries as long as they're on a NECC tour of duty.
Some 50,000 sailors are paid to maintain three sets of blue NWUs, at $215 a pair. Getting rid of this requirement would thus save the service around $10 million a year in organizational clothing costs for purchasing Type III's.
To be sure, the service would also need to buy more sets of the woodland NWUs, which reportedly have a higher cost than the digital blues, making it unclear how much of the savings the service would see, though with larger purchases, the per-unit cost will naturally drop.
And this is only the start. Richardson says it’s not just working uniforms he’s reviewing — it’s the whole seabag. email@example.com
Slimming the seabag is easier said than done. Many before have tried to tackle it. Few have succeeded.
Beyond saying that nearly everything is on the table, CNO didn’t say which way he is leaning.
"These are important decisions and so you want to do them thoughtfully,” he said. "I would say that in the next few months we might be ready to come out with our next step forward.”