Editor's note: This article was first published on April 22 at 4:23 p.m. EDT and has been updated.
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.
Under a proposal currently being considered by Chief of Naval Operations John Richardson, the service could ditch the blueberries in favor of it's green cousin — NWU Type III.
"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.
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."
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What it all boils down to, he said, is mission readiness. "Well the uniform is a huge part of that," he said. "Right?"
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.
Other uniform proposals competing for Richardson's attention involve also replacing the current poly-cotton coveralls with a fire retardant variant that's already under development.
"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.'"
Sailors are wear-testing two uniforms to replace the ill-fitting flame-resistant coveralls fast-tracked to the fleet. The options are a standard coverall with flame-resistant fabric, or a blue flightsuit style.
Photo Credit: Mike Morones/Staff
Then there's the logistics.
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.
Greening the seabag
Navy officials are considering dumping the blue-and-gray digital cammies for the woodland pattern, which many feel to be more comfortable.
Photo Credit: MC2 Nicholas A. Groesch/Navy
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.
By the rules, all sailors are required to maintain their blue NWUs - all four sets - and they are compensated for that each hear.
But in practice, they never wear those uniforms, they simply pocket that portion of their uniform allowance each year. In 2012 when Navy Times looked into the issue, the cost was roughly $215 of extra cash per person.
Navy sources tell Navy Times that at any given time there's roughly 50,000 sailors Navy-wide wearing either the Type III uniforms in their current jobs.
This means, Making Type III the Navy's official working uniform could save the service as much as $10 million annually. because as a seabag item these would get an initial issue and then replace them with the as they wear out with their clothing maintenance allowance as there would be no more free replacements.
But that's not all, the NWU and coverall shakeups would only be a part of a potential total seabag slimming that Richardson feels is necessary, sources tell Navy Times, as he believes sailors are asked to haul too much around with.
But Richardson, a career-long submariner is looking at the complete seabag with a system approach.
"I guess it is just my nature sometimes… I want to look at the whole thing," he said. "Let's take a look at the whole sea bag and …make it a little bit more sensical whereas the elements of that sea bag are more suited to their mission."
Uniforms, he said, should be comfortable and effective and of a nature that "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," he said.
Mark D. Faram is a former reporter for Navy Times. He was a senior writer covering personnel, cultural and historical issues. A nine-year active duty Navy veteran, Faram served from 1978 to 1987 as a Navy Diver and photographer.