ONTD Political

The $5 Billion Camo Snafu

10:18 am - 07/09/2012

Army ditches failed combat uniform that put a target on grunts’ backs for 8 years

The Army is changing clothes.

Over the next year, America’s largest fighting force is swapping its camouflage pattern. The move is a quiet admission that the last uniform — a pixelated design that debuted in 2004 at a cost of $5 billion — was a colossal mistake.

Soldiers have roundly criticized the gray-green uniform for standing out almost everywhere it’s been worn. Industry insiders have called the financial mess surrounding the pattern a “fiasco.”

As Army researchers work furiously on a newer, better camouflage, it’s natural to ask what went wrong and how they’ll avoid the same missteps this time around. In a candid interview with The Daily, several of those researchers said Army brass interfered in the selection process during the last round, letting looks and politics get in the way of science.

“It got into political hands before the soldiers ever got the uniforms,” said Cheryl Stewardson, a textile technologist at the Army research center in Natick, Mass., where most of the armed forces camouflage patterns are made.

The researchers say that science is carrying the day this time, as they run four patterns through a rigorous battery of tests. The goal is to give soldiers different patterns suitable for different environments, plus a single neutral pattern — matching the whole family — to be used on more expensive body armor and other gear. The selection will involve hundreds of computer trials as well on-the-ground testing at half a dozen locations around the world.

But until the new pattern is put in the field — a move that’s still a year or more away — soldiers in Afghanistan have been given a temporary fix: a greenish, blended replacement called MultiCam. The changeover came only after several non-commissioned officers complained to late Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha, and he took up the cause in 2009. Outside of Afghanistan, the rest of the Army is still stuck with the gray Universal Camouflage Pattern, or UCP. And some soldiers truly hate it.

“Essentially, the Army designed a universal uniform that universally failed in every environment,” said an Army specialist who served two tours in Iraq, wearing UCP in Baghdad and the deserts outside Basra. “The only time I have ever seen it work well was in a gravel pit.”

The specialist asked that his name be withheld because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press.

“As a cavalry scout, it is my job to stay hidden. Wearing a uniform that stands out this badly makes it hard to do our job effectively,” he said. “If we can see our own guys across a distance because of it, then so can our enemy.”

The fact that the government spent $5 billion on a camouflage design that actually made its soldiers more visible — and then took eight years to correct the problem — has also left people in the camouflage industry incensed. The total cost comes from the Army itself and includes the price of developing the pattern and producing it for the entire service branch.

“You’ve got to look back and say what a huge waste of money that was,” said Lawrence Holsworth, marketing director of a camouflage company called Hyde Definition and the editor of Strike-Hold!, a website that tracks military gear. “UCP was such a fiasco.”

The Army’s camouflage researchers say the story of the universal pattern’s origins begins when they helped develop a similarly pixilated camouflage now worn by the Marine Corps. That pattern, known as MARPAT, first appeared in 2002 after being selected from among dozens of candidates and receiving plenty of input from Marines on the ground at the sniper school in Quantico, Va. The Marines even found one of the baseline colors themselves, an earth tone now called Coyote Brown.

“They went to Home Depot, looked at paint swatches, and said, ‘We want that color,’ ” said Anabelle Dugas, a textile technologist at Natick who helped develop the pattern. That particular hue, she added, was part of a paint series then sold by Ralph Lauren.

Around the same time, the Army was on the hunt for a new camouflage pattern that could solve glaring logistical problem on the ground in Iraq. Without enough desert-specific gear to go around, soldiers were going to war in three-color desert fatigues but strapping dark green vests and gear harness over their chests. At rifle distances, the problem posed by the dark gear over light clothing was as obvious as it was distressing.

Kristine Isherwood, a mechanical engineer on Natick’s camouflage team, said simply, “It shows where to shoot.”

The Army researchers rushed to put new camouflages to the test — several in-house designs and a precursor of MultiCam developed by an outside company. The plan was to spend two years testing patterns and color schemes from different angles and distances and in different environments. The Army published results of the trials in 2004, declaring a tan, brushstroke pattern called Desert Brush the winner — but that design never saw the light of day.

The problem, the researchers said, was an oddly named branch of the Army in charge of equipping soldiers with gear — Program Executive Office Soldier — had suddenly ordered Natick’s camouflage team to pick a pattern long before trials were finished.

“They jumped the gun,” said James Fairneny, an electrical engineer on Natick’s camouflage team.

Researchers said they received a puzzling order: Take the winning colors and create a pixilated pattern. Researchers were ordered to “basically put it in the Marine Corps pattern,” Fairneny said.

For a decision that could ultimately affect more than a million soldiers in the Army, reserves and National Guard, the sudden shift from Program Executive Office Soldier was a head-scratcher. The consensus among the researchers was the Army brass had watched the Marine Corps don their new uniforms and caught a case of pixilated camouflage envy.

“It was trendy,” Stewardson said. “If it’s good enough for the Marines, why shouldn’t the Army have that same cool new look?”

The brigadier general ultimately responsible for the decision, James Moran, who retired from the Army after leaving Program Executive Office Soldier, has not responded to messages seeking comment.

It’s worth noting that, flawed as it was, the universal pattern did solve the problem of mismatched gear, said Eric Graves, editor of the military gear publication Soldier Systems Daily, adding that the pattern also gave soldiers a new-looking uniform that clearly identified the Army brand.

“Brand identity trumped camouflage utility,” Graves said. “That’s what this really comes down to: ‘We can’t allow the Marine Corps to look more cool than the Army.’”

The Daily

[note: NASA's annual budget is $18.4b]
mirhanda 9th-Jul-2012 04:03 pm (UTC)
Well, thank goodness they are finally rectifying the problem. I wonder how many soldiers lost their lives because of this mess?

Secondly, the army still has cavalry?
layweed 9th-Jul-2012 04:09 pm (UTC)
Cavalry mostly means mechanized cavalry now, not horses, humvees, armored fighting vehicles, etc.
(no subject) - Anonymous
red_pill 10th-Jul-2012 12:03 am (UTC)
i didnt know, but it dosent surpise me. i just finished reading the pentegon wars (Witch is imposble to find in the uk, i had to go to the british libary) and my god...the shit they get up to.
layweed 9th-Jul-2012 04:11 pm (UTC)
[note: NASA's annual budget is $18.4b]

Yeah, but this country doesn't have a space exploration-industrial complex. =\
mirhanda 9th-Jul-2012 04:20 pm (UTC)
I wish we had a space exploration-industrial complex!
emptysilentlife 9th-Jul-2012 04:25 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad they did this.

I was trying to find a picture I saw but I'm failing at locating it. It was a picture with guys in the old uniforms and the new uniforms in the same scenes as a comparison and the new uniforms blended in so much better. It showed desert, water, jungle, and maybe something else. If anyone knows what I'm talking about or can find it you should post it!
the_glow_worm 9th-Jul-2012 04:51 pm (UTC)
[note: NASA's annual budget is $18.4b]

This needs to be attached to every article about government spending, ever. Thank you.
poetic_pixie_13 9th-Jul-2012 05:00 pm (UTC)
Obviously this'll save lives and is a Good Thing.

But I think y'all would save more lives and money if you didn't, like, invade other countries and spend so much on weapons and stuff to show that yours is bigger. You could even use that money for stuff like healthcare! And education! And eliminating poverty! (Also infrastructure, cause it's sexy, idgaf.)

But that would require all those white dudes in the government who've never actually served a day in their life to get their heads out of their asses.
lafinjack 9th-Jul-2012 05:15 pm (UTC)
But I think y'all would save more lives and money if you didn't, like, invade other countries and spend so much on weapons and stuff to show that yours is bigger.

Man, if only.
kitbug 9th-Jul-2012 05:20 pm (UTC)
I always hated the pixelated design. IT'S NOT CAMO.
kaelstra 9th-Jul-2012 06:20 pm (UTC)
I don't think that it's pixelated was the problem, as the pixels are meant to create sort of visual "noise" and make it harder for people to be seen, I think it's just THAT kind in particular with those colors were a really, really bad idea. The patterns have to be right, too. But the pixel idea itself is fine, when done correctly. This just wasn't done correctly.
tabaqui 9th-Jul-2012 05:38 pm (UTC)
It makes me furious to know that the people making the camo were totally unhappy at being told to rush it, and that for *eight years* this caused issues and deaths and it was just...not addressed.

Somebody should be in jail.
skellington1 9th-Jul-2012 06:31 pm (UTC)
This is pretty fascinating. Not the deadly bureaucratic snafu -- that's just crap I expect from a large organization, taken up to eleven with the risk to lives -- but the actual camouflage. I'd love to see the research on pixelated versus non pixelated patterns in the same colors, if it exists -- I was always confused by the pixelated camo, because it seemed to me that we'd be more likely to notice the underlying geometric shapes (all those right angles) than a more organic pattern, even if the geometry is small and random. The Kryptek examples someone linked to above make more intuitive sense, with both diffuse and hard shapes creating an illusion of depth -- but intuition doesn't always bear out.

The quote about branding is truly astounding.

It’s worth noting that, flawed as it was, the universal pattern did solve the problem of mismatched gear, said Eric Graves, editor of the military gear publication Soldier Systems Daily, adding that the pattern also gave soldiers a new-looking uniform that clearly identified the Army brand.

Branding is about visibility and easy recognition. Camouflage is the opposite of that. How exactly could he say that with a straight face?

I suppose the same way the marines could say this... (from the MARPAT wikipedia article):

...a Marine Spokesman... said, "We want to be instantly recognized as a force to be reckoned with. We want them to see us coming a mile away in our new uniforms."

Kind of OT -- I looked up UCP on Wikipedia, and was struck by this sentence:
"Soldiers have reported that the pattern is mostly ineffective in most urban or desert environments[9], particularly jungle and tropical terrain." Since when was jungle and tropical terrain a subset of urban and desert environments, unknown Wikipedia writer?
alryssa 9th-Jul-2012 06:38 pm (UTC)
Actually, when you talk about hard-line geometric shapes, it makes me think of the naval Dazzle camouflage used during WWI and WWII -

- these weren't so much intended to conceal the ship as much as it was to confuse the size, speed and orientation of it to enemy vessels.

sankaku_atama Semi-related (in a 'hey-its-the-military' sense)10th-Jul-2012 01:36 am (UTC)
Fun fact: Back when the Blackbird was first being introduced to the world at large, its designation was RS-71 Blackbird. LBJ went on national TV (I think it was Johnson) and called it the 'SR-71'. Instead of releasing a correction to the news channels, the military decided not to correct their Commander-In-Chief, and decided it would be more expedient to go back and re-write and redesign all of the blueprints, diagrams, tooling, dies, castings, and anything else that might have 'RS-71' on it to read what Johnson said.

This decision to relabel thousands of pieces of paper and equipment cost several million dollars. In 1960's cash.

Yeah, the military's higher-ups can make some odd decisions, and its usually the lower-downs that take the brunt of the screwup.

That being said, I'm glad they're finally getting the camo patterns changed.

Edited at 2012-07-10 01:40 am (UTC)
lafinjack It's on Wikipedia, it MUST be true.10th-Jul-2012 02:24 am (UTC)
"Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay preferred the SR (Strategic Reconnaissance) designation and wanted the RS-71 to be named SR-71. Before the July speech, LeMay lobbied to modify Johnson's speech to read SR-71 instead of RS-71. The media transcript given to the press at the time still had the earlier RS-71 designation in places, creating the story that the president had misread the aircraft's designation."
little_rachael 10th-Jul-2012 04:21 am (UTC)
Support the troops!

Unless it's for stuff that actually protects them and saves their lives. In that case, fuck 'em.

(This is sarcasm.)
erunamiryene 10th-Jul-2012 11:10 pm (UTC)
Yeaaaaah, that was TERRIBLE color choice. The only time I saw it work was on a COUCH.

“That’s what this really comes down to: ‘We can’t allow the Marine Corps to look more cool than the Army.’”

Yep, pretty much.

Marine Corps cammies are shit-hot, though. :D The woodlands work, the deserts work, and they look GOOD. (Possibly because there isn't an overabundance of fucking Velcro, which is not exactly tactically sound, either.)

Also, sorry Army, but the Marines will always look better. ;)
koken23 11th-Jul-2012 04:15 am (UTC)
...Holy moly.
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