Since 2002 the US military has introduced over seven combat and working uniforms
The Army and Navy have both had to cancel uniforms after less than five years, costing millions
In 2008, the Navy debuted a new blue, black and gray uniform named Navy Working Uniform Type I. It just had a couple of hiccups: It melted in heat, weighed a ton and was effective camouflage only for sailors who happened to find themselves in water.
Mockingly nicknamed “aquaflage” – though the Navy noted upon its release that it wasn’t intended for concealment – the Navy deep-sixed the design this month. Instead, it will clothe its staff in a new green uniform, known as Navy Working Uniform Type III.
While the move was widely welcomed among the ranks, it is perhaps a pyrrhic victory.
The recent uniform change is just the latest in a spate of redesigns and modifications across the services in the post 9/11 era. Most have been more short-lived than their predecessors, costing the Pentagon hundreds of millions of dollars. As a result, Congress two years ago refused to provide funding for any new styles.
Prior to 2002, the Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force relied primarily on two combat uniform variants: the Battle Dress Uniform, which came in a woodland camouflage pattern, and the Desert Camouflage Uniform, introduced in 1990.
The Battle Dress Uniform had been in circulation since the early 1980s and both it and its desert counterpart were used as recently as the mid-2000s during the beginning stages of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But since then, each service has opted for its own combat uniform with multiple variants, leading to the introduction of more than seven new camouflage uniforms with different patterns and colors since 2002.
The branches saw an opportunity to retool their uniforms to meet each of their specific tactical requirements while believing that having uniforms with a unique appearance would boost morale and aid recruitment.
But things haven’t gone as planned with some of the designs.
Navy public affairs officer Lt. Jessica Anderson told CNN that there will be a net cost of “approximately $180 million” to replace the blue “aquaflage” uniforms over a five-year period.
In another case, the Army Combat Uniform’s green-and-gray Universal Camouflage Pattern, dubbed “digicam camouflage,” was introduced in 2005 only for it to be scrapped for troops deploying to Afghanistan five years later in favor of the MultiCam Uniform.
Soldiers there had complained about the Universal Camouflage Pattern’s effectiveness in concealing them, and a 2012 Government Accountability Report found that its ability to hide its wearer was never adequately tested.
The GAO report also cited a 2009 Army study that said the uniform “offered less effective concealment than the patterns chosen by the Marine Corps and some foreign military services, such as Syria and China.”
The Army spent about $3.2 million to develop the Universal Camouflage Pattern, according to the report.
Since 2015, the Army has moved to yet another new uniform: the Operational Camouflage Pattern. It looks similar to MultiCam – seen by many as a stopgap measure given the problems with the Universal Camouflage Pattern – and will eventually become standard for all soldiers.
The 2012 GAO report estimated that it “may cost up to $4 billion over five years to replace” the Universal Camouflage Pattern uniform and related protective gear like body armor.
But the Army says that the GAO’s number is misleading because it doesn’t take into account that the military will replace the uniforms as they wear-out and not swap them out immediately.
The uniforms and equipment over time “would need to be replaced regardless of pattern,” Lt. Col. Jesse Stadler, an Army spokesman, told CNN. “The Army will gradually phase in the new pattern for clothing and equipment over a four-year period.”
Meanwhile, the US Air Force in 2011 replaced the Battle Dress Uniform with its Airman Battle Uniform, in another effort to provide technical improvements and boost morale and recruitment. The uniform, which features a digital “tiger-stripe” camouflage pattern, also cost $3.2 million to develop, according to the GAO.
And it’s not just combat uniforms that find themselves being swapped out: The Navy canceled its Service Dress Khaki uniform in 2012 only six years after rolling it out. In an official statement regarding the cancellation, the Navy said it abandoned the uniform after a review that evaluated the quality, durability, appearance, fit and estimated cost of the uniform.
In another departure from previous years, the services also now use different boots, with the Air Force making its airmen wear a unique “sage green” boot.
The Marines, for their part, continue to use the Marine Corps Combat Utility Uniform, which comes in woodland and desert camouflage variants. The GAO said those uniforms, first introduced in 2002, only cost $319,000 to develop thanks to them outfitting a smaller service and efficiencies in project management.
Congress was so incensed over the spiraling uniform and design costs that in the 2014 defense budget authorization, it forbade the use of funds for the adoption of “any new camouflage pattern design or uniform fabric for any combat or camouflage utility uniform.”