Quick, spot the soldiers! There are three. One is in ACU.
In 2004, the Army implemented a new camouflage system, the Army Camouflage Uniform. The cut of the uniform was loosely based on the modifications Special Forces had been making to our obsolete BDU and DCU uniforms — mostly, moving pockets from where they looked good for garrison troops and were handy for desk jockeys to where combat troops who used web gear and armor could get to them. But the shades-of-grey camouflage pattern, designed by the Army’s uniform and gear bureaucracy at Natick Labs, was arguably the worst camouflage pattern ever fielded by a national army. (The mostly-yellow pattern used briefly by the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in the 1960s had similar shortcomings).
The BDU (Battle Dress Uniform)’s green, brown, tan and black camouflage pattern was based on one developed earlier for dry forests by the Army’s Engineering Research and Development Laboratory. The original ERDL camo (which was also available in a greener pattern for wet-forest environments) was extremely effective, and from the mid or late 1960s to the 1980s was issued to the Marine Corps and to elite Army units including airborne, Ranger, and SF units. The ERDL pattern was printed on the very well thought-out jungle uniform originally designed by SF Major General William Yarborough.
For the BDU, the Army’s centralized bureaucracy changed the pattern by blowing it up by a factor of 1.6 for longer-range effect (as a rule of thumb, smaller blotches on a pattern are more effective close up, and larger ones, at a greater distance). They also made numerous alterations in the cut and materials of the uniform, and then arranged a bogus “test” by a ceremonial unit… when the initial BDU shipped, the elite units quickly rejected them, sticking with the old cammies as long as they held together, and even Vietnam-era OG107 hungle uniforms.
The BDU failed its first combat test, in Grenada in October 1982, resoundingly. The Army made a few small changes and introduced a lightweight version made of the same ripstop material as the old ERDL uniform. Originally, the BDU has been sold as one money-saving uniform to replace several, but it wound up morphing into an expensive, unsatisfactory, and very wasteful and costly suite of uniforms.
Some past camo patterns. Click to embiggen.
Two generations of desert uniforms were also developed. The camo pattern of the second Desert Camouflage Uniform was, unlike previous Army camo patterns, extremely effective in arid settings.
But the huge uniform-development bureaucracy was itching to get its hands on the expanded defense budgets of the 2000s, and they made this case: having separate desert and woodland uniforms was wasteful. Instead, they would make a uniform equally effective in both settings. And they did: the ACU pattern makes our soldiers stand out in stark contrast whether they are surrounded with sand and dust in the desert or vegetation in the forest or jungle. And did it save money? The Daily says, not so much.
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.
Yeah, no kidding. Did they need to get Sherlock Holmes in here for that? Or did they just ask soldiers?
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.”
But The Daily’s article is not about getting to the bottom of this. It’s about delivering the spin from the Natick payroll patriots that created this abortion of a uniform at an obscene, uncontrolled cost. And their spin is: they’re utterly innocent. Pay no attention to their fingerprints on the ACU. And give them a second shot at a long, drawn-out, “scientific” process of creating one-pattern-everywhere camouflage.
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.
via $5B CAMO SNAFU – The Daily.
The technical expression for what Ms Stewardson just said is: a lie. The ACU was designed, staffed, briefed, and implemented in Natick by Natick folks. It was an in-house pattern and every one of their “tests” was designed to favor in-house designs. In the end, after an internal Natick downselect, the Chief of Staff had a Hobson’s choice of any one of four day-glow grey uniform patterns that differed little from one another. The GO to whom he delegated the selection, BG James Moran of PEO Soldier, actually — and we are not making this up — picked the one that the privates modeling the uniforms liked best.
The pattern was selected in Natick, as the cut of the uniform was selected, without a true field test, let alone a combat test. (It’s not like combat was hard to find in 2003-04). At least the BDU had had a fake field test on an annual field exercise with elements of the 3rd Infantry Regiment (the ceremonial troops who guard the Tomb of the Unknowns and who send the departed off to Arlington with such consummate professionalism — proud soldiers, but not the guys you’d choose to wring out combat gear).
While Natick was blindsided by the failure of its precious ACU, others weren’t, whether hey were in the industry:
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.”
…or in the uniforms themselves, wearing that day-glo bullseye:
“Essentially, the Army designeda 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.”
“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.”
Natick’s solution now: let’s spend billions more developing a good universal camouflage pattern!
Only a brain-dead would think to the approach that produced the BDU fiasco and the UCP/ACU fiasco is going to produce anything but a new fiasco. At a time of budget cuts, maybe the right answer is a commercial off the shelf pattern, eh?
Oddly enough, the Army has already adopted one, one that was in use already by certain special operations forces. Because the ACU was kiliing our troops in Afghanistan, generals there insisted on, and got, gear in the MultiCam pattern designed by a small, but innovative, company called Crye Precision. SOF operators have long sworn by Crye’s stuff which offers superior materials, construction (much Army gear is shoddily slapped together by convict labor at UNICOR Federal Prison Industries), and design. Once you’ve worn a Crye Conbat Shirt and Combat Pants in the field you only pull on an ACU when you can’t avoid it.
Why, when companies like Crye and Hyde Definition are expanding steadily the envelope of what a camouflage suit can do for a field soldier, do we need a bunch of overpaid, overpensioned bureaucrats to duplicate, albeit slowly and shabbily, their efforts? Would the Army lose by turning that over to industry?
Supporters of Natick Labs, a large number of whom are in the Massachusetts Congressional delegation (and otherwise, defense budget-cutters of Swedish Chef enthusiasm levels), say we can’t possibly outsource this inherently governmental activity.
That’s the same thing their forerunners said, history tells us, when DOD pulled the plug on their home state’s Springfield Armory after over 150 years, but also after several successive small-arms-development boondoggles, including the enormously expensive and never-ready Special Purpose Infantry Weapon.
Which was designed by lab boffins and never really subjected to field testing. Sound familiar?
There is a happy ending of sorts. Army did have lowest-bidders and convict labor produce its versions of the Crye gear, so it doesn’t have the fit and durability of Crye’s own stuff, but at least the guys in Afghanistan aren’t day-glowing. Until Natick’s next brainstorm bears fruit, another $5 Billion down the rathole.
And old soldiers note something vaguely familiar about MultiCam. While it’s certainly an original design, and Crye deserve to benefit from their intellectual property in it, it has a strong resemblance to another camouflage uniform: the late, lamented ERDL camo of 1967-82.