Since taking over as secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel has shaken up the status quo on several fronts, such as warning the Army about potential massive force cuts or telling the Navy it may need to mothball a few aircraft carriers.
But Hagel has studiously avoided at least one facet of military life: camouflage uniforms.
Despite mounting pressure for change, the Defense Department has officially decided against anything resembling a common combat camouflage uniform that would make all soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines look virtually identical on deployment in field environments.
The Pentagon recently finalized an internal review of forcewide requirements for camouflage clothing and limited its new standards to textile qualities that ensure the material is durable, bug-resistant and fire-retardant.
The standards do not mention actual camouflage patterns and will place no new limitations on the military’s ever-expanding and ever-changing wardrobe of service-unique and mission-specific uniforms that have emerged during the past decade. Instead, the standards underscore the long-standing policy of letting each service make its own decisions on uniform matters.
“Our camouflage uniforms have traditionally been designed by the various services with operational flexibility and concealment in mind to perform their service-specific missions in different environments,” said Mark Wright, a Pentagon spokesman.
DoD is maintaining that stance despite clear indications that there is increasing sentiment in Congress to put the brakes on uniform churn.
The House and Senate both are pushing provisions that would affect combat uniform designs as part of their respective versions of the 2014 defense authorization bill.
The House proposal would set a deadline for the Pentagon to field a joint combat camouflage uniform by 2018. That would require the Defense Department to adopt one of the existing camo patterns as a joint design or create one new, final versions that will be fielded to all troops.
The Senate proposal does not include a deadline and would implicitly allow all the services to continue wearing only one of the existing versions.
A final measure will emerge this year when House and Senate negotiators reconcile their respective bills to come up with a single compromise defense bill.
At a recent town hall event, an enlisted member asked Hagel about uniforms. Hagel declined to take a position one way or the other, telling a crowd of troops at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., that he would “listen to you.”
The Government Accountability Office released a scathing report last year detailing the evolution of the combat uniform that for decades was a single pattern fielded by all the services, the so-called Battle Dress Uniform that had only “woodland” and “desert” variants.
That began to change when the Marine Corps fielded its digital-style MARPAT camouflage pattern in 2002, in turn prompting each service to develop its own new pattern — some of which have come in for criticism in the ranks, such as the Air Force’s “tiger stripes” and the Navy’s “aquaflage.”
In several instances, those efforts were botched, scrapped and replaced with more new designs, costing billions of dollars in design fees and replacement costs, according to the GAO.
Inside the ranks, the issue is controversial. While distinct uniforms may be good for morale and cultivate a sense of pride among the individual services, others say the array of stripes and pixelated patterns is an unnecessary expense and makes no sense, since the underlying goal is to make troops less visible in a field environment, regardless of their service branch.
The Joint Staff’s top enlisted adviser, Marine Sgt. Maj. Bryan Battaglia, recently said the mix of uniforms make the U.S. military look like a “Baskin-Robbins” and signaled his support for a common uniform.
But Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos recently said preserving the Corps’ MARPAT pattern is a top priority and declared that his service will stick to it “like a hobo to a ham sandwich.”