House OKs plan for military to share camouflage

WASHINGTON — The House approved a measure Friday that would require all branches of the military to share the same camouflage uniforms — instead of the 10 different camouflage patterns in use today.

The measure, authored by freshman Rep. William Enyart, D-Ill., was passed as part of the broader National Defense Authorization Act, which sets the Pentagon’s budget. The measure passed by a vote of 315 to 108.

That idea needs the approval of the Senate, which is crafting its own version of the defense authorization bill. On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved a measure that would also require the Pentagon to choose just one camouflage uniform, a committee spokeswoman said. The Senate’s time frame was unclear, however: A summary of the bill released by the Armed Services committee says the change should happen “eventually.”

Enyart’s provision would require all armed services to share the same camouflage uniform by October 2018. It would still allow for variations in that shared uniform, adapted to different environments like woodlands and desert.

Enyart proposed his measure after a Washington Post article detailed the expensive proliferation of camouflage patterns among the services.

In 2002, the entire U.S. military shared just two camouflage patterns — one forest green, one desert brown. But since then, individual services began creating their own patterns. That process became a case study in government duplication: As services repeated each other’s work, the results were both expensive and uneven.

The Marine Corps spent just $319,000 to develop its widely praised pattern, according to an analysis by the Government Accountability Office. But the Army spent $2.63 million to develop a “universal” camouflage pattern, only to discover that it didn’t work in Afghanistan. That required a new, Afghanistan-specific uniform at a cost of $2.9 million.

The Air Force, for its part, spent about $3.1 million on a camouflage “Airman Battle Uniform.” But after criticism that it provided poor camouflage, the Air Force told airmen in Afghanistan that the uniform should not actually be worn in battle.

In all, the varying camouflage uniforms cost more than $10 million to develop, and millions more to distribute to service members in the field.

“Congress needs to exercise its oversight to make sure we don’t do silly things,” Enyart said when the measure was introduced. It was added to the defense authorization bill in the House Armed Services Committee by a narrow vote of 32 to 30.

The Obama administration has not signalled a formal objection to the idea. The White House recently threatened a veto of the House’s version of the bill, but it did not list the camouflage provision among the elements it opposes.

Still, the camouflage provision could face opposition from within the armed services themselves – particularly the Marine Corps.

“Over the past decade, Marines have worn the best camouflage pattern in the world. There are tactical and psychological advantages unique to our uniform in terms of morale and culture,” said Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Micheal Barrett, the corps’ top enlisted man, in a written statement this week.

Barrett said that, if Marines no longer wore a distinctive camouflage pattern, something crucial would be lost. “It’s part of our Corps’ identity. Where we (Marines) walk or sail, people are safer — unless you screw with us!” Barrett said.

That statement was first reported by the Marine Corps Times, and confirmed by the Corps’ public affairs office.

In contrast, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus — the civilian leader of both the Navy and Marine Corps — said Thursday that he was open to reducing the number of camouflage patterns in use.

“The notion that we’ve got all this camouflage doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me,” Mabus said in a breakfast with reporters from the Defense Writers Group. “I think it’s worthwhile to see if we can shrink the numbers here.”

Mabus did not say anything specifically about the House measure. He suggested that “two or three” patterns might be sufficient for all the branches of the armed forces.

Mabus even made fun of one of the Navy’s camouflage patterns — a blue-tinted design for use on ships. Sailors refer to these uniforms derisively as “blueberries.”

“The great camouflage it gives is if you fall overboard,” Mabus said.

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