NATICK, Mass. — 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.