WASHINGTON – In 2002, the U.S. military had just two kinds of camouflage uniform. One was green, for the woods. The other was brown, for the desert. Then things got strange.
Today, there is one camouflage pattern just for marines in the desert. There is another just for navy personnel in the desert. The army has its own “universal” camouflage pattern, which is designed to work anywhere. It also has another one just for Afghanistan, where the first one doesn’t work.
Even the air force has its own unique camouflage, used in a new “Airman Battle Uniform.” But it has flaws. So in Afghanistan, airmen are told not to wear it in battle.
In just 11 years, two kinds of camouflage have turned into 10. And a blessedly simple aspect of the U.S. government purchasing system has emerged as a complicated and expensive case study in federal duplication.
Duplication is one of Washington’s most expensive traditions: multiple agencies do the same job at the same time, and taxpayers pay billions for government to repeat itself.
Now, the habit remains stubbornly hard to break, even in an era of austerity. There are, for instance, 209 federal programs to improve science and math skills. There are 16 programs that all teach personal finance.
At the Pentagon, the odd saga of the multiplying uniforms has provided a step-by-step illustration of how duplication blooms in government. And why it’s usually not good.
“If you have 10 patterns, some of them are going to be good. Some of them are going to be bad. Some of them are going to be in the middle,” said Timothy O’Neill, a retired army lieutenant colonel who studied camouflage patterns as a West Point professor. “Who wants to have the second-best pattern?”
The duplication problem grows out of three qualities deep-rooted in the Washington soul. Good intentions. Short patience. And a lust for new turf.
When a bureaucrat or congressman sees someone else doing a job badly, those qualities stir an itch to start doing the job oneself.
“You don’t have empirical information on what’s working and what’s not working, in the profusion of new programs,” said Gene Dodaro, who heads the Government Accountability Office. He hopes that the country will now, finally, decide it can’t afford this. “The fiscal situation . . . will begin to force that kind of decision to be made.”
Right now, President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans both say they’re trying to prune back decades of redundant programs. Obama, for example, is now seeking to kill or consolidate more than 100 of those science and math programs.
But, the problem lives on in many other places. At the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for instance, there is a new congressionally mandated Office of Financial Education. It costs $7.87 million a year, and is authorized to employ 14 people.
It is, by the GAO’s count, the 16th government program aimed at teaching the public better money management.
On the new office’s website, there are a series of answers to common consumer questions. Things like, “How do I dispute an error on my credit report?” In that case, however, the Federal Reserve had already answered a very similar question on its site: “How can I correct errors found in my credit report?” The Federal Trade Commission also offers advice on “Disputing Errors on Credit Reports.”
At the Pentagon, a GAO study commissioned by the Senate Armed Services committee found that the services have spent more than $12 million on their separate efforts at designing new camouflage patterns. The cost of buying, stocking and shipping 10 different camouflage uniforms is believed to be millions more.
Is anybody trying to fix this?
“The Department of Defense continues to look for ways to streamline processes and implement better business practices,” a Pentagon spokesman said earlier this month. He gave no details.
This, in brief, is how two kinds of camouflage became 10: The marines started it.
The Marine Corps spent two years and $319,000 testing different patterns to replace the old green and brown ones. In the end, the Corps settled on a digital design, which used a riot of small pixels to help soldiers blend in.
There was a desert version, and a woodland version — camouflage patterns No. 3 and 4.
The Corps did not intend to share them.
“The people who saw this uniform in a combat area would know (the wearers) were United States Marines, for whatever that might mean,” said retired marine Gen. James Jones, who initiated the uniform’s design and later became Obama’s national security adviser.
After that, the army set out to duplicate what the marines had already done, spending at least $2.63 million on its own camouflage research. The army produced what it called a “universal” camouflage, in shades of green, gray and tan.
No. 5. It was not as universal as they said.
After complaints that the pattern didn’t work in Afghanistan, the army had to spend another $2.9 million to design a camouflage specific to that country. The GAO found that the army then spent another $30 million-plus to actually outfit troops with the new design, called “Operation Enduring Freedom Camouflage.”
No. 6. Now, the army is already working to replace that replacement, with a new camouflage-design effort that has cost at least $4.2 million so far. It has given up on “universal.”
“A uniform that is specific to the desert and one that is specific to a woodland environment . . . outperform a single pattern, a universal camouflage pattern,” said Brig. Gen. Paul Ostrowski, who oversees the army’s uniform and equipment research, in testimony before Congress last month. “We’ve learned that.”
Camouflage No. 7 came from the air force. On the surface, that did not make a whole lot of sense.
Only a subset of air force personnel fight on the ground, including rescuers of downed pilots and battlefield air controllers. But the air force still spent $3.1 million to come up with its own ground combat uniform. It was a “tiger-stripe” pattern, a throwback to camouflage used in Vietnam.
But it was not well-suited to Afghanistan.
“They were not designed to hide anybody. They were designed to look cool,” said O’Neill, the West Point camouflage expert, giving his outside appraisal of the air force design. “It’s what we call ‘CDI Factor.’ Which is, ‘Chicks dig it.’ “
Finally, in 2010, the air force ordered its personnel in Afghanistan to ditch the Airman Battle Uniform, and wear army camouflage instead. “The (army pattern) provides the higher level of protection and functionality our Airmen need,” an air force spokeswoman said this month.
The next three camouflage patterns arrived in 2011, from another unlikely source — the U.S. Navy.
“The Marine Corps, air force and army had either all shifted, or were shifting. Which meant that — if we wanted to continue using the two original camouflage patterns — the navy was going to have to pick up the entire contract,” said Terry Scott, who was the service’s top enlisted man at the time, the master chief petty officer of the navy. “We knew we had to change.”
“I remember saying, ‘Why don’t we just use the exact same thing’ as the Marine Corps?” Scott said. “Well, the Marine Corps had embedded . . . their symbol in the actual uniform pattern.”
It was true. The Corps had embedded tiny eagles, globes and anchors into the camouflage itself — betting that no other service would go to war with somebody else’s logo on their pants. It worked.
The navy spent more than $435,000 on three new designs. One was a blue-and-gray pattern, to be worn aboard ships. That was camouflage No. 8.
Sailors worried it would only hide them at the one time they’d want to be found.
“You fall in the damn water and you’re wearing water-colored camouflage. What the hell is that?” said one active-duty petty officer. He asked that his name be withheld, since he was criticizing a decision by the brass. “It’s not logical. It’s not logical at all to have water-colored uniforms.”
For the desert, the navy came up with another design, a tan pattern that resembled the marines’ desert pattern. Except theirs had a small U.S.S. Constitution embedded in the pattern.
No. 9. To the marines, it was still too close a copy.
“We objected to that. We just said, ‘Look, there are plenty of patterns that are out there that are effective,’ ” said Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, recounting that complaint during a Senate hearing in 2010.
The reason was not battlefield safety: it was marine pride.
“Even though (the navy) is not using the patented pattern, I guess that it’s so very, very close,” Amos said. “It’s a point of pride, sir. It’s internal pride.”
That seemed a good enough reason for the Senate committee: “Well, pride and unit elan is certainly an important factor. I appreciate your response,” said then-Sen. Evan Bayh. The next question was about helicopters.
It was also good enough for the navy. After the marines objected, the navy decreed that its new desert uniform would only be given to a select few: Navy SEALs and other personnel serving with them.
The rest of the navy personnel who might serve in the desert — more than 50,000 of them — were issued another navy camouflage pattern instead.
This was camouflage No. 10. It was a “woodland” pattern. The Pentagon’s long and expensive search for new camouflage uniforms had previously defied logic. Now it would defy camouflage itself.
It ended with U.S. servicemembers wearing green in the desert.