Airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines in Afghanistan listen to President Obama speak at Bagram Airfield in 2010. (Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz / Air Force)
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Before 2001, all troops who deployed overseas wore the same combat uniform. Since then, however, the services have spent millions of dollars developing their own unique combat attire. The Pentagon is taking a new look at the necessity of all those (slightly) differing uniforms after Congress expressed concern that it was a waste of money.
Should the military return to a single combat uniform for all soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines? That's one way to cut costs and ensure that all troops have the same level of protection. But the military brass appears resistant to that idea so far.
Five things to know about the Defense Department's current internal review of combat uniforms:
The new requirements so far. Forcewide requirements for combat uniforms are under development by the little-known Joint Clothing and Textiles Governance Board. At this point, the board includes 10 general requirements. For example, the uniforms must be bug-, heat- and moisture-resistant, have a five-year shelf life, and be cut to fit the body types of at least 90 percent of the force, a Pentagon spokeswoman said. The board is slated to complete its review next summer.
What about a common uniform? In September, the Government Accountability Office said the Pentagon should ensure that all troops who are sent into combat wear uniforms that meet the same standards. Some experts suggest the easiest and most cost-effective way to do that is to return to a single uniform. A Pentagon spokeswoman declined to say whether the board has made any firm decisions whether to recommend or require the services to use the same combat uniform, but the initial draft of those requirements includes nothing that would limit the services' authority to develop distinct variants.
What will the patterns look like? So far, the draft requirements do not include any reference to the camouflage pattern and may leave the door open to the services continuing to have slightly unique variations of camouflage for different combat environments. That may prove popular inside the military, where many leaders believe the service-specific uniforms are good for morale and recruiting.
What about the Army's new uniform? The Army is developing a new combat uniform that could have a substantial influence on the forcewide standards due out next year. The Army's effort comes after it acknowledged that the version it fielded in 2005, known as the Army Combat Uniform, was a failure, in part because the brown and green color pattern viewed from a distance blended into a dull gray. The Army's "ongoing analysis … may generate additional criteria in the areas of concealment, probability of detection, and sensor mitigation," said Air Force Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
Will everyone get MARPAT? After more than a decade of research and investment in new uniforms, the Marine Corps' original pixilated-style combat camouflage, known as MARPAT, appears to be the most successful of the service uniforms, according to the GAO. The Army and Navy have floated the idea of borrowing the MARPAT pattern. While some Marines are resistant to the idea, a 2009 law suggests the Marine Corps has no proprietary claim to their pattern and cannot block others from using it.