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The service will begin its transition to new Army Combat Uniforms in a month. But soldiers should expect a lot of mixing and matching of camo items for the next several years.

ACUs with the Army's new Operational Camouflage Pattern — and eight design changes — are on track to start appearing in exchanges July 1. The uniform will become the new normal after a four-year transitional phase designed to save the Army and soldiers money.

Col. Robert Mortlock, Army Program Manager of Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment, stressed the Army's "fiscally responsible" integration of the new ACUs.

"We're going to transition over time," Mortlock told Army Times. "That's to relieve the burden to our soldiers initially, but it also allows us to make maximum use of our residual stocks."

Starting next month, through Sept. 30, 2019, there will be three different uniforms authorized for wear for soldiers in garrison:

• ACUs with the gray-green Universal Camouflage Pattern.

• Flame-resistant ACUs using MultiCam (issued to deploying soldiers since 2010).

• ACUs with the new OCP pattern.

The Army on Monday released an All Army Activities Message explaining the new plan. In advance of the message, Mortlock sat down with Army Times to discuss the finer details of the camo rollout.

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Soldiers should expect units to look a little less uniform during the transition phase, Mortlock said. Commanders will not be allowed to force soldiers to buy replacement uniforms just to match the unit; he noted that this isn't the first time the Army has had multiple authorized uniforms when transitioning camo patterns.

Along with the new camo, the Army is introducing new coyote brown boots and a darker shade of belt and T-shirt for use with OCP and MultiCam. During the transition, soldiers can wear the old sand-colored boots, belts and shirts with their new camo pattern — and they can mix in the new darker elements, such as wearing sand-colored boots with the new darker-tan T-shirt, or vice versa. That's helpful in part because the new coyote brown boots won't be available until August.

However, the reverse doesn't work. Soldiers can't wear new boots, belts or T-shirts with the old gray-green ACUs — UCP unis have to be worn with the sand-colored accessories.

It may be months before your post clothing store is carrying the new camo. The rollout will consist of three phases, Mortlock said. Some bases will see the OCP uniforms on July 1, while others will receive their first merchandise on Sept. 1 or Nov. 1:

July 1 phase: 19 installations, including Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Fort Lewis, Washington; Fort Stewart, Georgia; Fort Benning, Georgia; Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Drum, New York; Fort Carson, Colorado; and South Korea.

Sept. 1 phase: 28 installations, including National Capital Region (including the Pentagon); Fort Bliss, Texas; Fort Riley, Kansas; Fort Knox, Kentucky; and Germany.

Nov. 1 phase: 63 installations, including Fort Gordon, Georgia; Fort Sill, Oklahoma; Fort Sam Houston, Texas; Fort Jackson, South Carolina; Fort Lee, Virginia; and Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

The uniforms will become standard issue in clothing bags in January.

Mortlock praised the new OCP as the product of years of operational tests, developmental tests and photo simulations across a wide spectrum of environments. The Army tested several competing patterns including commercial submissions like the popular MultiCam.

"We've gone through the most rigorous combat uniform camouflage testing in history," Mortlock said.

Many soldiers have favored the MultiCam pattern worn in combat.

Mortlock told Army Times that OCP and MultiCam performed "very similarly from a camouflage and concealment perspective" in testing.

"They are different patterns. But they perform very similarly in providing that concealment to soldiers."

The OCP uses a similar color palette of greens, browns and beige as MultiCam, though OCP has a slightly less intricate pattern, lacking MultiCam's subtle vertical elements, and with a color mix that skews slightly more toward green.

Mortlock said the Army is still determining the uniform cost, although it will not be significantly different from current prices. Mortlock did not rule out the added design elements leading to a slight increase.

A full ACU currently costs $102.04, according to the Army. That includes coat ($41.86), trousers ($42.43), patrol cap ($7.41), riggers belt ($3.73), T-shirt ($4.48) and drawers ($2.13).

Design changes

The Army has altered the design of the ACU in quite a few ways. The changes were made after receiving soldier feedback, Mortlock said. Here's what's new:

•Mandarin Collar: A new fold-down design eliminates the hook-and-loop closure and the flap extension.

•Upper Sleeve Pocket: A zipper replaces the hook-and-loop closure. The Infrared Identification Friend or Foe Tab will be covered with a nylon tap on both sleeves. The pocket will be longer by one inch.

•Elbow Patch: Internal pads removed along with the hook-and-loop; double fabric reinforcement retained.

•Sleeve Pen Pocket: Two pen pocket channels instead of three.

•Trouser Waistband: No longer includes drawstring.

•Cargo Pocket: No longer includes cord-and-barrel lock.

•Knee Patch: As with elbow pads, no more internal pads or hook-and-lock, double-fabric reinforcement remains.

Lower Leg Pocket Flap: Button Closure added as another hook-and-loop closure disappears.


Gear and accessories

The Army will also issue organizational clothing and individual equipment in the OCP pattern. That means rucks, body armor and helmets will eventually be covered in OCP material.

OCIE will not be available July 1, Mortlock said. The gear will continue to be manufactured and distributed as dictated by current contracts and replacement rate policy, only all new camo gear will come with the new OCP pattern.

Until stocks are depleted, deploying soldiers will continue to receive the OCIE issued for soldiers wearing MultiCam. In any case, soldiers who had been issued MultiCam OCIE can use it with OCP ACUs. But headgear must match the ACU, and the rest of the OCIE must be consistent — whether MultiCam, UCP or OCP.

UCP uniforms cannot be used with OCP or MultiCam OCIE.

The Army decided not to follow the Marine Corps in issuing coyote-brown color equipment.

"Our testing indicates that it's better for concealment if OCIE camouflage pattern matches your uniform. That's going to provide better concealment," Mortlock said.

The Army is still considering over-dyeing existing UCP gear so that it's a dark color and better matches OCP.

"The Army is going through a cost-benefit analysis right now to see if it's a good business decision to possibly over-dye (UCP) systems into a darker coyote brown-type color, to be used only in a training base," Mortlock said.

Unit patches and tabs will remain the same color as MultiCam patches, making MultiCam and OCP patches interchangeable. Camouflage patches such as name and rank labels will switch to OCP, but soldiers with MultiCam patches will be able to use them on OCP uniforms during the transition.

Flight suits in the new OCP will also be transitioned into Army inventory over the next year, again according to the Army's existing production and replacement schedule.

Desert and woodland variants

It's unclear whether the Army will eventually issue desert and jungle variants of the uniform.

Mortlock said the Army is still "considering the operational relevance of a family [of patterns.]" There's no timetable on a decision, he added.

Mortlock acknowledged variants might offer an edge over standard OCP during a short, small-scale mission in some locations.

"We don't have the chameleon camouflage yet, and that might be a couple decades off. So the family concept would be to have bookends around this base patterns," Mortlock said.

But broader operating space and longer deployments could mute that advantage by presenting shifting backgrounds over either distances or seasons, he said, hacking away at the incremental edge.

If produced, the variants would be issued for a mission only if a combatant commander determined it would be beneficial. Variants would not be worn in garrison, Mortlock said.

The long road to OCP

The Army began designing the digital, grayish and ultimately doomed UCP as the Marines prepared to roll out their two new digital patterns, which the Corps fielded in 2002. At that time, the Marine Corps rolled out its digitized MARPAT — woodland and desert variations — and Marines still wear it today.

UCP, first fielded in 2005, generated numerous complaints. While it was intended to be "universal," the pattern was criticized by troops who felt they stood out in most environs (besides a gravel pit.)

With the war in Afghanistan providing a particular concealment challenge for UCP, the Army moved to get deploying soldiers an upgrade. It selected Brooklyn-based Crye Precision's MultiCam design, which has been standard-issue for Afghanistan-bound soldiers – and popular.

With the short-term ACU deficiency addressed, Army set sights on a new Army-wide ACU pattern. It started its deliberations with about two dozen patterns in 2010.

After testing, Army held negotiations with Crye over acquiring rights to MultiCam, but they broke down due to cost, according Crye as well as Army officials speaking on background. Instead they chose OCP, which Army Natick Labs in Massachusetts developed from a starting point of Scorpion — a pattern that Crye helped Natick develop under an Army contract in 2002.

In March 2014, Crye issued a statement alleging that the Army refused to further negotiate with the company, "effectively saying that a proven increase in soldier survivability was not worth a price difference of less than 1 percent."

A request for comment from Crye for this story was not returned as of press time.

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