This story was originally published by The Center for Public Integrity, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.
The baggy camouflage uniforms currently worn by American troops in Pentagon corridors and in Middle East combat zones may not look flashy, but they aren't cheap.
After having just two basic uniforms in the 1990's, members of the military services in recent years have started sporting seven outfits, all with different patterns and colors. The design costs alone have been $12.5 million.
The profusion of styles reflects the robust and enduring tradition of the four military services to go their own way, a circumstance that can cause blurry eyes from the mashup of disparate green, grey, and brown tones when soldiers from different units deploy to the same locale.
But it's not just a fashion faux pas, according to a new, 199-page report by the Government Accountability Office that examined programs and purchasing at 26 federal agencies to look for needless overlap and duplication.
The fragmentation boosts the costs -- the Pentagon's tab in fiscal 2011 for its camo couture was $300 million -- and also produces garb that in some cases lacks a rigorous connection to research about how to remain hidden, according to the report.
The problem is about to get worse: The Army is considering replacing its battle uniform for the third time in 11 years, with three separate new uniforms of its own -- including helmets and body armor -- printed with "desert," "woodland," and "intermediate" camouflage patterns. The GAO estimates this new line of fashions could cost the government $4 billion to purchase over five years.
Of the four services that developed new uniforms in the 1990s -- the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines -- only the Marines appear to have done a proper job, according to the GAO.
They used a "knowledge-based approach that includes meaningful data" when developing the clothing in 2000, and as a result, the report said, the leathernecks wound up with an effective camouflage uniform that they're still using. (The government has even patented some elements of the Marine Corps' combat apparrel, although the GAO said the other services could still copy it.)
The Army, in contrast, took three years and spent $3.2 million to develop a uniform introduced in 2005 that did not reflect the conclusions of testing.
The Army itself decided in 2009 that its Combat Uniform "offered less effective concealment than the patterns chosen by the Marine Corps and some foreign military services, such as Syria and China," auditors said. Complaints from troops in Afghanistan about the Army Combat Uniform led Congress in 2009 to direct the military to launch a crash program to develop a new camouflage uniform that blended better with that country's mountainous deserts.
The Air Force spent $3.1 million designing an Airman Battle Uniform, but then deemed it unfit to use on the battlefield due to heat buildup, trouser fit and other issues. The Air Force chief of staff chose a tiger-stripe camouflage design -- which the Marines had ruled out -- without testing it first, according to the GAO. Air Force test officials subsequently rated the ABU as marginal or unsatisfactory for concealment 58 percent of the time in 11 tests, auditors said.
The Air Force ultimately decided to use the new Army combat uniform in Afghanistan, but the GAO report said the two services have not been able to agree on a joint combat uniform for future use. The service secretaries, moreover, failed to meet a 2011 congressional deadline for development of common criteria for uniform design.
Mark Wright, a Pentagon spokesman, said that the Defense Department expects to complete work in the next few months on that criteria, however, "to ensure all service members get the same high level of protection."
He said groups called the Joint Clothing and Textiles Governance Board and the Cross-Service Warfighter Equipment Board will pursue "active partnerships" among the services for the joint development and use of uniforms.
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