The top official tasked with supplying and training the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps has criticized the number of different camouflage uniforms in the military, taking a particular jab at the "blueberries" sailors are required to wear.
There are many separate "cammies" among the four main service branches, largely a product of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that prompted each branch to try – and at times fail – to provide its troops with the latest and most practical combat uniforms. This trend still exists as the Army continues to test a new pattern it will unveil in the near future.
Among the uniforms is a blue digital pattern known as the Navy Working Uniform. It is based on the Marine Corps MARPAT digital patterns, which come in both woodland green and desert tan, onto which the corps emblazoned tiny insignia to ensure they would be the only wearers.
"The Navy 'blueberries' – I don't know what the name is, that's what sailors call them – the great camouflage it gives is if you fall overboard," said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus at a Thursday meeting with reporters. Mabus points to what has become a macabre joke among sailors, highlighting the dangers of a shipmate falling into the sea wearing a sea-colored uniform.
"The notion that we [have] all [this] camouflage doesn't make a lot of sense to me," he says. "It's worthwhile to see if we can shrink the numbers."
Amid two major ground wars, the Army rushed to develop what it hoped would be a pattern to accommodate any environment by creating the Universal Camouflage Pattern digital design. Soldiers found that pattern did not work in Afghanistan, forcing the Army to issue a separate uniform, using the civilian pattern MultiCam, which the service dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom Camouflage Pattern, or OCP.
The Air Force developed a throwback tiger-stripe pattern, known as the Airman Battle Uniform, but found it serves little practical use in America's foreign wars. The service subsequently instructs airmen in Afghanistan to wear the Army's MultiCam uniforms while stationed there. The other service branches have similar orders for troops assigned to joint Army units.
(This petty officer from the U.S. Navy is required to wear Army MULTICAM camouflage when operating with a joint unit in Afghanistan, per Navy regulations.)
Last month, Time Magazine published a first-hand account from a deployed airman and her resulting uniform strife.
A Washington Post report outlining the various camouflages states the military has spent roughly $10 million designing these uniforms.
Critiques outlined in news media have been echoed on Capitol Hill, where some are calling for the military to return to one pattern for all branches. Multiple members of Congress have proposed amendments to the latest Defense Authorization Act that would limit the number of uniforms. The Battle Dress Uniform, which all troops wore in conflicts through the 1980s and 1990s, gave way to service-specific patterns starting in the early 2000s.
The Marine Corps may protest the move, citing the success of the award-winning uniforms it has designed.
"It's worthwhile to see if we can shrink the numbers," says Mabus. "Whether you go to one, or two or three, that's still progress."
An expert on military uniforms says the breadth of the problem boils down to each service wanting to promote its own individual identity.
"It's good hearing a service secretary say, 'Hey, this doesn't make sense,'" says Eric Graves, editor of Soldier Systems Daily, an equipment industry analysis website.
Gen. James Jones, then-commandant of the Marine Corps, asked for MARPAT because he wanted it to be clear when "the Marines are here." The Army responded with UCP, and the Navy said they wanted a new blue service working uniform to replace its old working uniform, which was also blue, in keeping with tradition.
Distinguishing between a working uniform and a battle uniform is the key to the debate, Graves says.
"In a battle uniform, I do believe [troops] should take the best products, the best materials, the best ideas and incorporate them into a common uniform," he says. "[A working uniform] can be a little more 'military,' less function-driven and more passion-driven, or 'This is what soldiers should look like.'"
From an operational security standpoint, it doesn't make sense to have all the services in different camouflage while in combat, he adds. That would make it very easy to target, for example, an airman attached to an Army unit who is responsible for calling in air strikes.
"While all the services have said, 'Here is our individuality,' ultimately – with the exception of the Marine Corps and special operations – the war fixed the problem by putting people in [Army] MultiCam," says Graves.
"[The Army] has done more to test, develop, evaluate and select a camouflage pattern than anybody ever in history," he says. "Whatever the services do...I think it will probably end up being whatever the Army came up with."
It was rumored the Army would make a decision on its new uniform pattern on the service's birthday on June 14. A spokesman says that is unlikely.
Matthew Bourke, an Army spokesman, confirms the Army has completed a test phase to determine the best camouflage pattern, involving trials at Fort Bliss, Texas and Fort Carson, Colo. It is currently briefing senior leadership on the results.
The Army will make a decision in "the near future," he says, but there is no hard timeline, nor has it planned a date for an announcement.