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Should Armed Services Have a Common Combat Camouflage?

When the full House and the Senate Armed Services Committee take up their fiscal 2014 defense policy bills this week, troops may literally lose the shirts off their backs.

Lawmakers want to push the services to agree on a common combat camouflage uniform.

The move is being considered because the military services currently field 10 different types of camouflage uniforms, up from only two as recently as 2001. Now, the Army — the largest of the services — is considering yet again replacing what it is using.

Consolidating the number of uniforms, which would affect almost all of the 2.2 million men and women in the active and part-time armed forces, could save up to a quarter of a billion dollars, according to proponents. But it also could alienate many uniformed troops and be a blow to the morale of the different services at a time when the military community is already reeling from deep budget cuts and a series of sexual-assault scandals.

The lawmakers proposing the change insist that it’s not necessary for the four combat services — Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines — to have 10 different types of combat uniforms. They point out that the Navy’s “aquaflage” and Air Force’s “airmen’s battle uniform” can’t be worn in Afghanistan, a senior congressional aide noted. The aide explained that wearing such uniforms in Afghanistan would make those troops vulnerable.

“Look, I would love for each of the services to be able to have their own camouflage uniform if that’s what they feel it needed,” said Illinois Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, who co-sponsored the amendment to the House Armed Services panel’s policy bill last week that called for a common camouflage combat uniform. “But when you have a camouflage uniform that can’t be used, can’t be worn in combat … I just think we can’t afford that right now. ”

Duckworth and Illinois Democrat Bill Enyart, the other co-sponsor, calculated their push would resonate in a climate of diminished defense resources. The Army could save more than $80 million, according to a Government Accountability Office report from late 2012.

Indeed, the GAO report, which was highly critical of the Pentagon, helped spur Enyart’s and Duckworth’s amendment.

“The military services’ fragmented approach for acquiring uniforms has not ensured the development of joint criteria for new uniforms or achieved cost efficiency,” the GAO stated. “DOD has not met a statutory requirement to establish joint criteria for future uniforms or taken steps to ensure that uniforms provide equivalent levels of performance and protection for service members, and the services have not pursued opportunities to seek to reduce clothing costs, such as by collaborating on uniform inventory costs.”

Spirited Opposition

When the GOP-led panel narrowly added the provision to its fiscal 2014 defense policy bill (HR 1960) last week, it was the Democrat’s sole success during the markup.

Nonetheless, Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., submitted an amendment to strip away the language when the House takes up the measure this week.

A similar provision is also being included in the draft Senate Armed Services version of the bill. According to a draft summary, the bill would direct the Pentagon to reduce the separate development and fielding of service-specific combat and camouflage utility uniforms, and eventually push the military to return to the same combat uniform.

It may not be big money in the context of a more than $600 billion defense bill — Enyart said all four services could ultimately save a total of $250 million by going to one combat uniform — but for the textile companies that make the uniforms, it’s big business, one senior congressional aide noted.

Service Pride

Some outside experts and former generals insist, however, that the symbolism of reining in potentially wasteful spending is outweighed by something more important — the boost to pride and morale generated by distinctive uniforms.

Retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, a respected budget hawk, said he would give Enyart and Duckworth “old Maggie’s drawers,” a reference to a red flag that is waved on a Marine Corps firing range when a target is missed entirely.

“The House Armed Services Committee has ignored several ticking time bombs that are degrading our combat readiness in our military every day,” Punaro said. “My bigger point is not because I’m a Marine and I’m a general. I’ve been around this issue a long time. The fact that the House Armed Services Committee would ignore, unbelievably, the problems that are causing us to have less combat capability and focus on something that has zero to do with combat capability is just amazing.”

Punaro complained that the fiscal 2013 sequester is undermining military readiness, and now the committee has chosen to ignore congressionally mandated defense spending limits that could lead to the military facing yet another course of across-the-board cuts of about $52 billion.

He asked where the panel was when the services were expanding from two combat camouflage uniforms to 10.

“If they were so concerned about these uniforms, where were they when these services designed the individual uniforms?” he asked. “It’s like the ship is sunk and three years later we want to row the captain to where the ship sunk and sink him with the ship.”

Enyart, however, defended his efforts. He said he supported a Democratic amendment that would have given the military $20 billion in transfer authority within its budget to help it limit the effects of the sequester. Those efforts were beaten back by the GOP majority.

“It just gave the authority to be flexible, which is what I have heard the generals, the four stars and the service secretaries ask for,” he said. “And I supported that, I voted for it. I thought it was the right thing to do.”

Duckworth said poorly spent money at any level should be addressed.

“It struck me as ridiculous when you are comparing it to the fact that we’re being asked to look at raising Tricare copays, and we’re looking at pushing modernization of the National Guard and Reserves equipment … further to the right,” she said. “We can’t blow this much money on uniforms.”

Punaro said the value of an esprit de corps shouldn’t be so simply dismissed.

“I don’t think we want to try to change the culture, history and tradition of the services and turn them into something they are not,” he said.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Ted Stroup echoed Punaro’s concern.

Stroup said he believed Enyart and Duckworth are “trying to make this as controversial as the military bands. For esprit purposes, for identification among allies, you really need to have field uniforms among the services. It is a delineation of difference between the services; it’s done more for esprit de corps than utilization.”

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