Making a 21st Century U.S. Military Uniform Every Branch Can Wear

(Bloomberg) -- Why does the U.S. military have so many different uniforms?

It’s understandable that each branch would have its own dress outfit. And it makes sense to tailor battlefield clothing to the fighting environment—brown for desert, green for woodlands, white for mountain climes. But over the course of the past 70 years, the Pentagon has built up quite the sartorial stockpile, with various uniforms for base and battlefield, ships and planes, working and working out, and pretty much everywhere in between. 

Now, this sprawling empire of martial clothing is getting taken in a bit.

The Air Force decided a few months ago to adopt the new combat uniform of the Army, accelerating a broader effort to slim down the wardrobe of military personnel and better unify forces that increasingly operate together. The price tag? The Air Force said it will spend $237 million on the transformation, which is scheduled to be complete by April 2021.

Making a 21st Century U.S. Military Uniform Every Branch Can Wear

The design, replacing an 11-year-old camouflage uniform, is borrowed from the Army’s Operational Camouflage Pattern, or OCP, a jumble of brown, green and beige introduced by that branch three years ago. (The Army hasn’t finished getting it to everyone, including reserves and national guard members.) 

The goal is for the U.S. armed forces to look more unified. The military often combines personnel from its various branches in operations, making similar uniforms practical. They can also foster camaraderie between services, officials said—a sore point with some traditionalists, though, given that distinct uniforms were intended to instill pride in one’s particular branch.

The Pentagon is more interested in practicality than pride these days. Air Force Major General Robert LaBrutta, who is leading the transition effort, noted that in the various theaters where the Air Force is active, “We’re not only in the air, we are on the ground in combat situations on a day-to-day basis.”

Having grown out of the Army after World War II, the Air Force has often borrowed Army innovations, including uniform design. Following the Vietnam War, the military moved to make camouflage uniforms standard on and off the battlefield. That’s when technology was brought to bear in an effort to perfect designs using multiple colors—and later, mottled ones—to hide soldiers from the enemy.

But different services meant different uniforms for airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines. Army Command Sergeant Major John Wayne Troxell, senior enlisted adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was cool at first to the idea of uniform unification. While he conceded that in some theaters of operation, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, it makes sense for members of all branches to wear the same kind of uniform, he told the Air Force Times in 2015 that “distinct uniforms also affect a service’s culture.”

Switching to a joint pattern would “lose that kind of identity that brings espirit de corps,” Troxell told the newspaper. “We got to make sure, first and foremost, that the men and women are proud to be what they are.”

Making a 21st Century U.S. Military Uniform Every Branch Can Wear

Three years later, Troxell has modulated his views, telling Bloomberg that while service personnel should be proud of their individual branch, the growing emphasis on joint operations—and making sure enlisted personnel can operate in different environments—has become a critical focus of the military.

“If you look at the operational environment, so many violent extremists like ISIS are a global threat. Russia is not just in Europe and Asia. China is not just in Asia. Warfare is going to be multi-domain and multi-function,” Troxell said. “We need to have men and women that can cross service boundaries.”

“It transcends uniforms,” he said. “It’s all about being interoperable.”

Toward this end, in 2015 the Army began phasing out an earlier camouflage pattern in favor of the OCP. Not to be outdone, the Navy last year decided to streamline its uniforms, issuing a new pattern similar to OCPs in place of its blue camouflage. The new green, tan and black-patterned uniform will answer sailors’ petitions for something more comfortable, lightweight and breathable. Such complaints, along with almost two decades of fighting, during which new designs and innovations were battle-tested, played a role in this military-wide aesthetic shift.

Making a 21st Century U.S. Military Uniform Every Branch Can Wear

Military uniforms have come a long way since America’s infancy. For a century or more after the Revolutionary War, uniforms reflected civilian wear, said Michael McAfee, curator of history at the West Point Museum. Typical regimental coats “were basically just a distinctly trimmed version of what a civilian might wear.”

As with 19th century street fashion, barracks-wear changed with the times. In the 1820s, uniforms became highly decorative but by the next decade, adornments were discarded in favor of a more conservative look—though high collars and tall caps survived. By the time of the Civil War, the U.S. Army was wearing sack coat-inspired blue uniforms with a looser fit, critically adaptive for wide-ranging battles against secessionists across the South.

After the rebellion was put down, the move to multiple uniforms began, following European trends, as the U.S. military began adopting a new series of dress uniforms in the 1870s. The proliferation of different types of fatigues and formal military dress would accelerate after World War II. Meanwhile, when it came to camouflage, the U.S. military started experimenting as far back as the early 20th century. It didn’t come into wider use, however, until after Vietnam.

Making a 21st Century U.S. Military Uniform Every Branch Can Wear

In the Air Force, combat uniforms have been around since its inception. Commonly known as utilities, they’ve always been worn for jobs, from maintaining an airplane to operating in combat zones. This plain suit of blue or green persisted until 1957, between the Korean and Vietnam wars, when airmen donned their first camouflage uniform. With ground troops always part of the branch, camouflage was expected to help performance in close-range combat, especially while airmen were deployed in Southeast Asia.

At its peak in the early 1960s, the Air Force had as many as five uniforms. Some, such as the famous blue suit, were intended for formal settings, while the solid green uniforms remained from the pre-camouflage era. Others, such as the tiger-stripe pattern derived from the South Vietnamese and the French, were innovative additions for wartime.

Making a 21st Century U.S. Military Uniform Every Branch Can Wear

Thanks to the threat to Western Europe posed by the Soviet Union, the main uniform of the U.S. military after Vietnam initially reflected a woodland environment. The Battle Dress Uniform, or BDU, was the longest running camouflage pattern fielded by the Pentagon, adopted by every military branch and worn until about seven years ago.

Then, a few years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the services went their own way again. Airmen Battle Uniforms, or ABUs, began to appear in the Air Force. Lightweight and wrinkle-free, they were ideal for desert climates in the Middle East. The Air Force also resurrected the tiger-stripe pattern, this time in tan and pale green colors.

Making a 21st Century U.S. Military Uniform Every Branch Can Wear

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, the ABU was eventually accompanied by “multicams.” A precursor to the OCP, this uniform was designed as a one-stop solution for blending into both forests and deserts with multiple camouflage patterns.

Now, as the Air Force moves to follow the Army, airmen will wear the OCP, whether at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan or in an office at the Pentagon.

Neither the ABU, multicams or the OCP have escaped criticism, however. From a difficult button on an already inconvenient pocket to patterns and colors that don’t function as intended, service members are quick to gripe if something doesn’t work. Uniform changes, whether wholesale replacements or tweaks to existing designs, are typically inspired by practicality—a “lessons-learned process,” said Kate Atanasoff, a spokesperson for the Air Force.

One problem with the multicams was the inclusion of a green pattern, despite a significant number of service members stationed in the Middle East. Another was how the uniforms fit women, who now make up 20 percent of the Air Force, a slightly larger percentage than in the U.S. military as a whole. They have had to endure such things as tailoring pants and adjusting waistlines to allow for wider hips, said D’Ann Campbell, a visiting history professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Campbell said the new uniforms will go a long way toward acknowledging the different needs of a gender-integrated military. LaBrutta said positive responses from service members who have worn the Air Force OCP, including approval of its fit for both genders, is a large part of why his team pushed for its expansion.

To purchase the OCP, enlisted airmen—those who serve at a rank lower than an officer—will get a $20 allowance boost in October. Commissioned officers will pay out of pocket. Enlisted guard and reserve airmen will have to buy their uniforms through the Defense Logistics Agency.

While the move to full-time camouflage after the Vietnam War was meant to instill a sense of readiness among all military personnel, wherever they were stationed, Atanasoff sees an additional benefit: the image it presents to the American people who pay the bills.

“We want them to know and understand that we are still a nation in conflict at times,” she said, “and wearing the uniform is a reminder of that.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.