The battle for uniform supremacy rages between the four US military branches
It’s 5am, and even though the sun has yet to break above the horizon, I’m already sweating under the thick blanket of Mississippi humidity. I’m standing at attention in formation at Keesler Air Force Base with other airmen as a staff sergeant carefully inspects my BDUs — my Battle Dress Uniform.
If the boots are not exquisitely polished so that you can bounce laser beams off the tips, it’s pushups. If the sleeves are not ironed with creases so sharp you could slice tomatoes, it’s more pushups. And God help you if there is a single loose string hanging from one of the cargo pockets.
Loose fitting for mobility and featuring numerous pockets on the shirt and pants to carry equipment, BDUs were designed to be worn in combat rather than to make a fashion statement — but that wasn’t always the case.
As America was fighting for its independence from England, they faced a very fashionable foe. Blindingly red regimental coats and tall bearskin hats, the uniforms of the British grenadiers were a source of national pride.
The Colonial army, however, was largely made up of militia men who wore what they owned — usually white linen hunting shirts with wool coats from blue to scarlet to green.
It wasn’t until 1779 that the US Congress created a standard brown uniform with wool overalls, linen or wool breeches, stockings, and leather shoes. Officers wore ruffled shirts with a red sash to distinguish them from the enlisted men.
In World War I, with the advent of aerial photography and trench warfare, the US Army designed uniforms meant for concealment with drab-colored green jackets and black boots.
In 2002, there were largely two types of BDUs: the standard pattern of green, black, brown, and tan and desert BDUs consisting of various shades of tan and brown. But the war in Iraq and Afghanistan brought with it a war of uniforms between the branches, cultivating a plethora of camo patterns.
The Marine Corps designed their own pixelated camouflage design called MARPAT (MARine PATtern) complete with the Marine Corps symbol of an eagle, globe, and anchor embedded in the digitized pattern of the uniform, ensuring no other branch could copy the design.
Not to be outdone by the Marines, the Navy issued their own digitized camouflage Navy Working Uniforms (NWUs) of blue and gray. Many criticized that any unfortunate sailor who was thrown overboard would be camouflaged in the water.
BDUs were replaced by ABUs or Air Battle Uniforms with a singular Air Force digitized tiger-stripe pattern. But these uniforms proved inadequate in combat areas, and airmen in the field were issued ABSGs or Airmen Battle System Ground “tactical ensembles” which were fire resistant, lighter, and used zippers for pockets instead of buttons.
The Army developed UCPs or Universal Camouflage Pattern uniforms, combining shades of tan, gray, and green, but they were anything but universal and couldn’t be worn in Afghanistan. The Army then developed Operation Camouflage Pattern uniforms, or OCPs to be issued next year.
So who won this uniform battle? As difficult as it is for me — a flyboy — to admit, the Marine Corps’ MARPAT seems to be the most effective at concealment, with every other branch attempting to mimic the same pattern.
In addition, the Marine Corps only spent $319,000 developing the new uniforms, compared to the Air Force dropping more than $3 million on development of the Air Battle Uniforms which couldn’t be used in battle. And the Army spent $5 billion on development and distribution of their UCPs, only to replace them less than a decade after they were issued.
At least there’s no more red sash.