Why Is the Marine Corps Fighting With the Navy Over a Camouflage Pattern?

Two branches of the U.S. military are locked in a property battle worthy of Google and Apple.

Andrew Burton/Reuters

Military combat uniforms have two purposes: to camouflage soldiers, and to hold together in rugged conditions. It stands to reason that there's only one "best" pattern, and one best stitching and manufacture. It should follow that when such a uniform is developed, the entire military should transition to it.

In 2002, the Marine Corps adopted a digital camouflage pattern called MARPAT. Rigorous field-testing proved that it was more effective than the splotched woodland pattern in use at the time, and the Combat Utility Uniform (of which it was a part) was a striking change for such a conservative institution.

Not to be outdone, the Army drew up digital plans of its own, and in 2005 issued a redesigned combat uniform in a "universal camouflage pattern" (UCP). Three years after the Marines made the change, four years after the invasion of Afghanistan, and two years after the invasion of Iraq, you might think the Army would have been loaded with data on how best to camouflage soldiers in known combat zones. You would be wrong.

In fact, not only did the Army dismiss the requirements of the operating environments, but it also literally chose the poorest performing pattern of its field tests. The "universal" in UCP refers to jungle, desert, and urban environments. In designing a uniform for wear in every environment, it designed a uniform that was effective in none.

As a baseline, uniforms should have a pattern that blends into the  environment; stitching that doesn't rip at the crotch; material that doesn't melt onto the skin.

As for durability, not long after the Army combat uniform appeared in Iraq, soldiers discovered that the uniform's crotch seams were prone to ripping open on the battlefield. Rather than fix the problem, however, the Army simply shipped more boxes of defective uniforms to supply sergeants. Stitching techniques were revisited the following year, and in 2007, uniforms already in circulation were tailored to compensate for the frustrating and distracting deficiency.

As it would turn out, MultiCam -- a pattern that the Army had originally passed over in favor of the universal pattern -- was discovered to work quite well in Afghanistan. The Army began issuing MultiCam combat uniforms to deployed soldiers, but continued (and continues to this day) peddling universal pattern combat uniforms to soldiers stateside -- a combat uniform that will never again be used in combat.

Such dysfunction is not unique to the Army. MARPAT was a success not only in function, but also in adding distinction to the Marines wearing it. Naturally the Air Force wanted in on that action, and set about to make its own mark on the camouflage world. It's first choice? A Vietnam-era blue tiger-stripe pattern. (You know, to blend in with the trees on Pandora.)

After an outcry in the ranks, the leadership settled on a color scheme slightly more subdued. The new uniform did, however, have the benefit of being "winter weight" only, which was just perfect for service in Iraq.

The Marine Corps has remained loyal to the effective MARPAT, and rightfully so. But when the Navy decided to migrate to a digital pattern three years ago, it chose a desert scheme a few shades too close to that of the Marines, and the Corps balked. The Navy has since restricted its digital desert pattern to Special Warfare units. (The Marine Corps has also warned the Army against infringing on its design.) Essentially, the branches of the U.S. military are now engaged in the same intellectual property battle as Google and Apple.

To make matters worse, the new Navy Working Uniform has been found to be highly flammable, and "will burn robustly" if exposed to fire. In fact, it turns into a "sticky molten material."

Nobody expects the military to make smart financial decisions. While the six-hundred-dollar hammer was a myth, such boondoggles as the F-35 joint strike fighter are very real. And while it is the world's best jet for fighting Transformers or supporting Iron Man, it is the worst for modern, non-computer-generated battlefields. (The Air Force isn't exactly flying a lot of sorties against the Taliban fighter jets.)

But everyone should expect and demand that the Defense Department purchase durable combat uniforms printed with the most effective camouflage pattern. Only the galactic stupidity of the Pentagon would allow inferior concealment in the name of public relations and marketing, which is what this uniform arms race amounts to. Each branch wants its members to have a distinct appearance, and there's nothing wrong with that. Such matters should, however, be confined to dress uniforms. As a matter of camouflage in hostile areas, a standard combat uniform across the branches is the only sane option.

From a financial perspective, it makes sense as well. Four combat uniforms require distinct accouterments and gear, to say nothing of manufacturing times and transportation overseas. If standards are an issue, I'll offer a baseline: a pattern that blends into the relevant operating environment; stitching that doesn't rip at the crotch; material that doesn't melt onto the skin. And the Pentagon should leave the embarrassing copyright battles to the smartphone industry. I'd like to think the United States military has more pressing things to worry about.