The Strange, Sad Story of the US Army's New Billion-Dollar Camo Pattern

By Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan on at

After nearly a decade, multiple false-starts, and many billions of dollars, the US Army has finally chosen a new camouflage for its troops. Except it's not exactly new. It was originally developed back in 2002. And it looks exactly like one of the patterns that the US Army was in talks to adopt from an independent company.

What happened? Like the patterns at the root of the issue, it's complicated.

To understand the odd and twisting plot arc of the $5 (£2.9) billion Snafu camouflage debacle, you have to look back a full decade. It all started back in 2004, when the US Army adopted a new-fangled camo called the Universal Camouflage Pattern, a digital pattern that made quite a splash with its distinctive pixelated look.

Unfortunately, it was also terrible. Really, really terrible. Just totally ineffective and, it turned out, completely untested. Soldiers protested, arguing that it was actively making them less safe.

The US Army needed a fast fix. Eventually, it adopted a stop-gap pattern for troops in Afghanistan, licensing a pattern called MultiCam from Brooklyn-based security company Crye Precision. It also launched something called The Camouflage Improvement Effort in 2010, a competition to find and test the next US Army camo pattern from a group of four final security design teams. The entrants included Crye Precision, the supplier already making camo for troops in Afghanistan.

The Strange, Sad Story of the Army's New Billion-Dollar Camo Pattern

Troops wearing MultiCam on a mission. Image via Crye Precision.

The US Army has spent more than four years on the Camouflage Improvement Effort. The four finalists were announced in 2012. But by 2014, the US Army was still delaying the winner's announcement. In January, a US Army spokesperson told Gizmodo that "the US Army is weighing numerous options and are factoring in recent legislative restrictions," referring to legislation that would block it from adopting specific patterns for each arm of the military. Rrumours ran rampant that MultiCam, or a similar variant, was the pick, since its pattern was already in use.

But as spring lapsed into summer, that announcement never came. Instead, this week the US Army released a statement saying it would be adopting a pattern none of its finalists had designed for the Camouflage Improvement Effort. In fact, it would adopt a pattern it designed itself at Natick Research Center, the US Army's Massachusetts lab responsible for designing survival systems for soldiers.

In a terse statement on July 31st, the US Army said the pattern would be called Operational Camouflage Pattern. It wouldn't repeat the mistakes of 2004. And vitally, it would be as fiscally responsible as possible. That's because this "new" pattern is actually an updated version of a camo developed by Crye under contract for the US Army in 2002, according to Military.com's Matthew Cox.

What the statement didn't mention was anything about why the US Army had abandoned its massive, multi-year Camouflage Improvement Effort, or why talks with Crye about its newer pattern, MultiCam, had broken down. Or more importantly why, in the words of Military.com, the new pattern "mirrored MultiCam." Here's a comparison, with MultiCam on the left and the new pattern on the right:

The Strange, Sad Story of the Army's New Billion-Dollar Camo Pattern

Images: Wikipedia, US Army, via Military Times.

We reached out Crye Precision for a statement, but unsurprisingly didn't receive a response from the tight-lipped company. Yet we can surmise a pretty good amount about what happened from an extremely rare public statement made by the founder of Crye in March, which slipped under the radar of the non-military media.

According to Crye, the US Army had actually chosen Crye's MultiCam to adopt, but it refused to accept proposals for a fee to license their pattern. It seems the US Army couldn't afford to use a pattern developed over several years by an independent company, even if testing proved it the most effective pattern available.

That may have been thanks to the new 2014 Defense Authorization Act, which requires the US Armed Forces to choose a single pattern to work across all of the services and implored to use a pattern already in its library, Congress effectively stopped the Camouflage Improvement Effort in its tracks.

To make matters worse, the amount it would have cost to adopt MultiCam is surprisingly small. According to Crye, the final proposal would have increased the cost of Army uniforms by just one per cent of the current price. "The US Army rejected all of Crye's proposals and did not present any counter proposals," Crye wrote, "effectively saying that a proven increase in Soldier survivability was not worth a price difference of less than 1%."

Instead, the US Army chose a slightly altered pattern developed by Crye that it had owned since 2002, two years before its camo debacle even began. In other words, the past 12 years, billions of dollars, and incredible resource investment could have been easily avoided.

The government is cutting defence spending drastically, and the US Army is bearing the brunt of the cuts. It even plans to dye some equipment and vests printed with the useless digital camo pattern that began this debacle brown so they can still be used. But it's hard not to wonder if the US Army's abrupt adoption its own version of an older camo pattern—rather than MultiCam, which was created to improve upon that very pattern—isn't just a repeat of the disastrous 2004 decision that set the events of the last decade into motion.

Hopefully it's not. Hopefully, the new pattern is just as effective, even if it means Crye was thrown under the bus. Because in the end, whether or not it's a rip off or a waste of money, the lives of hundreds of thousands of people depend on it.