The Army Can’t Escape Its Camouflage Controversy

Two soldiers wear the Crye Multicam uniform while conducting room searches in Nahr-e Saraj district, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Aug. 14, 2012.
Photo by U.S. Army Spc Justin Young

The Army recently announced that soldiers will begin to wear a new version of the Army combat uniform. Colored in a new camouflage called the operational camouflage pattern, this pattern will still be called OCP. The Army is confusingly repurposing the OCP acronym, which originally stood for Operation Enduring Freedom camouflage pattern — the term for the commercial Multicam pattern produced by Brooklyn-based Crye Precision that the Army began to issue to troops heading to Afghanistan in 2010.

But the new operational camouflage pattern is really a throwback: It’s a modified version of a pattern that the Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center developed in conjunction with Crye back in 2004, called Scorpion. Crye’s Multicam pattern originally evolved from the work the company did with Natick, and it has gone into service with multiple nations and remains the camo of choice for special operations forces, who were wearing Multicam long before it was officially adopted by the Army. The Army’s Scorpion-W2, as the new camo is called internally, is supposedly the best solution at the lowest price. But questions remain about the effectiveness of Scorpion-W2, how much money is really being saved, and whether the Army can really use the pattern at all.

The Army’s arduous journey to find a new camouflage for its troops dates back to 2001. The Marine Corps had adopted an innovative family of patterns based on a Canadian digital camouflage design, to replace the three-color woodland and desert camouflage uniforms that the Corps and all other services used at the time. Called MARPAT the pattern was designed to make Marines stand out as much as blend in. It was a branding opportunity; a unique identifier to all who encountered the Marine Corps on the battlefield. It is perhaps for this reason that the Marines could not come to an agreement with the Army on sharing the new digital camo. The Army then began its own camo development from 2002--2004, culminating in the development of several “universal” or “transitional” patterns including Scorpion. They were universal in that one pattern was designed to provide decent camouflage in a wide variety of environments, rather than having a pattern for a specific environment like the old three-color patterns.

But the Army didn’t select Scorpion, or any of the other patterns from the two years of testing. For whatever reason, it instead adopted a digital grey-green-khaki camo scheme called the universal camouflage pattern, incorporated into the new Army combat uniform that was replacing the old battle dress uniform. The universal pattern was not as thoroughly tested as Scorpion and the other camo from the Natick trials. It would soon become abundantly clear how poorly the pattern worked as a camouflage. But the genie was out of the bottle; if the Army and Marines had unique camouflage, the others services would follow suit. The Air Force created a digital tiger stripe pattern for a new airman battle uniform. Dissatisfied, Air Force Special Operations personnel derided it as the airman barracks uniform. The Navy created three new patterns based off the MARPAT design for its naval working uniform, including a blue-gray pattern for garrison and fleet personnel designed to hide stains and smears.

By 2010, 10 different patterns were worn by military personnel in the United States. Included among them was Crye Multicam, as the pattern had become extremely successfully commercially, and was adopted by the Army in 2010 for use in Afghanistan after complaints about the ineffectiveness of the universal camo pattern reached several members of Congress. The Army then set out to not only resolve its camouflage issues, but to enhance flexibility by adopting a family of three patterns: one for woodland, one for desert, and one transitional pattern that would also serve as the camo for load-bearing equipment. This new operational camouflage effort lasted for three years and was the largest camouflage program in the world. Four companies, including Crye Precision, were selected as finalists. In early 2013, the Army announced that a winner had been selected and notified, and that they would soon unveil the new camouflages. But the sequester and congressional action stymied that plan; Section 352 of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2014 prohibited the adoption of any new camouflage uniform unless it was to be worn by all of the armed services, or if it was already in the inventory. With these setbacks, the Army was forced to look at what it already had access to.

Multicam was a logical choice, as it had proved effective in Afghanistan. But, at least as Crye Precision CEO Caleb Crye tells it, things went south from there. He indicates in a public memorandum that Crye Precision had been selected as the winner of the operational camouflage effort, and that the company would charge the Army a one-time royalty for the family of patterns of roughly $700,000. When the 2014 NDAA prevented that, Crye assumed the Army would simply use the large manufacturing base that had been built up for Multicam products over the years to purchase uniforms. But Crye says the Army told the company that it would need to deliver “significant cost savings.” This was a difficult request, as Crye doesn’t supply the specific Army uniforms; Multicam fabric is licensed by other manufactures and Crye receives royalty fees. Crye then submitted proposals demonstrating that the company could provide the Army with Multicam uniforms at less than 1% cost increase over the old universal camo pattern uniforms. The Army rejected these, and asked Crye for a full buyout of the Multicam pattern. Crye was reluctant, to say the least; not only did it seem unnecessary due to the wide commercial availability of Multicam products, but a buyout meant ceding control of the company’s flagship product to the Army. Even when Crye did provide a discounted valuation for ownership, the Army rejected that too. Crye then learned that Scorpion-W2 was to be the new camo for the Army when it was announced this July; essentially, the Army has cut Crye out of the process involving the transition to OCP.

But as Crye’s contracts for the 2004 Natick trials indicate, Crye still maintains a patent and full ownership of the Scorpion pattern. Additionally, Crye maintains agreements with fabric printers to ensure they do not to print camo too similar to Multicam. Being that Scorpion-W2 is essentially a prototypical version of Multicam, the legality of the Army’s current plan to adopt it without listing is called into question. It’s important to note that Scorpion was one of the Army’s baselines when testing new camos for Afghanistan in late 2009, and it was outperformed by Multicam. The Army’s frugality may turn into an expensive legal battle. Scorpion’s effectiveness, while obviously better than the universal camo pattern, is ultimately untested.

The Army seems unable to escape a misstep it made a decade ago.

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