Nobody Asked Me, But...Why Is Digital Camouflage All the Rage?

By James W. Hulme

The Marine Corps, in revamping its combat uniform, introduced digital desert and woodland patterns. The former became a de facto summer uniform, the latter for the other three seasons. The Marine transition seems to have been the smoothest to date, apparently an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary change.

Now the Navy, not wanting to be left without its own new camouflage, has adopted a blue digital pattern. If the ACU and ABU are best viewed with night-vision equipment, I have yet to figure out the natural environment for the new naval pattern. But, as in a scene from a campfire skit at scout camp, I can picture an enemy submariner looking through his periscope and saying he can't see a single Sailor on the U.S. warship-because they're all so well camouflaged.

What lessons can we draw from all this creative activity?

Clothing should be appropriate to the situation. As when we were children, there are good clothes and play clothes. In the military this means ceremonial, dress, and working or combat uniforms. Camouflage should reflect the environment in which the wearer seeks concealment. Garrison assignments and headquarters postings probably do not require much camouflage. Individuals assigned to combat arms, on the other hand, deserve the best possible protection no matter where they are posted.

Substantial consideration should be given to functionality. Important pockets should not be placed where they will be blocked by body armor, holsters, or other equipment. Means of identifying friendly forces may also be a requirement, through infrared reflective materials or other markers. Provisions should be made to display and conceal such features according to the situation.

Service personnel should have the right tools for the jobs they do, and that includes uniforms. If the job requires fire-resistant clothing, that is what should be issued. If simple BDUs suffice, then that is what should be issued. Both the ACU and ABU cost far more than the uniforms they replaced.

But limitations must be recognized. For example, as BDUs became widespread, someone figured out that they looked better when starched. Sadly, the care instructions clearly stated that starching was not good for the material. So, this effort to improve appearances reduced the lifespan of the BDU. Many of today's fabrics derive from sporting equipment and require special care. But this may be incompatible with military laundry facilities.

Finally, all uniforms should be studied for inspiration. If the private sector, another service, or even another country has developed a good pattern or feature, it should be evaluated and, if appropriate, copied or licensed.

Our armed forces should have distinctive uniforms that foster esprit de corps without sacrificing common sense. When in combat, they should have the best possible camouflage for the situation. When working behind a desk, they should have something practical and economical. We don't need a military fashion column to reach these simple conclusions.

Mr. Hulme, a member of the Naval Institute since 1983, is an attorney in Albany, New York. He has previously contributed to Proceedings .

Mr. Hulme, a member of the U.S. Naval Institute since 1983, is an attorney in Albany, New York. He has previously contributed to Proceedings.

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