The Camo Chronicles, Part 3: Setting the Bar

The first effort to create a service-specific camouflage pattern was a success because of its clearly defined goals and sound methodologies.

For more than a dozen years, accolades have been showered on the United States Marine Corps not only for the process it employed in developing a new digital camouflage pattern, MARPAT, for a redesigned Marine Corps Combat Utility Uniform (MCCUU), but also for the end result: The overwhelming consensus is that MARPAT is highly effective at concealing troops from the naked eye. Considering that a mere $319,000 was spent on R&D and that it took less than two years for MARPAT to go from the drawing board to its January 2002 debut at Camp Lejeune, there’s no question the praise was justified. Even the civilian sector took notice of MARPAT. In 2013, the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists honored the team that developed MARPAT with its tri-annual Millson Award for its impact on U.S. US textile, fiber, polymer and medical industries.

But MARPAT had one characteristic that was both a source of pride for the USMC and a cause for envy among other military branches: it was the first service-specific camouflage. The Corps made no bones about the fact that MARPAT gave “Marines a distinctive look, setting them apart from troops of the other armed services with whom they had shared a common field uniform.

What happened next was probably predictable: The Army, Navy, and Air Force also wanted to develop new uniforms that would make their personnel instantly recognizable while simultaneously making them less visible to the enemy. The Army began development of its Army Combat Uniform in 2003 “in response to a need for a combat uniform with greater operational utility,” with the Chief of Staff specifying one of the new uni's requirements was “to improve morale.” The Air Force had begun design of its new Airman Battle Uniform a year earlier; the Navy launched its development efforts in 2003. Obviously inspired by MARPAT, all three uniform makeovers wound up utilizing digital camo patterns.

A Hospital Corpsman blends in to the background in an alleyway in Afghanistan.
But when most of these patterns didn’t meet operational goals, a natural question arose: if the MARPAT camo pattern was so great, why shouldn’t all the other services use it, especially since they had all worn the same camo pattern in decades past? The answer from the Corps was that only Marines could wear MARPAT because the designs are proprietary and reserved for Corps use. This was bewildering to observers who weren’t able to appreciate how much an instantly recognizable uniform meant to the Marines’ esprit de corps.

MARPAT is indeed patented and its use proprietary—and rightfully so. If it weren’t, private manufacturers could release knockoffs available to the general public and even enemy combatants. And what was frequently overlooked in the brouhaha was that the Corps never hinted that other service branches couldn’t use MARPAT as the basis for their own digi-camo development. In fact, the same NCO who pointed out the proprietary nature of MARPAT also said that the Corps only concern was that other services might exactly mimic the pattern.

But recent discoveries in camouflage research might lead all branches of the armed forces to take a fresh look at the relatively new technique of printing digital patterns. An April 2015 report published by Marine Corps Times revealed that the NYCO fabric blend so perfect for printing digital camouflage makes wearers “glow” when viewed with short-wave infrared sensors.

Next: Universal Challenge
Previous: Elements of Uniform Design

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