The Expense of Military Camouflage

The Army Combat Uniform in the Universal Camouflage Pattern

US Military camouflage developments (or misadventures depending on your point of view) inevitably influence firearm and tactical gear industry. Poor designs, such as the much hated Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP), had lead to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal 2014  banning the development of service-specific camouflage. The economist has published an article about the military camouflage craziness

The marines led the way in 2002 with a versatile and effective new combat uniform, which also served to boost corps morale because the marine insignia was embedded in the design. This inspired a cascade of one-upsmanship among the other services. The air force, for instance, spent several years and more than $3m designing a new “tiger-stripe” uniform that proved unsuitable for combat—the camouflage was ineffective, the trousers were uncomfortable and the fabric was too heavy, leading to “heat build-up”. The navy spent a lot less money developing the “aquaflage” uniform; but that is a silly blue ensemble that works best where sailors may least wish to blend, in the water.

The worst offender has been the army. The service spent years and about $3.2m developing its own “universal” camouflage. This pattern was designed to work anywhere, but proved useless nearly everywhere. Soon after it was introduced in 2005, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan began complaining that the pattern turned them into targets. Troops from Syria and China were clearly better equipped. Reports suggest that a high-ranking military official had chosen the pattern without consulting the data from years of studies. The army is said to have spent at least $5 billion on uniforms and equipment printed in this camouflage, which is still in use. In an emergency measure, the army kitted out soldiers in Afghanistan in a new pattern starting in 2010, spending more than $38.8m on replacement gear in fiscal 2010 and 2011.

It is interesting to note that UCP has also been adopted, in some capacity, by Tunisia, Ivory Coast, Malaysia, South Korea, Cyprus, Serbia, Argentina, Chile and Peru.

Steve Johnson

Founder and Dictator-In-Chief of TFB. A passionate gun owner, a shooting enthusiast and totally tacti-uncool. Favorite first date location: any gun range. Steve can be contacted here.


  • Markost

    Actually Argentina adopted it for some police units (like the GE-1 from the Federal Police), not for the armed forces. The marines are using a local copy of woodland marpat and the army is being issued with multicam gear.

    • Tinkerer

      In Chile, the Air Force adopted an UCP lookalike, while the Army a MARPAT rip-off, and the Marines adopted Multicam.

  • Mouldy Squid

    We Canucks led the way in the new cammo patterns. CADPAT ftw!

    • Geodkyt

      Well, the US Army was testing digital pixellated patterns in the early 1970s. Never formally adopted them, and only used them on vehicles in selected test units, but it was the base algorithm Canada later used to create CADPAT.

      I’ll give Canada the ups on being first to adopt it formally and first to issue it as the standard combat uniform. 😀

      • LCON

        Well What The US Tested was Pixilated but Certainly not digital. It was painted on with Rollers

        • UnrepentantLib

          The logical thing to have done would have been to license CADPAT from our Northern Cousins and simply tweaked the color scheme to what we needed. Instead we apparently reinvented the wheel and put a color blind colonel in charge of the project.

          • LCON

            That’s What they did. ACU, MARPAT, NWU are all based on Cadpat they just tweeked the Colors and tossed in logo’s form time to time.

          • Risky

            Yep. It’s interesting if you line up the patterns, the blocks are IDENTICAL, just different colors. UCP loses a 4th color so some of the blocks got merged, though. Matches up nicely with MARPAT though.

          • LCON

            Yup. Whoever it was that cooked up UCP used three of the screens selecting a light sand tan, urban Grey and foliage green as there colors. After it became clear that UCP was not working, Natick added a fourth screen using coyote brown creating UCP Alpha,Bravo,Charlie Delta, echo and Foxtrot variants depending on the mix the Delta was then field tested but didn’t prove worthwhile. The original three screens colors were likely selected based on the idea that if you take common colors found in the environments they might generate a common patterns but UCP proves this wrong particularly with its colors which are all so close on the spectrum and neutral that they actually create a optical illusion causing them to blend together creating a generic grey. Particularly the foliage green and urban grey. The green is close to Kentucky blue grass or the back of a leaf and is near grey already but then partnered with grey the grey becomes the more dominant. The tan then contrast but only barely the result is that at a distance the wearer looks like a field grey German from WW1

          • Phil Hsueh

            From what I’ve read, the 3 colors chosen for UCP were chosen because they were the best colors under IR from woodland, desert, and urban patterns. It seems like the concern was more on how it worked under IR as opposed to how it worked in visible light which is somewhat understandable but US4CES shows that they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

          • n0truscotsman

            CADPAT proved that they weren’t mutually exclusive too, and it is the progenitor of UCP and MARPAT.

          • Phillip Cooper

            … and you’re surprised, why?

        • Phil Hsueh

          That’s not what makes a camouflage pattern digital, what makes a pattern digital is if was designed on/with/by computers as opposed to simply picking colors out from a bunch of paint swatches. Digital patterns utilize computer algorithms to help determine the best colors and pattern for a given terrain and don’t necessarily need to be pixelated, Multicam, for example, is an example of non-pixleated digital camouflage.

        • Geodkyt

          The pattern was created digitally. The fact that it was painted manually doesn’t change that.

      • n0truscotsman

        The Soviets had pixelated patterns during WW2.

        But apparently “digital” and “pixelated” terms arent synonymous with each other. They are two mutually exclusive terms. Something I didn’t know.

  • Paladin

    UCP should stand for urban camouflage pattern. It functions reasonably well downtown in a modern city, but is near useless in most natural environments outside of rock quarries. Until we can develop proper colour shifting fabric the idea of a universal pattern is a pipe dream. There is no one set of colours that will effectively blend in any conceivable environment.

    The best we can do right now is to have multiple specialized patterns for specific environment sets, like the new Multicam or Kryptek patterns.

    That said, from what I’ve heard printed camouflage patterns may be going obsolete in the next few decades, thanks to new developments in light-bending technology.

    • n0truscotsman

      Desert MARPAT and Multicam utterly bludgeoned UCP during the photosimulation camouflage test at Natick

      Yeah there is no such thing as a “universal” pattern. You either have one pattern that works in all environments marginally (multicam is probably the “best” universal pattern right now and performed pretty well), or specialized patterns that work really well in their intended environments. Weapon systems are the same way.

      Note: Funny how a reversible camo pattern completely eludes the army and natick, who claim that it “cannot be done” while ebay is rife with Russian uniforms that are reversible, yet light weight enough to be comfortable in the summer.

      The best solution is to teach soldiers that camouflage means more than uniform patterns. It is utilizing light/shadows, the implementation of area specific foliage properly, movement speed and pattern, and good ol’ infantry 101 tasks such as taking advantage of terrain features. A properly trained soldier in OG107s can best a poorly trained force with US4CES/multicam/ or any other gucci camo pattern of the month.

      • Wetcoaster

        I’m pretty sure the universal pattern is actually “grime” It’s a little amazing how quickly everything quickly turns into the same shade of mud and dust.

        • Paul Zimmerli

          Now, if we could have dark grime reversible to light grime, we’d have it made…

          Personally, I think the whole business is pixilated…. When I retired, everyone wore OD green utilities – except the blue and blue swabbies…

        • n0truscotsman

          “grime” is only the best camo ever conceived…alongside “nearby brush and vegetation” and “camo face paint”.

          That is the exact infantry craft im talking about. You wear the same uniform for a week on patrol/OP (wet cold shit or sweaty and caked with dirt), change into clean, dry clothes when you’re sleeping or racked out, repeat the cycle.

          There is the disadvantage of IR camouflage, although honestly, the way soldiers wash their uniforms and gear, the advantages of IR resistant patterns are negated anyways. and they thought i was a rambling nutjob when i would enforce the “sportswash” and “uv killer” SOP.

          • Wetcoaster

            Brand new CADPAT has very deep, vibrant greens, but after a while…


          • Patrick Mingle

            Isn’t that more of a material problem and not a pattern flaw?

          • Wetcoaster

            More of an observation that regardless of the original pattern, hard use in the field is going to make everything faded (and then muddy and then dusty)

    • William Johnson

      I vote for Useless Camouflage Pattern.

  • sianmink

    UCP, equally terrible in all conditions.

    • Kurtz

      Except sofas.

      • sianmink


  • Fruitbat44

    Oh dear, are we back in the land of $10,000 coffee makers?
    I suppose that it would be extremely galling for a marine to be mistaken for a Dogface, or for a soldier to be mistaken for a Jarhead. (Apologies if my US military slang is out of date, or just plain wrong.) But service specific camouflage uniforms, and particularly camouflage uniforms which are only intended to be worn on base, strike me as a bit pointless. Mission specific, or environment specific, camouflage patterns are another matter.
    I’m a little surprised that UCP didn’t work out; in theory a blend of muted grey-greens should work anywhere. I guess that the key phrase though is “in theory.”
    In Britain we’ve gone for MTP (Multiple Terrain Pattern; basically multi-cam with a few tweaks.) RAF and Royal Navy distinguishing themselves with a service specific TRF, with the Army using a unit or arm-of-service TRF. (Tactical Recognition Flash; gotta love those TLAs.)

    • Pete Sheppard

      The Marine Corps trademarking was silly and childish (I say that as a former Marine). DoD should order the Corps to lose the embedded emblems and make the pattern the standard military camo.

      • UnrepentantLib

        I’m not sure if is true or not, but I read once the German SS of WWII trademarked their camouflage patterns and wouldn’t let the regular German Army use them.

      • n0truscotsman

        We should have done that a long time ago. The SecDef could have done it too. Tell the marines to pound sand: all branches are getting the two patterns. The same OCIE.

        MARPAT apparently was a 300K $ pattern. Very inexpensive.

      • billyoblivion

        It prevents (at least in theory) unauthorized vendors from copying the pattern and using it on inferior cloth then selling it to either Marines, or to civilians.

        So it’s not silly.

        Telling *other* branches they can’t use it is silly.

  • Will W

    The Marine Corps spent about $500,000 (give or take a few hundred thousand, I couldn’t find the article) developing MARPAT. Granted, the pattern is basically Canadian, but the colors are unique to the Corps. They also made the smart choice and went with coyote brown 782 gear, and olive mojave boots. Both of which work with either woodland or desert uniforms. The Army spends over $4 BILLION on numerous tests and gear, only to adopt a pattern they had back in 2003? WTF!

    • LCON

      not Quite. The USMC MARPAT woodland pattern is derived from CADPAT with different colors but the MARPAT desert is actually a slight modification to a Early version of CADPAT desert. the modification being the Eagle Globe and Anchor worked into the pattern.
      second the Army took a very different and scientific process. They went through Testing and testing The patterns against a verity of environments on multiple continents. They tested using Flat Earth colors with patterns they tested using camo gear on camo uniforms and here is what they found. First matching gear and camo works better then flat colors with camo, second pixilated is not necessarily superior. third the a large portion of the planet is transitional with extremes demanding bookends. now the law in this in my opinion is they only requested bookends for desert and jungle they left out whites.
      now the end Game is where things also Faltered They ran it through all four phases and found Multicam was the best choice. not necessarily because it worked better It’s stated that the Final down selected four families all worked about the same. The Choice was made because it was logical to just transition to a pattern already in use.
      The Follow through is where it all fell apart. The Army wanted to buy Multicam lock stock and barrel. Crye couldn’t do that. they could licence the pattern but they have made a industry out of the pattern it’s there Cash cow. there money tree. So the Army rejected decided that no other vendor would likely sell out either.
      They then went back to the basis of Multicam. Scorpion. However here is the trick most people miss. The Scorpion they are going for is NOT the scorpion from 2004. Scorpion W2 was developed in 2009 based on lessons learned form Scorpion and Multicam.
      Now by going to Scorpion W2 the Army now has to invest in setting up new printing for it, and develop bookend jungle and desert patterns for specialized environments.
      Right now to do that they are reevaluating Marpat woodland and Desert vs M81 and DCU

      • Pete Sheppard

        What makes the Army’s effort criminal was that the UCP came in last or nearly last in the testing. The only thing I can figure (since the person who signed off on UCP is very well covered) is that it makes a nice warlike office uniform. Since most Soldiers work in admin environments, it apparently made perfect sense.
        The dumbest thing I read was that ‘black does not occur in nature’, hence no black pixels to shadow and break up shape.

        • LCON

          no What really makes it Criminal is the Army only tested it AFTER they adopted it. UPC was not in the Army’s original Camouflage development program. Scorpion circa 2004 was it placed Third. but UPC came out of nowhere. It’s like having a choice between Pizza and Chinese but Ordering KFC.
          All I can think is Whoever approved it designed it.

          • Pete Sheppard

            Either way, heads need to roll!

          • billyoblivion

            Nah. If they designed it they couldn’t personally benefit.

            However if they steered business to the person who DID design it, and a few years later retired to go work for them…

          • LCON

            The Original Trials Only had one Contractor in the mix. Crye Precision and There entry? Scorpion. All the Patterns were in House stuff form Natick And Army commands. This was not a Corrupt contractor this was Bureaucracy. Some one made the call and Said UCP And Who ever it was Thought this was the pattern.

    • n0truscotsman

      Youre right on the money (not being nitpicky). You hit the nail on the head.

      The marine corps basically adapted a modified CADPAT for a inexpensive price and the Army reverted back to Scorpion, which was a original contender in 2004. Albeit, its apparently not the exact Scorpion pattern per se, but whatever. Its still Scorpion.

  • stimr2

    It seems everyone is jumping on to the digital camo. I think I read somewhere kryptek camo was being looked into by the US Army.

    UCP is restricted to KATUSA forces in the ROK military. They’re actually issued USA Army ACUs.

    Here’s a video comparing the new digital camo for the ROK military compared to the old camo.

    • LCON

      Kryptex was in the Phase 4 Trials and one of the Down selected Patterns.
      The South Koreans Have a Additional issue for why they are Switching. The North Koreans. North Korean Troops have been seen in Chinese Clones of the Same M81 The ROK was issuing.

    • Phil Hsueh

      I think that this new pattern South Korea is issuing is a bad choice, it doesn’t nearly green enough for use in the terrain shown in the video, it’s far too brown and the macro pattern looks too small as well, it looks like you’d lose the pattern pretty quickly. The Koreans really should have went with something more like the CADPAT colorway which would probably work better in Asian forests and jungles.

  • DiverEngrSL17K

    I think Paladin summed it all up perfectly, especially the part about the impossibility of an all-encompassing universal camouflage pattern being all things to all ( or at least most ) combat environments, with the exception of the active light-spectrum altering technologies and their projected future applications. Speaking of current solid-color, passive ( i.e., non-active, non-spectrum shift ) camouflage patterns, I have found the Digital Woodland, German Flecktarn and Swiss Alpenflage patterns to be generally versatile and effective across a wide spectrum of temperate, sub-tropical and tropical environments, not including, of course, specific dense urban, mid-winter ( as in near 100% snowfield ) or extreme dry desert environments and the like. As with any other tool, camouflage clothing works best when used in conjunction with a suitably-matched scenario, i.e., the old adage about “the right tool for the right job” still holds true.

  • 11b
    • n0truscotsman

      That is amazing to me. Utterly amazing.

      UCP is to be replaced by one of the original contenders back in 2004. Hilarious.

  • Lance

    Reason we should have never left 3 color and woodland BDUs they worked and digi patterns dont work as well in blinding night vision and thermal sights as they where advertise. We had it good from 81-05 till the egg heads moved in on camo. One of the reasons some units in the MARSOC never went with digis and have stayed with woodland pattern.

    • LCON

      They mostly reverted to help blend with the Afghans they were attached to.

    • Phil Hsueh

      M81 works horribly in IR, UCP is a bit better, and MARPAT not so well, on the other hand US4CES seems to work quite well in IR and it’s a digital pattern, so what does that say to your theory about digital patterns not working well in night vision. As far as thermal goes, no pattern is going to work well against a thermal cam since it reads only heat signatures and not light per se. To conceal against thermals you would need special dyes and/or fabrics that somehow either traps the wearer’s body heat and keeps it from radiating out or alters it in such a way that you don’t see a person.

      • n0truscotsman

        …such as a mylar poncho… 😛

        I cant remember where i found it on natick, or from hyperstealth, but you are absolutely correct. M81 does not fare well in IR. The desert storm night camo fares even worse ironically. and MARPAT still fares worse than original CADPAT! which was obviously designed with infrared in mind.

        How insightful were the canadians though? i would say VERY. Not only does their camo outperform MARPAT, but also the navy’s own AOR series. They probably would have even let us copy it.

      • Right Old Bastard

        No such thing as “M81” camo.

        Thanks for outing yourself as an airsoft fanboi.

        • Phil Hsueh

          Ok. Everything I’ve read says that the old woodland camo we used to used on BDUs is called M81. If M81 isn’t the official designation for it then what is? OCP?

  • n0truscotsman

    This madness started when the marine corps copyrighted MARPAT (which was influenced by CADPAT), which was something the Secretary of Defense at the time should have squashed…but didn’t.

    Then it resulted in billions wasted on different camo patterns, different base colors for individual equipment, and more money spent for a pattern to supplement UCP because it was found to be inadequate.

    The camo debacle is infuriating to say the least. Especially now since the army adopted Scorpion (multicam), which was a competitor for UCP and other patterns a decade ago.

    The hilarious part about this is that camo patterns are just a small part of actual camouflage. Once again, the US military is counting on gucci rather than individual soldier-craft to conduct the very basics of ages old warfighting art.

    I cant wait for all branches to be mandated to a single camouflage pattern. I would enjoy seeing the reaction from the marine corps stripped of their MARPAT after being dicks about sharing their patterns a decade before.

    • Travis

      If I’m not mistaken, the Corps made a big stink a while back about SOCOM’s AOR patterns but was unceremoniously shut down. That’s the short version, though, and almost certainly leaves out quite a few details which maybe someone here can fill in.

      • n0truscotsman

        I think thats about right, although Im not a expert in procurement history. I do remember lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth because AOR looked so close to their licensed MARPAT. Whatever. They got a lot of fucking balls to be bitching since the corps bears the sole responsibility for the camo debacle to begin with.

        The SECDEF should have told the marine corps to STFU and forced all services to adopt MARPAT (and Robert Mcnamara did such a thing 40 years ago). Lots of money would have been saved.

      • LCON

        The Issue was particularly centered around AOR1 Desert pattern. The color way of which is very very close to Marpat Desert. The USN who created it had to make a call on adoption or with the Marines in a tizzy. So they decided to put a caveat on AOR1, Only Navy special warfare IE, Seals, Boat Crews. The Rest of the land Sailors would be issued the woodland set which is very different form woodland marpat

  • Matrix3692

    That’s new, i haven’t see any ATM(Malaysian Armed Forces) soldiers wearing this camo pattern.

    • LCON

      “It’s So Overt It’s Covert”

  • Mike

    Never really liked that camo, I always thought you would stick out wearing it.

  • Jeff

    The history and methodology are well covered at Bottom line up front is that MARPAT, CADPAT, and UCP are essentially the same pattern with different palettes and that digital patterns are considered effective.

    Among other things, UCP was supposed to provide better camouflage in NIR and SWIR spectra but as noted by many, has proven to be ineffective otherwise.

  • scw

    It does that a take expert to see that a camouflage with grey as the main color will work in A-stan. What were those guys thinking?

  • darrel

    It’s really ridiculous that the Army is only now making a sensible decision with Scorpion. It was an acceptable transitional uniform between M81 woodland and DCU, and left a lot of wiggle room for using old equipment in those patterns for the interim, although I guess they can just continue using all the Multicam they payed Crye premiums for until the supply is exhausted. Scorpion probably blends in with 85% of army base scenery. I can’t imagine what they were thinking with ACU, except that they were giving into the digital camouflage hype of that day.

    I really don’t care though. The Marine Corps will probably wear Marpat indefinitely, now that they’ve made a point of hoarding it. I can see Marines of the future wearing the same uniform for the Corps’s 400th birthday.

    • Phil Hsueh

      The ACU is still hear to stay, it’s UCP that’s going away. ACU stands for Army Combat Uniform and is just the uniform pattern/cut and it come in any color or camouflage pattern out there and, aside from some minor changes, is not going away although I’ve read that soldiers aren’t entirely happy with the ACU. All that’s going to happen is that instead of being issued ACUs in UCP they will be instead issuing them out in Scorpion/OCP, so same clothes, different color.

      • LCON

        Yup, ACU is the Style and cut of the Uniform. UCP is the pattern. And UCP will still be in the cycle for years.

  • That Guy

    I first saw the Army’s ACU/UCP camouflage towards the end of my 2005 deployment to Iraq as a US Marine. We were on one of the Army bases dropping off detainees when I saw a bunch of blue/grey blobs walking around in the distance. At the time I thought to myself: “Who are those idiots walking around the desert in grey camo? They stand out like crazy!” I later found out it was the US Army’s new uniform…

  • Brendan G

    That is a bit harsh on the Navy. The colours matches to the ship’s paint, thus extending the lifetime of the uniform where it often comes into contact with freshly painted surface. The Economist also fails to mention the NWU Type II and III for field operations, which are essentially modified MARPAT.

    • J-

      The pixilated pattern is also supposed to conceal grease and oil stains from machinery.

    • Geodkyt

      Here’s a better idea:
      “It’s a working uniform. It gets crap on it. Suck it up, you OCD pencil pusher, and leave these sailors alone, they have stuff to do.”
      Suddenly, the “service life” of a plain, one color uniform would be EXACTLY the same as the Aquaflage – and teh fabric would be SIGNIFICANTLY cheaper, meaning total cost savings at all points of teh cycle.
      The Coast Guard does just fine with navy blue BDUs. Practical, comfortable, and nobody seems to care if a Guardsman gets splotches on it. They don’t iron them, nor worry about whether they are wrinkled — it’s a WORKING uniform.

  • Zachary marrs

    Still a step up from this

  • The idea that any camo can be “universal” (unless it can bend light or chameleon into colors that match where you currently are) is ridiculous. Even the same place can require different colors shemes to blend in depending on season, let alone different places!

  • big daddy

    Camo does not work, although Multicam seems like the best of the bunch. We where going from Green to woodland and it still stuck out in the forests of Germany when I was in the Army. It’s about breaking up your sight picture or whatever they call it. Put some fake veggies on your helmet and shoulders and stay low, that’s the best cammo IMO. Same for the M16A1 we had, stuck out like a sore thumb, black is the worst. It’s more about the sight picture not the color though. At each distance your eyes change what they capture, movement, color, shape it’s all part of it. The fact is in each type of environment you need a different color but KISS it, green, sand, khaki, simple colors work best and solid colors are not a problem unless they do not match the terrain. You’re a lot better off wearing green in a jungle than tiger stripes and plain sand/tan in a desert than the cammo I have seen being used now.

  • valorius

    There was absolutely nothing wrong with the old BDUs.

    All just a total waste of money.

  • 101nomad

    Green jeans and T-shirt in the summer, brown jeans and T-shirt in the winter, white jeans and T-shirt in the snow. Boots to match. Modify as needed.

  • Secundius

    @ Mouldy Squid.

    No sir you didn’t. The Scottish troops of WW1 did, and they were called “Ghillies”.

  • 101nomad

    OG-107 fatigues seemed to work well at the time (1962-1965). Fortunately, I got out before designer clothing became the rage.

  • Secundius

    You might want to check a little known project during WW2 called Project “Yehudi” headed by Lord Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma. A perfect example of camouflage, too the extreme.

  • Will

    Camo designed by a bunch of desk pogues who have never been outside the pentagon.


  • The Major

    Nice try, Johnny Canuck! Desert Night Parka from Gulf War 1 came first.