This is a spending mistake that can't be camouflaged.
The U.S. military spent millions of dollars developing uniforms with camouflage patterns that weren't properly concealing troops in the Afghanistan war front, leaving troops vulnerable and forcing the Pentagon to start another costly redesign.
"The services used varying, fragmented processes for managing their uniform acquisition activities, which have not consistently ensured the development of effective camouflage uniforms," the Government Accountability Office said. "The Army and Air Force ... found that their new uniforms did not meet specific mission requirements."
Across the services, $12.5 million have been poured into uniform development programs that didn't help troops, to say nothing of the billions it cost to produce and distribute the new uniforms, the GAO found.
And the services could waste millions more by developing separate uniforms in the future instead of working together, the GAO warned.
For their haphazard effort to outfit American troops with uniforms that wasted money and risked safety, the Army and Air Force win this week's Golden Hammer, a distinction given to a prominent example of waste in government.
The GAO graded the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps on two criteria it considered essential: "clear policies and procedures that are implemented consistently, and a knowledge-based approach that includes meaningful data to determine whether a product will meet customer requirements."
The watchdog agency didn't evaluate the Navy's uniforms because that service adopted uniforms that were already in use by its Naval Special Warfare Command.
Investigators found the Marine Corps had a solid and efficient approach, while the Army and Air Force did not.
Pentagon officials said they are working to improve uniform oversight and are creating joint criteria for future uniforms. Defense Department, Army, and Air Force officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.
"The Army used a decision process for the development of a new uniform that did not produce a successful outcome, and it had to replace that uniform in 2010," investigators said.
Between 2003 and 2005, the Army spent $3.2 million to develop a new camouflage uniform. But shortly thereafter, soldiers in Afghanistan expressed concerns that uniforms still needed improving and that the camouflage needed to better match the Afghan environment, investigators said, although the pattern was more effective in Iraq.
At the behest of Congress, the Army poured another $3.4 million into new development and deployed the latest uniforms in 2010, estimating the total budget for the new uniforms could be has high as $40 million.
"While the Army conducted some testing on camouflage patterns, it did not complete the testing before selecting a pattern," the GAO said. "As a result, the Army developed a uniform that proved to provide ineffective concealment for operations in Afghanistan."
Investigators said that while developing the next generation of the Army Combat Uniform, or ACU, the service did not develop standards for reporting camouflage patterns' test results, performances and risks. So when senior Army leadership was briefed on the progress of the uniforms, they were told about the cost, timeline for deployment and the number each soldier would need - but not about the testing results of how new camouflage patterns were fairing, investigators said.
The Army did field test 13 camouflage patterns. But leadership chose a pattern that wasn't even part of the test, the Universal Camouflage Pattern, investigators said.
Army personnel "could not provide a performance report to support the selection of the Universal Camouflage Pattern nor explain how the camouflage pattern was developed," the GAO said.
The concern is not only one of money, but also safety. In 2010, the Air Force Central Command instructed its airmen and women serving in Afghanistan to begin wearing the Army's uniform, worried that conflicting camouflage patterns might make troops easier to see.
A 2009 study by the Army found that the new uniforms "offered less effective concealment than the patterns chosen by the Marine Corps and some foreign military services, such as Syria and China."
"The Army tailored its development program in a manner that excluded steps in the process that might have ensured the use of test and evaluation results to support decision making throughout the development of the ACU," said the GAO report.
And Army leaders have already started designing the next round of uniforms. They've spent $2 million in 2011 alone just on development, with plans to spend $5 million more on development through 2017, GAO said. Official estimates say that if the Army chooses to replace all current uniforms, it could cost $4 billion over 5 years.
The Universal Camouflage Pattern was mostly pixilated shades of grey and light green, which soldiers said stood out against Afghanistan's mostly earthen-tone environment. Now soldiers deployed to the area are instead given the Operation Enduring Freedom Camouflage Pattern to wear, a brown and tan based uniform. The Army estimates the new uniform could have added $40 million total to its 2010 and 2011 budgets.
The Air Force was also criticized. After spending $3.2 million to develop a new non-combat uniform, the service had to scrap the program all-together in favor of uniforms made from lighter fabric that was less hot. Investigators also found that officials ignored several recommendations made during uniform testing, including suggestions on reducing the heat buildup of the uniform.
And the camouflage was tested for environments other than ones Air Force airmen and women were deployed in, the GAO said. Overall, in 11 out of 19 studies, personnel rated the new uniforms as "marginal or unsatisfactory for concealment 58 percent of the time," the report said. The Air Force's Clothing Office noted that the new uniforms were never meant to be worn during combat.
The other services stand in contrast to the Marine Corps, which investigators complimented on creating good uniforms at low cost. All told, since 2001 the Marine Corp estimates its newest uniforms will cost $502 million over 20 years for development, deployment and disposal. The GAO said the Marines used a well thought out and well researched plan for designing new uniforms, something the other services lacked.
The Corps did extensive testing on what camouflage patterns worked, including getting the expertise of 284 Marines from Expeditionary Forces, investigators said.
But problems remain because the services are still developing their uniforms separately instead of working together, investigators said.
The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 required the Secretaries of the services to develop criteria for future uniforms to ensure that advanced materials and other technology used would be compatible across the military. But the services aren't working together, the report said.
The Army estimates it could save $82 million by developing its future uniforms in partnership with another service, but has not reached any agreements yet, the GAO said. Meanwhile the Navy could have saved $6 million by establishing a partnership with the Coast Guard before it supplied that service with Navy uniforms, investigators said.
The Navy and Marine Corps, also, are printing their services' logos directly onto the uniform fabric, despite Pentagon directives that all "distinctiveness" for uniforms must be achieved by pins, insignias and patches.