The U.S. Air Force Is Borrowing the Army’s Camouflage Uniform

But why does the Air Force wear camouflage anyway?

U.S. Air Force photo/Maj. Marnee A.C. Losurdo

The U.S. Air Force is joining the Army in using a new camouflage pattern for its daily uniform. The service has approved the Operational Camouflage Pattern for use by airmen starting October 1. It’s worth pausing however and wondering: Why does the Air Force need a camouflage uniform anyway?

The Air Force introduced the in 2007, replacing the by most of the Armed Forces for decades. The ABU is a tan, grey, green and blue “pixelated” uniform in a blocky “tiger stripe” pattern made famous by special forces units during the Vietnam War. The ABU is a daily use uniform, used not only by airmen who fight on the ground, like pararescuemen and forward air controllers, but on air bases and other facilities thousands of miles from the front line. There’s even a of the ABU uniform.

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The ABU has always been a bit of a head scratcher. For one thing, the “tiger stripe” pattern is antiquated, having been abandoned by armies decades earlier in favor of better patterns. Second, why do airmen not on the front line need to wear camouflage? A less expensive, single color uniform would be just as comfortable and look just as sharp.

The U.S. Army’s Universal Camouflage Pattern on the left and its replacement, the newer Operational Camouflage Pattern on the right.
U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Cynthia Z. De Leon

The Air Force is adopting the U.S. Army’s , which is already in use by Air Force special operations and ground combat units. OCP replaced the horrible , a mess of grays and whites that was hard on the eyes and really didn’t help soldiers blend in with anything. Adopted in 2004, UCP persisted until summer 2015, when the Army adopted OCP. OCP, also known as , is a green and brown pattern very similar but with a lighter overall tone to the commercially available .

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, the Air Force will spend $237 million over three years on the uniform changeover, or enough money for two and a half F-35A Joint Strike Fighters. The service claims it will break even in the long run by consolidating on just one uniform pattern. Further, it claims that the wearing the same uniform as the Army in the field will promote “jointness,” an attitude of interservice cooperation that recognizes all the services are all basically on the same team.

“Jointness” aside, there no good reason why Air Force rear area personnel shouldn’t wear camouflage, but there’s no good reason why they should, either. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the fact that battlefields are less linear these days, with just as likely to harm Air Force personnel as actual combat. Maybe it just looks good and boosts moraleand maybe that’s enough.

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