June 3, 2013
A not-so-hidden tale of waste
An old cartoon showed a building with a sign over the entrance: “Department of Redundancy Department.” There are many things it makes sense for the federal government to do. The trouble arises when those in charge decide that anything worth doing is worth duplicating.
The multiplication game doesn’t mean things get done better. If anything, they may get done worse. But they certainly get done more expensively. A case in point is the Pentagon’s experience with camouflage fatigues.
You might think such a functional, unglamorous item could be handled with a sharp eye on the bottom line. We’re not talking about the next fighter plane or attack submarine, after all. You might think a couple of basic patterns would suffice: They are meant to be worn in foxholes, not fashion shows. You might think the best versions would be used across all services, since they serve the same country.
In each of these suppositions, you would be wrong.
A recent story by David Farenthold in The Washington Post laid out how the American military went from two types of camouflage uniforms to 10. It seems the Marine Corps had the idea to come up with its own patterns, one for the desert and one for the woods — each of which had Marine Corps symbols subtly woven into the pattern, to deter the other services from using it.
Rather than adopt the Marine togs, the Army spent more than $2.6 million designing its own “universal” style — and spending another $2.9 million for a substitute when the first one proved unsuited to Afghanistan. Oh, and the Post reports, “the Army is already working to replace that replacement,” at a price of $4.2 million.
Then there’s the Air Force. You may wonder about the need for camouflage among service personnel who typically don’t take part in ground combat. But the Air Force didn’t. It came up with a pattern of its own — which didn’t work in Afghanistan.
How could that be? “They were not designed to hide anybody,” said retired Army Lt. Col. Timothy O’Neill, an expert on camouflage. “They were designed to look cool.”
That goal, of course, may not have been unique to the Air Force. In the end, the wild blue yonder crowd had to settle for using the Army duds.
Its choice was a lot more sensible than what happened in the Navy, whose need for camouflage on a ship at sea is not immediately obvious. The admirals went with a blue-and-gray pattern — until someone realized the colors would make it harder to spot anyone who fell overboard. “Sailors,” reported Farenthold, “worried it would only hide them at the one time they’d want to be found.”
So another model had to be found, and then another. Somehow, the end result was that thousands of sailors serving in the desert wear fatigues designed to blend in perfectly … in a lush forest.
Somewhere in the Pentagon there should be an office whose job is to simplify tasks, prevent duplication, defuse petty rivalries and demand that the interests of taxpayers are given priority. Actually, there may be such an office. Or there may be ten.