WASHINGTON — Camouflage combat uniforms in the armed forces may be getting a new look, or at least the same look across all four branches.
Congressional efforts to whittle down the 10 different camouflage uniforms in use to just one are gaining momentum, a move that could save millions of dollars while affecting future contracts for the 23 manufacturers across the country that benefit from the proliferation of designs.
Before lawmakers left town last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a fiscal 2014 defense spending bill, S. 1429, that would halt funding for new patterns starting Oct. 1 unless all services agree to use a single design for a given terrain.
A Government Accountability Office report prompted the changes proposed by lawmakers, who are trying to find ways to trim costs amid the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration.
"At a time when defense employees are taking furlough days and military readiness is suffering because of the sequester, the Pentagon budget can't afford frills," Rep. Bill Enyart, an Illinois Democrat who spearheaded the effort to reduce the multiple designs, said in an e-mailed statement. "Congress is right to exercise its oversight role to eliminate the waste and duplication in camouflage uniforms policy."
The four military branches have introduced seven camouflage uniforms with different patterns and colors — two desert, two woodland and three known as universal camouflage — since 2002, according to the GAO. Before then, all four branches used Army camouflage. The Pentagon spent about $300 million procuring new camouflage uniforms in fiscal 2011 and more than $10 million since 2002 developing different designs, the GAO said.
Defense-policy legislation already passed in the House would, upon enactment, prohibit each branch from adopting a new camouflage design unless it's used by all services. That bill would implement the single design by 2018.
The Senate's defense-authorization bill, S. 1197, includes a similar provision. The policy bills in each chamber would let the secretary of defense waive the uniform requirements in circumstances such as special operations. The proposed requirements wouldn't apply to headgear or footwear.
Some opponents to the single design say the distinctive designs are a source of pride to military personnel.
"There's a lot of esprit de corps in the uniforms for those of us that have worn the uniform of one service or more," Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., said during the House Armed Services Committee debate on the House amendment. "This is really a morale issue for our men and women in uniform."
The Pentagon didn't respond to requests for comment on whether it supports congressional efforts to require one uniform across all services.
The Army alone may save an estimated $82 million if another branch worked with it to develop a new camouflage design, the GAO said in a report published in September 2012. The government watchdog agency also said that if the Army selects a new design it would cost as much as $4 billion over five years to replace existing ones and the associated protective gear.
"In the absence of a DOD requirement that the services collaborate to standardize the development and introduction of camouflage uniforms, the services may forego millions of dollars in potential cost savings," the GAO said. "The services' decision-making processes for developing new uniforms are fragmented and vary in their effectiveness," the GAO said in its findings, which were reiterated in a May report.
Reducing costs may mean fewer or smaller contracts for camouflage manufacturers. In March, the Pentagon awarded a $15.6 million contract to Boca Raton, Fla.-based Tennier Industries Inc. for camouflage-patterned jackets. That month a $25.5 million contract was awarded to Tullahoma Industries, based in Tullahoma, Tenn., for three types of camouflage pants for the Army.
Uniform designers also would be affected if the bills become law. Crye Precision in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Atlantic Diving Supply Inc., also known as ADS, and based in Virginia Beach, Va., were among the defense contractors chosen to submit designs for new Army camouflage uniforms.
Jamie Davenport, vice president of administration at Tullahoma Industries, said in a phone interview that like many of his competitors, defense contracting is the only viable option for most uniform-makers since so much commercial apparel is manufactured overseas now. If the Pentagon moves to one design, he said "there could be impact."
Davenport said he's optimistic his business would continue to win government contracts even if there's a reduction in designs. "I don't think the volume is going to fluctuate tremendously."
Enyart initiated the effort to cut down on multiple uniforms this year when he offered an amendment to the annual defense policy bill, H.R. 1960.
The House Armed Services Committee adopted the amendment on a 32-30 vote on June 5, a narrow margin that suggests the provision may face opposition when both chambers reconcile their policy and spending bills before agreeing on final measures for the president's signature. Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., voted against the Enyart amendment in committee before the House passed the bill 315-108 on June 14.
Enyart said cutting out multiple uniforms "makes sense" and would allow the military to "focus on the important priorities instead of spending money on unnecessary fashion design."