The armed services have spent millions of dollars on separate efforts to… (STEPHEN MORTON/AP )
In 2002, the U.S. military had just two kinds of camouflage uniforms. One was green, for the woods. The other was brown, for the desert.
Then things got strange.
Today, there is one camouflage pattern just for Marines in the desert. There is another just for Navy personnel in the desert. The Army has its own “universal” camouflage pattern, which is designed to work anywhere. It also has another one just for Afghanistan, where the first one doesn’t work.
Even the Air Force has its own unique camouflage, used in a new Airman Battle Uniform. But it has flaws. So in Afghanistan, airmen are told not to wear it in battle.
In just 11 years, two kinds of camouflage have turned into 10. And a simple aspect of the U.S. government has emerged as a complicated and expensive case study in federal duplication.
Duplication is one of Washington’s most expensive traditions: Multiple agencies do the same job at the same time, and taxpayers pay billions for the government to repeat itself.
The habit remains stubbornly hard to break, even in an era of austerity. There are, for instance, at least 209 federal programs to improve science and math skills. There are 16 programs that teach personal finance.
At the Pentagon, the story of the multiplying uniforms has provided a step-by-step illustration of how duplication blooms in government — and why it’s usually not good.
“If you have 10 patterns, some of them are going to be good. Some of them are going to be bad. Some of them are going to be in the middle,” said Timothy O’Neill, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who studied camouflage patterns as a West Point professor. “Who wants to have the second-best pattern?”
The duplication problem grows out of three qualities that are deeply rooted in Washington. Good intentions. Little patience. And a lust for new turf.
When a bureaucrat or lawmaker sees someone else doing a job poorly, those qualities stir an itch to take over the job.
“You don’t have empirical information on what’s working and what’s not working” in the profusion of new programs, said Gene Dodaro, who heads the Government Accountability Office (GAO). He hopes the country will finally decide it can’t afford this. “The fiscal situation . . . will begin to force that kind of decision to be made,” he said.
President Obama and congressional Republicans say they’re trying to prune back decades of redundant programs. Obama, for example, is seeking to kill or consolidate more than 100 of those science and math programs. But the problem lives on in many other places.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for instance, has a new congressionally mandated Office of Financial Education. It costs $7.87 million a year and is authorized to employ 14 people.
It is, by the GAO’s count, the 16th government program aimed at teaching the public better money management. And that shows.
The new office’s Web site offers answers to common consumer questions, such as, “How do I dispute an error on my credit report?” In that case, however, the Federal Reserve answered a similar question on its site: “How can I correct errors found in my credit report?” The Federal Trade Commission also offers advice on “Disputing Errors on Credit Reports.”
At the Pentagon, a GAO study commissioned by the Senate Armed Services Committee found that the military services have spent more than $12 million on designing new camouflage patterns. The cost of buying, stocking and shipping 10 different types of camouflage uniforms is believed to be millions more.
Is anybody trying to fix this?
“The Department of Defense continues to look for ways to streamline processes and implement better business practices,” a Pentagon spokesman said this week. He gave no details.
Uniform, but unique
This, in brief, is how two camouflage patterns became 10.
The Marine Corps started it. The branch spent two years and $319,000 testing patterns to replace the green and brown ones. In the end, the Marines settled on a digital design, which used small pixels to help troops blend in.
There was a desert version and a woodland version — camouflage pattern Nos. 3 and 4.
The Marines did not intend to share them.
“The people who saw this uniform in a combat area would know [the wearers] were United States Marines, for whatever that might mean,” said retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, who initiated the uniform design and later became Obama’s national security adviser.
After that, the Army set out to duplicate what the Marines had done, spending at least $2.63 million on its own camouflage research. The Army produced what it called a “universal” camouflage, in shades of green, gray and tan. Pattern No. 5.
It was not as universal as they said.