Army Camo Controversy – Endangered Soldiers?

I’ve read a lot lately about recent news that the US Army is contemplating a replacement of the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP), also known as digital camo because of it’s pixelated appearance.

First, know that I’m not an Army insider, and there are conflicting stories out there about the circumstances around UCP’s adoption in 2004 and why the Army is looking to possibly replace it now. You can read more here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Now that’s out of the way, I think there are some lessons to be learned for all project managers, even if the validity of specifics in the story may be under some question.

The Definition of Value and Needs Versus Wants

The definition of value is very context-specific.

I contend it’s from the perspective of the end users and can be synonymous with “quality”.

It can also be variable between degrees of what is ‘wanted’ and what is ‘needed’ by those end users.

In the case of a camo pattern for the Army it’s from the perspective of the soldiers on the front lines who can benefit or be put at risk by the camo pattern, not from the perspective of generals wanting to look good in a photo op.

I’m not implying I know that’s what drove the decision for UCP, it’s just true.

Also in this case the want-need gradient slopes steeply towards NEED.

Even if all the soldiers loved and wanted the Captain America un-camo they shouldn’t get it.

Science steps in when the definition of value is determined by NEED in this scenario.

Minimizing detection of soldiers in a combat situation is the only definition of value that makes sense for this project. All other wants and preferences be damned.

One Size Does Not Fit All

Especially from management there can be broad sweeping initiatives for consistency across divisions. Consistency is always better, right?

Not necessarily.

“One option would be to make MultiCam the Army’s official camouflage pattern, sources tell

The second option would be to make MultiCam the service’s pattern for garrison and general deployment use, but also to have a family of approved camouflage patterns that could be issued for specific areas of the world.” –

Is there one single ‘best’ way to manage projects in your agency?

Or is context important – with standardization including the flexibility to be context-specific?

This quote may or may not be representative or agree with the science, but if gives you pause:

“‘Essentially, the Army designed a universal uniform that universally failed in every environment,’ said an Army specialist who served two tours in Iraq, wearing UCP in Baghdad and the deserts outside Basra. ‘The only time I have ever seen it work well was in a gravel pit.'”

For Each Decision There Is A Best Decision-Maker

And that may not be you.

Given the discussion about value above, is it true that top management officials should be making all decisions?

I think the answer is clearly no.

Management officials hold the purse strings and should be making priority calls regarding expenditures. But are they also deciding the specific patterns that will be used?

If so, should they be? If not, by what process and who is best suited to make that decision?

If so, what are those decisions based on? Is this quote true or just the perspective of a single technologist who may be mistaken?

“‘It got into political hands before the soldiers ever got the uniforms,’ said Cheryl Stewardson, a textile technologist at the Army research center in Natick, Mass., where most of the armed forces camouflage patterns are made.”

What do you think about all this? It seems pretty clear that UCP was a crappy choice, and perhaps the concept of a ‘Universal Camo’ is a terrible idea when it doesn’t allow for the flexibility of different camo in different environments.

What lessons can you draw for your own projects?

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Jaime Gracia

One of the most important stakeholders are the end users. Granted the Captain America look would be cool, it is not a need.

It is here the requirements development process must be performed properly, to ensure all true needs are captured, and tied back to mission and ultimately a key performance parameter (KPP).

Certainly look was one consideration, as was fabric, design, flexibility, endurance, environmental factors, etc. The lesson here is the PM has (or should) have the final say, but rarely is that the case in DoD. The governing body is the DoD 5000, which states the PM has the authority, but it is often the brass the make the decisions, and sometimes at the expense of the end user.

Josh Nankivel

Thanks for the comment Jaime.

Completely agree. The KPP here would be “How well does it camouflage a solider” and that would be context-specific for every environment they’d be operating in.

Josh Nankivel

And if the brass is making the decision, are they properly informed to be able to make the right decision? Or are they able to make decisions using their ‘gut’ or what they think works best? Is the science and objective data being used or not?