Uniforms, Morale and Big Business

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In May, Tea Party Patriots reported on how uniform envy in the military has cost taxpayers millions of dollars. With the backlash caused by the Government Accountability Office report that brought this waste to light, it’s no surprise that both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees will be trying to reduce those costs after the fact.

According to Roll Call, the issue is causing quite a bit of heartache up on Capitol Hill and within many of the military’s brass.

Consolidating the number of uniforms, which would affect almost all of the 2.2 million men and women in the active and part-time armed forces, could save up to a quarter of a billion dollars, according to proponents. But it also could alienate many uniformed troops and be a blow to the morale of the different services at a time when the military community is already reeling from deep budget cuts and a series of sexual-assault scandals.

The article is worth reading in full, if only because three points of concern arise:

First, fiscal conservative Congressman Paul Broun (R-GA) moved to strip away the provision that would consolidate the military’s uniforms. Surprised that the Congressman would oppose a measure to cut spending, I reached out to his office for comment. A spokesperson directed me to Rep. Broun’s official statement on the matter:

Congressman Broun isn’t opposed to reducing the number of uniforms among the services….However, he is concerned that this provision would actually end up being prohibitively costly. It appears to require a re-outfitting of all components of the DoD to a new, unified camo – or, should the DoD choose an existing camo such as the MARPAT used by marines or the new Army camo in development, all other services would have to be re-outfitted.

The GAO recommendations cited as justification for the amendment have been accepted by DoD. Prematurely sacrificing the existing working uniforms in favor of a consolidated design would nullify the good work of some services during the development and acquisition process and cut into their morale and ethos….There is no clear need for this statutory requirement as written, and the purported 250 million in savings may not materialize with the amendment – instead we may see costs estimated into the billions for a full re-outfitting.

The Congressman also said “we should allow the Pentagon to implement the GAO recommendations and continue to provide Congressional oversight.” Yet, as one retired Marine noted in the Roll Call article, Congress’ oversight was nowhere to be seen when the military was expanding its uniforms:

Retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, a respected budget hawk….asked where the panel was when the services were expanding from two combat camouflage uniforms to 10.

“If they were so concerned about these uniforms, where were they when these services designed the individual uniforms?” he asked. “It’s like the ship is sunk and three years later we want to row the captain to where the ship sunk and sink him with the ship.”

While Congressman Broun’s concerns about extra costs may be valid, his solution is wanting, given what is clearly a history of failure by Congress to conduct proper oversight.

Another issue, one raised by former brass, is morale in the military:

Some outside experts and former generals insist, however, that the symbolism of reining in potentially wasteful spending is outweighed by something more important — the boost to pride and morale generated by distinctive uniforms.

Two former military leaders went on the record regarding their concerns:

Punaro said the value of an esprit de corps shouldn’t be so simply dismissed.

“I don’t think we want to try to change the culture, history and tradition of the services and turn them into something they are not,” he said.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Ted Stroup echoed Punaro’s concern.

Stroup said he believed Enyart and Duckworth are “trying to make this as controversial as the military bands. For esprit purposes, for identification among allies, you really need to have field uniforms among the services. It is a delineation of difference between the services; it’s done more for esprit de corps than utilization.”

While I never served overseas, I did serve eight years in the Army National Guard and Army Reserves. It strikes me that in my time of service – 2004 to 2012 – I never saw morale go up or down because of uniform changes. In fact, many older and middle-aged soldiers preferred the old BDUs to the new ACUs, for reasons of both practicality and tradition. Lastly, the argument by Stroup and Punaro indicate current uniforms give more morale to those who serve – does that mean these gentlemen believe morale has risen in recent years as a direct correlation to more uniforms? That seems to be their argument.

Finally, possibly the biggest barrier to these potential savings is mentioned in passing – the “jobs” canard:

It may not be big money in the context of a more than $600 billion defense bill — Enyart said all four services could ultimately save a total of $250 million by going to one combat uniform — but for the textile companies that make the uniforms, it’s big business, one senior congressional aide noted.

Much like tax and spending reforms, and a recent foreign aid cost savings measure proposed by President Obama, it is certainly possible special interests will interfere with this small effort to reduce spending. Never mind that inefficient government spending does harm to the American economy.

In the end, even if this uniform effort is successful, it only saves money from being wasted in the future. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent willy-nilly because of egos and a lack of congressional oversight. Like the IRS scandal, the NSA scandal, and the EPA and State Department scandals, oversight after the fact is oversight that comes far too late.

It’s one more reason to shrink the federal government, so oversight can be effectively done to prevent bad things, not shift blame once things go sour.