Morale: Clothing To Suffer For


April 25, 2012: Faced with shrinking budgets for the rest of the decade, the American military is frantically seeking ways to save money. The U.S. Air Force Space Command found that it could save $670,000 a year by halting the practice of flight personnel, who were in non-flying jobs (that is where they are most of the time) could no longer wear flight suits and leather flight jackets to their office jobs. This change only affects 1,800 personnel in Space Command but the savings (from not having to buy the flight suits and leather jackets) adds up over the years.

This may lead to other changes, like the demise of the U.S. Air Force ABU (Airman Battle Uniform). This combat uniform was supposed to save money and improve morale. Introduced five years ago it became mandatory last year (to give everyone time to wear out the existing work uniforms). There were some serious problems and the air force is trying to deal with heat and dirt hassles. There is also the embarrassment many airmen feel wearing a camouflage uniform in office or technical jobs.

Initially, the ABU was quite popular. Because supplies were initially limited some air force personnel spent their own money to buy foreign knockoffs (which were available on the Internet). The troops were eager to get the new ABU, with its tan, gray, green, and blue camouflage pattern, mainly because of the low maintenance aspects. The ABU is permanent press, wash and wear and more comfortable to wear. No ironing needed and you cannot use starch on them. Air force personnel had long wanted a low-maintenance work uniform. The new boots that go with the ABU are suede green and cannot be polished. That's another big draw. Basically, the ABU is popular because it's less work, not because it's got a snappy new camouflage pattern. The ABU goes for about $82 a set (jacket and trousers) on the net.

However, there were problems with the fabric, which was supposed to be suitable for both temperate and tropical climates. One uniform replaced two. Troops in tropical areas (like the Persian Gulf) found the new ABUs warmer than the older uniforms, mainly because of the thicker wash and wear fabric and the large map pocket on the inside. Some airmen went to local tailors to have the map pocket removed to make the ABU cooler. Not cool enough, however. The air force was forced to develop a "tropic weight" version of the ABU.

The air force doesn't really want to have two versions of the ABU. There were already 236 different sizes of the ABU (so the maximum number of people will get the best fit). And then there was the problem with dirt and oil, of the kind normally encountered by the people who maintain aircraft. The ABU does not shed that crud as easily as the old work uniforms. If you make a major effort you can get the flight line crap out of an ABU but after a few months of this the uniform looks like hell. The air force is working on that problem as well. Meanwhile, many air force personnel are wondering why they are wearing what looks like an infantry uniform. So are some of the air force accountants looking for additional savings.


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