After more than a decade of unpopular camouflage uniforms for U.S. Air Force maintainers and other airfield personnel, the air force has finally responded to complaints by introducing the new MDU (Maintenance Duty Uniform). These more practical work clothes are a single color described by airmen as “janitor green” and basically coveralls. This type of work uniform has always been popular with maintainers but not with fashion conscious senior officers who envied the camouflage uniforms combat troops in the army and marines wore. Before 2000 most air force non-office workers wore work uniforms similar to what the army had long used, a single-color two-piece uniform suitable for working on maintaining and servicing aircraft along with other airfield jobs. This was inherited from World War II when the Army Air Force grew enormously and became a separate service in 1947. New rank insignia were added and a few other minor changes to the work uniform, which was left alone through the Vietnam War and into the 1990s. These airfield personnel were not seen much in public and were allowed to use the army “fatigue uniform” for the dirty work that did not tolerate anything fancier.
That changed in 2007 when the ABU (Airman Battle Uniform) was introduced, more as a fashion statement for the air force than something maintainers and airfield workers wanted or needed. This combat uniform was supposed to save money and improve morale. After a five-year transition period, ABU became mandatory in 2011. Despite all the airmen using the ABU during the transition, there were some serious problems with the ABU and the worst ones had to do with heat and dirt problems. There was also the embarrassment many airmen felt 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 was permanent press, wash and wear and more comfortable. No ironing needed and you could not use starch on them. Air force personnel had long wanted a low-maintenance work uniform. The new boots that went with the ABU are suede green and could not be polished. That was practical and popular for maintainers. Basically, the ABU was initially popular because it required less effort to maintain, not because it had a snappy new camouflage pattern. The ABU cost about $82 a set (jacket and trousers) on the Internet. Airmen were issued the ABU when they entered the air force and received clothing allowance thereafter to pay for replacements.
The problems with the ABU fabric had to do with its theoretical ability to be suitable for both temperate and tropical climates. In this respect the ABU replaced the earlier work uniforms that were designed for very hot climates. There were suitable for temperate climates. When it got very hot they could take off the shirt (blouse) and work in a t-shirt. Airmen 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 airmen 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 stains out of an ABU but after a few months of this the uniform looks like hell. The air force was soon working on that problem as well. Meanwhile, many air force personnel were openly wondering why they are wearing what looks like an infantry uniform. So were some air force accountants looking for additional savings.
It was the additional cost, both financial and to morale, that led to the air force to reach back and introduce the new MDU. In the process the air force also eliminated some other unpopular rules. The MDU can be worn while traveling to and from work. This was especially popular with married airmen who lived off-base with their families. The MDU could also be worn all over the base at places where airmen shop or grab something to eat. MDUs cannot be worn in restaurants that require “proper attire” or serve alcoholic beverages. Airmen wearing the MDU could now put their hands in their pockets and drink water or use a cellphone while walking in the MDU.
The necessary camouflage uniforms for airmen and officers serving on air controller teams that accompany combat units are now identical to army camo. Otherwise, the enemy has an easier time identifying air controllers and attacking them. Air force security forces, which are basically light-infantry who guard bases at home and in combat zones, still wear camo and find that suitable to their job. No more camo for office and administrative workers.
Both airmen and sailors received camo work uniforms at about the same time and had a hard time justifying them. Ship-based sailors joked about their aquaflage uniforms and wondered what it was hiding them from. Some noted that aquaflage work uniforms made it more difficult to spot a sailor who went overboard, thus protecting him from rescue.
The camouflage mania eventually abated and military historians of the future will wonder “what were they thinking.” The sailors and airmen subjected to this had the same thoughts and few answers but finally got some relief.