Battle Dress Uniform

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This article is about the US Armed Forces uniform. For the similarly named British combat uniform worn from 1939 to 1961, see Battle Dress.
U.S. Army National Guard soldiers wear BDUs in woodland camouflage during a July 2000 field training exercise in Yavoriv, Ukraine.

The Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) are fatigues that were used by the United States Armed Forces as their standard uniform for combat situations from the early 1980s to the mid-2000s. Since then, it has been replaced or supplanted in every branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, except for certain elements of the U.S. Coast Guard, which still use them as of 2013, and the US Air Force Auxiliary Civil Air Patrol.

The U.S. Navy currently authorizes wear of the BDU uniform at locations such as at the U.S. Special Operations Command and other ground-based naval units, such as Seabees. U.S. Coast Guard personnel overseas and working with other military services may wear Woodland BDUs, and the Desert Camouflage Uniform (a variation of the BDU) but known by another name. As late as 2014, BDUs were still worn by officers of the U.S. Public Health Service as the prescribed uniform for deployment, but have been replaced by a variant of the US Coast Guard ODU.

BDU-style uniforms and derivatives still see widespread use in other countries (some of them being former U.S. surplus stocks transferred under U.S. security assistance programs), while others are still worn by some U.S. federal, state and local law enforcement agencies or activities who may work in tactical situations, such as the DEA FAST and SWAT teams.

Description and adoption

These uniforms are called battle dress uniforms because they are intended for use during "battles", as opposed to "garrison" dress uniforms worn at parades and functions. The general design and configuration of the U.S. BDU uniform was similar to that of Vietnam-era jungle fatigues, which were in turn similar in configuration to specialty uniforms worn by U.S. paratroopers during World War II.

The Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) first appeared in September 1981 in the woodland camouflage pattern. It was based primarily on the woodland colors of northern Europe. It used shades of green, brown, tan, and black, initially printed onto cotton-nylon blend twill cloth, known as the "Temperate Weight" uniform. A lightweight "Tropical Weight" BDU uniform was introduced in 1987 with the pattern printed on 100% cotton rip-stop poplin cloth.

The tropical weight uniform was not as durable as the temperate weight uniform. The tropical uniform would only last for 4–6 months of use when rotating four uniforms for duty, while the temperate uniform would last over a year under the same conditions.

It was the first camouflaged uniform approved by the Army since the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, where the ERDL pattern was in limited use. The BDU soon replaced all earlier camouflage pattern uniforms for all wooded, jungle, and tropical environments, and, by 1989, had completely replaced the standard olive drab uniforms that had been used since 1952.


Since 1981, changes included the addition and subsequent elimination of buttoned waist adjustment tabs, the size reduction of the collar, and refinements in stitching and fit.

BDUs were initially only issued in a 50/50 nylon and cotton twill blend (the Temperate Weather BDU (TWBDU)). Complaints regarding the heat retention of these uniforms, especially following the invasion of Grenada in 1983, led to the introduction of the Hot Weather BDU (HWBDU). The Hot Weather BDU coat and trousers were constructed of 100 percent ripstop cotton, in a four-color woodland camouflage pattern. However, after complaints of shorter wear and frayed cuffs, along with requirements imposed by unit commanders to starch the all-cotton uniform for parade, the Enhanced Hot Weather BDU (EHWBDU) replaced the HWBDU commencing in 1996. The EHWBDU are made with 50/50 ripstop nylon and cotton poplin blend.

BDU's are printed with infrared-brightened dyes. Near infrared (NIR) Signature Management Technology is used in the uniforms to help prevent detection by NIR Image Converters. These photocathode devices do not detect temperatures, but rather infrared radiation variances. NIR-compliant uniforms use a special fabric that allows soldiers to appear at the same radiation level as the surrounding terrain, thus making them more difficult to detect. It is advised not to use starch when cleaning or ironing BDU's, since starch weakens the fabric and ruins the infrared protective coating. A pair of BDU's that has been starched even once should not be worn in combat.

History of camouflaged battle uniforms

U.S. Air Force Security Forces airmen train at Fort Huachuca, Arizona in October 2004, wearing BDUs in woodland camouflage.

While the Italian Army was the first military organization to issue camouflaged clothing, albeit in limited numbers, the Germans were noted for their efforts in this field before the Second World War. After much trial, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (abbrev. OKW) authorized Heeres-Splittermuster 31, more commonly known as "splinter pattern", for use in shelter-quarters (Zeltbahnen) in the 1930s. In 1940, SS-Verfügungstruppe (abbrev. SS-VT; renamed Waffen-SS) designed, tested and issued its own distinctive patterns and layout not long after.

The United States Marine Corps received its first military camouflage pattern in 1942, when the reversible, beach-jungle, three- and five-color frog-skin pattern uniform was issued, based on a 1940 trial design. The pattern was mostly employed in the Pacific Theatre, but was not found to be particularly effective and in the European Theatre the pattern was withdrawn altogether in 1944—in part because of anticipated friendly fire incidents after D-Day, due to its similarity to the Waffen SS's pattern (Not to be confused with Flecktarn, a modern design.) Camouflaged helmet covers and shelters were issued in the 1950s in "wine leaf" and "brown cloud" patterns. The U.S. Army also tried a lesser-known camouflage uniform on D-Day and throughout the Normandy operations, like the Marine Corps' uniforms, but it was replaced by the M43 uniform before being used much.

During the Vietnam War, the United States military's four-color ERDL pattern saw limited use amongst specialist units in the U.S. Army, though most were issued the solid olive green OG107 sateens or jungle fatigues, while the Marines adopted the pattern service-wide after 1968.

A U.S. Air Force missile technician, wearing a BDU in woodland camouflage, inspects an ICBM guidance system in March 2006.

The ERDL pattern fatigues were identical in cut to the third-pattern OD jungle fatigues, and were available in both a highland pattern (more brown), and a lowland pattern (more green), though the lowland pattern was eventually phased out. Other, unofficial, patterns utilized in Vietnam included black-dyed or spray painted jungle fatigues, often used by special purpose forces, and various Vietnamese Tigerstripe patterns (themselves being based on French Army airborne and Foreign Legion patterns and a British design utilized in Malaysia), or commercial "duck hunter" patterns.


U.S. Army soldiers (from left to right) showcase the Army Combat Uniform (left), Desert Camouflage Uniform (center), and a World War II-era uniform (right) during a Public Service Recognition Week event at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in May 2005.

The U.S. military has run trials of many camouflage patterns (some being used by foreign militaries), and issued environment-specific uniforms, notably the six-color Desert Battle Dress Uniform (DBDU), nicknamed the "chocolate chip camouflage", designed in 1962, and the "nighttime desert grid" (NCDBDU). Both uniforms were used in 1991, during the Persian Gulf War. These Desert BDUs were discontinued after the war.

The Desert Combat Uniform (DCU) in three-color desert camouflage were introduced in 1992, and was utilized in operations in Somalia (1993); it was in service in Afghanistan and Iraq from the start of hostilities, but the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps have both replaced the DCU with newer uniforms (ACU and MCCUU, respectively). The DCU is colloquially called "coffee stains" by the soldiers wearing it. In testing, U.S. Army researchers found that, as in other environments, the color of desert terrain varies, and can range from pink to blue, depending on the minerals in the soil and the time of the day. Since patches of uniform color in the desert are usually 10 times larger than those in wooded areas, it was decided to alter the existing six-color DBDU pattern. This led to the development of a three-color pattern DCU, which was adopted.

U.S. Marine Corps

With the development of modern camouflage patterns and the rising desire of the various U.S. military branches to differentiate themselves from each other has resulted in new patterns for uniforms. The U.S. Marine Corps was the first branch to replace their BDUs. The Marine Corps Combat Utility Uniform uses the computer-generated MARPAT pattern and several other enhancements. It was approved for wear in June 2001,[citation needed] and the changeover was completed by October 1, 2004. USMC Special Operations units (MARSOC) have recently issued M-81 woodland pattern uniforms to supplement MARPAT uniforms for special missions.

U.S. Army

A U.S. Army officer of the 75th Ranger Regiment wears a BDU when examining a man's eyes in January 2000.

A U.S. Army program running from 2005 to 2007 has replaced the BDU with the Army Combat Uniform (ACU). The ACU uniform uses a digital pattern known as the Universal Camouflage Pattern. It is similar to MARPAT, but uses less saturated colors. The neutral colors, foliage green and sand, are designed to be used in desert, woodland, and urban combat situations and is known as the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP). The ACU is used in all environments except for areas with snow, as the ACU works poorly against white. An all-white BDU and the ECWCS are used instead.

U.S. Navy

In 2007, the U.S. Navy began issuing a CADPAT digital pattern Navy Working Uniform (NWU) in blue and gray on an experimental basis. While it is neither a tactical uniform nor a battle dress uniform, the NWU is intended to take the place of many existing work ensembles (utilities, wash khaki, coveralls, woodland green, etc.). The disruptive pattern is primarily intended to complement U.S. Navy ship colors and to hide stains and wear, and supposedly to make the wearer a less obvious visual target for hostile forces while working aboard a naval vessel in port.[1]

To meet the Navy's cold-weather requirement, the NWU set will include a fleece jacket, pullover sweater, and parka options. U.S. Navy SEALs, Seabees, and other U.S. Navy personnel deployed ashore under the cognizance of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command still use older woodland and/or three-color desert BDUs for outdoor operations or activities in specific areas of responsibility (AOR).

U.S. Air Force

In 2004 and 2005, the U.S. Air Force experimented with, but rejected, a blue-toned tigerstripe uniform. In 2006, a new BDU-style uniform called the Airman Battle Uniform (ABU) was adopted, using a semi-pixelated tiger pattern with four soft earth tones consisting of tan, grey, green and blue. It failed, however, to incorporate many of the significant improvements of the ACU and MCCUU. By 2007, it was in current production.[2]

In 2008, responding to criticism that the new Airman Battle Uniform was too heavy and hot in high-temperature environments, the USAF's 648th Aeronautical Systems Squadron at Brooks City-Base revealed plans to switch to a lighter, more breathable fabric for the combat blouse section of the ABU. The original heavyweight nylon/cotton blend was changed to a lighter-weight nylon/cotton poplin material. Priority will go to those serving in the Middle East or other hot-weather theaters.[3]

U.S. Coast Guard

The U.S. Coast Guard has introduced the new Operational Dress Uniform (ODU) uniform in 2004 to replace the winter and summer "Undress Duty" uniform. Resembling the BDU fatigues, the new ODU uniforms retains the basic design of the old-style BDU uniforms, but with the lower pockets on the blouse being eliminated. The sleeves can be worn "folded up" in a manner similar to the old U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force BDUs (since disallowed with the new Army ACU) and the trousers "bloused" into the boots (unless boating shoes are worn, as is common for the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, which patrols for the Coast Guard aboard privately owned watercraft), with the ODU black belt and blackened buckle being worn with the metal tip two to four inches from the buckle.

The dark blue Coast Guard unit baseball-style cap is worn with this uniform. The ODU also has all of its allowable insignia sewn on, eliminating the chance of puncture wounds created by the pins if the individual suffers a blow to the chest while wearing a PFD or body armor. The ODU is not intended to be worn by Coast Guard units which engage in combat operations or are deployed overseas. These units continued to wear older woodland BDU and DCU uniforms before adopting the Navy Work Uniform for USCG units overseas or part of other DoD operations.

With the few wear-out date exceptions for USAF and USN personnel described above, BDU in MultiCam woodland camouflage is in use today mainly by the public, public service persons, and some foreign military units. BDUs can be purchased from civilian vendors in the UCP pattern analogous to the ACU, as well, but these are not authorized for wear by U.S. Army soldiers.


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One continuing criticism of the BDU was that as a general-purpose battledress designed to save costs and promote durability, it lacked suitability for a number of specialized extreme environments and conditions. Uniform weight, along with heat and perspiration retention have been especially criticized. The extensive incorporation of uniform reinforcement panels and the large number of oversized pockets, utilized primarily for reasons of durability and convenience, tend to increase heat retention in hot-weather environments, mitigate the beneficial effect of the open-weave cloth, and increase the risk of skin diseases and inflammations in humid environments, especially in the thigh and groin areas, where double and even triple thicknesses of cloth are used.[4] In jungle and tropical regions, the carrying of large amount of gear in trouser and shirt pockets is generally unknown among other uniformed military forces, as the practice retains excessive body heat and promotes corrosion of carried items through perspiration.[4]

The open-weave cloth construction of the BDU is also easily penetrated by insect bites in tropical, jungle, and other malarial environments, causing an increased risk of transmitted diseases such as malaria, even when pretreated with permethrin[5] or other repellent.[6] Since World War II, the U.S. Military has been aware of the problem of insect penetration of loosely woven fabrics in tropical and jungle environments, issuing a tightly woven Byrd Cloth (in Britain, Grenfell Cloth) tropical uniform of single-layer Egyptian cotton for jungle troops in 1943.[7][8]


Russian Internal Troops wearing LES, a Russian camouflage pattern similar to the BDU's camouflage

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See also




  1. Strategy Page, Military Photos: The New Navy Work Uniform
  3. Winn, Patrick, Better, Lighter ABU Blouse Is On The Way, Air Force Times, 9 May 2008
  4. 4.0 4.1 Kearny, Cresson H. (Maj), Jungle Snafus...And Remedies, Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (1996), pp. 188–193, 369–373
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  6. Kearny, Cresson H. (Maj), Jungle Snafus...And Remedies, Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (1996), pp. 188–193, 204, 369–373
  7. Stanton, Shelby L., U.S. Army Uniforms of World War II, Stackpole Books (1995) ISBN 0-8117-2595-2, ISBN 978-0-8117-2595-8, p. 88
  8. Kearny, Cresson H. (Maj), Jungle Snafus...And Remedies, Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (1996), pp. 191–193, 369–373: The Byrd Cloth Experimental Tropical Uniform, a specialized jungle uniform, was designed with a short tail shirt instead of a battle jacket and a flap protected fly; the design maximized cooling of the body while reducing mosquito and insect bites as well as crawling insect migration (especially from leeches, chiggers, and ticks) in order to prevent transmission of potential diseases such as malaria and scrub typhus.
  10. Camouflage Uniforms of the Soviet Union and Russia: 1937-to the Present by Dennis Desmond, Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. (December 1, 1997) ISBN 978-0764304620

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