The Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) appeared in September 1981 in Woodland pattern, a four-color development in the earlier ERDL pattern based primarily on the woodland colors of Northern Europe. It used two shades of green, one of brown, and black dyed onto a cotton-nylon open-weave cloth blend. It was issued in two variants, a lighter temperate-weather design, and a heavier cotton winter-weight variant. The BDU soon replaced earlier camouflage pattern uniforms for all wooded, jungle, and tropical environments.
There were initially two issues of BDU, the Hot Weather BDU (HWBDU), and the Temperate Weather BDU (TWBDU). The Hot Weather BDU coat and trousers were constructed of 100 percent ripstop cotton, in a four-color woodland camouflage pattern. Temperate coat and trousers were a 50/50 nylon and cotton twill blend 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 (EHBDU) replaced both uniforms commencing in 1996. The EHWBDU are in essence the older Temperate Weather BDU, made with a somewhat lighter 50/50 ripstop nylon and cotton poplin blend. BDU's contain an Infrared protective coating. Near Infrared (NIR) Signature Management Technology is used by the U.S. Department of Defense to 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 your BDU's as starching weakens the fabric and ruins the infrared protective coating. If a pair of BDU's has been starched even once a soldier should not wear them in a combat zone.
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 The U.S. found it to be ineffective and the pattern was withdrawn in 1944 — in part because of anticipated friendly fire incidents before D-Day. 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 Corp's uniforms, but it was replaced by the M43 uniform before being used much.
Enter the United States military's four-color "ERDL" pattern. During Vietnam, it saw limited use amongst specialist units in the Army, though most were issued the solid olive green OG107 sateens or jungle fatigues, while the Marines adopted the pattern service-wide after 1968.
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.
The U.S. military have run trials of many camouflage patterns (some being used by foreign militaries), and issued environment-specific uniforms, notably the six-color "chocolate-chip camouflage" or Desert Battle Dress BDU designed in 1962, and the "night-time desert grid" (NCDBDU). Both uniforms were used in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. During that war, after initiatives by General Norman Schwarzkopf, the six-color Desert Battle Dress uniform was produced in 100% cotton poplin without reinforcement panels in order to improve comfort in hot desert conditions. All of these Desert BDUs were discontinued after the war.
The Desert Combat Uniform (DCU) in three-colour 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 US Army and US Marine Corps have both replaced the DCU with newer uniforms (ACU and MARPAT, 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 Desert BDU pattern. This led to the development of a three-color pattern DBDU, which was adopted. Three-color DCUs replaced the six-color Desert BDU pattern of the 1990s, although six-color desert camouflage helmet covers have continued in use with some U.S. troops since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Interestingly, the New Iraqi Army (trained by U.S. and multinational forces), wear surplus six-color Desert BDU uniforms; likely because much New Iraqi Army matériel is donated U.S. and Coalition equipment.
The development of modern camouflage patterns, the desire of the military branches to differentiate themselves, has resulted in new patterns for the battle dress uniform. The Marine Corps first replaced their uniforms. The Marine Corps Combat Utility Uniform uses the computer-generated MARPAT pattern and has front pockets that lean inwards, and other enhancements. Approved for wear in June 2001, the change-over was completed October 1, 2004.
An Army program running from 2005 to 2007 has largely replaced the BDU with the new Army Combat Uniform (ACU). This new uniform uses a pixelated pattern like 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; no apparent provision has been made for use of the ACU in tropical jungle environments.
In 2007, the U.S. Navy began issuing a pixelated pattern Navy Work 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, aviation green, winter working blue, and tropical working uniform). The disruptive pattern is primarily intended to complement U.S. Navy ship colors and to hide stains and wear, and secondarily to make the wearer a less obvious visual target for hostile forces while working aboard a Navy vessel in port. To meet the Navy's cold-weather requirement, the NWU will include fleece jacket, pullover sweater, and parka options. In addition, the Navy will also implement woodland and desert digital-pattern uniforms specially for sailors who need to work ashore (e.g. hospital corpsmen or SEALs). These uniforms will replace the seven different working uniforms currently in use.
In 2004 and 2005, the U.S. Air Force experimented with, but rejected, a blue-toned tiger-stripe uniform. In 2006, a new BDU called the Airman Battle Uniform was adopted, using a semi-pixelated tiger pattern with four soft earth tones consisting of tan, grey, green and blue. Based upon the old BDU design uniform, the ABU has a modified tiger-stripe pattern and revised pockets for increased comfort and utility. By 2007, it was in current production. 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 AFB 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.
The Coast Guard, has introduced the new Operational Dress Uniform (ODU) uniform in 2004 to replace the winter and summer "Undress Duty" uniform. Resembling law enforcement SWAT 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 and the uniform being worn tucked into the trousers, similar in nature to the old-style OG107 cotton sateen fatigues. The sleeves can be worn "folded up" in a manner similar to the old Army and Air Force BDUs (since disallowed with the new Army ACU) and the trousers "bloused" into the boots (unless boating shoes, especially for the Coast Guard Auxiliary, who patrols for the Coast Guard onboard privately owned watercraft), with the ODU black belt and blackened buckle being worn with the metal tip 2 to 4 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. The ODU is not intended to be wore by Coast Guard units which engage in combat operations or are deployed overseas. These units continue to wear BDUs.
The open-weave cloth construction of the BDU is also easily penetrated by insect stings and probosces in tropical, jungle, and other malarial environments, causing an increased risk of transmitted diseases such as malaria, even when pretreated with permethrin or other repellent. 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.