The Airman Battle Uniform (ABU) is the new service-distinctive camouflage battledress uniform for the United States Air Force. It is currently in full production and is expected to completely replace the Battle Dress Uniform by Fiscal Year 2011.
The first prototype of the ABU was unveiled in the summer of 2003, based on the Vietnam-era tiger stripe pattern. The early uniform prototypes consisted of trousers, an embroidered undershirt, and a blouse. The camouflage pattern, developed by Tiger Stripe Products and based upon their popular copyrighted Original Vietnam Tiger Stripe was a blue/gray, tiger stripe pattern.
After months of "wear testing," Air Force officials revised the color scheme and camouflage pattern due to feedback received from Airmen. The new elementary semi-pixelated tiger pattern would trade its dominant blue overtones for a more subdued palette, which still includes some blue tones. However few of the functional recommendations made by Airmen in the field were implemented into the uniform which remains very similar in makeup to the older BDU style uniforms.  This has been a subject of many complaints from Airmen returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan who had been wearing the U.S. Army-issued Army Combat Uniform (ACU) as a temporary issue uniform. These complaints include the ABU's inability to keep Airmen cool while working in desert conditions due to the thickness of the material and large interior pockets, lack of storage space and the low ease of use with government issue personal body armor. While not officially recommended, USAF Airmen can cut the pockets out of the inside of the blouse because it does not alter the outer appearance of the uniform.
On October 2, 2007 the Air Force began issuing the ABU to enlisted trainees in Basic Military Training at Lackland AFB and was issued to the Class of 2012 at the United States Air Force Academy on June 26, 2008, and is now becoming available for purchase by all Airmen. It is currently (2008) issued to Airmen being deployed to locations in the Middle East, including Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. Personnel in other countries continue to be issued DCU uniforms while inventory lasts. The ABU is available at Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) military clothing stores. Although the Air Force has officially recognized color variations in different set of ABUs, all variations are currently authorized to wear and the problem should be fixed when the patterns are finalized within a year. The current projected mandatory wear date for the new ABU is slated for 2011.
The Airman Battle Uniform is similar to the Army Combat Uniform (or ACU) in color, with the inclusion of slate blue, but is otherwise nearly identical to the current BDU layout. The ABU is to be worn with low-maintenance foliage green suede combat boots, although tan suede is allowed until the mandatory foliage green boot phase-in date. Desert boots may be worn with the ABU, and accessories such as backpacks and gloves may be black, until the foliage green phase-in date. The ABU does not have features of the U.S. Army ACU, such as tilted/slanted pockets, sleeve pockets, velcro attachment points and closures, gusseted back, mandarin collar, etc. However, the ABU does have essential NIR (near-infrared) qualities. Unlike the ACU, the sleeves are authorized to be rolled up. The heavy weight of the material, along with the multiple layers used to make the interior pockets, retains more heat than the ACU or BDU in hot climates such as the Middle East. A new version of the ABU blouse has the multiple layers and inside pockets removed.
Overview of the Airman Battle Uniform is as follows:
The ABU boasts 236 different size options in both male and female sizes which are only offered in temperate weight. Additionally, its permanent press finish means the uniform cannot be starched, pressed or dry-cleaned. Airmen are able to pull the ABU from the dryer and wear it without further treatment. Any further treatment would degrade the effectiveness of the uniform and damage the NIR capability.
No mixing of camouflage patterns is currently authorized with the ABU except when in deployed locations such as the U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) Area of Responsibility (AOR), or when ACU or camouflage field items, such as magazine/utility pouches, personal body armor, helmet covers, knee/elbow pads, etc., are authorized. Exception to this policy is the BDU gortex parka which, with installation commander approval, is authorized for wear with the ABU. Only the AF APECS Parka or DCU gore-tex is authorized in the USCENTCOM AOR. Backpacks and other accessories must be sage, black, or ABU pattern. As many accessories are not made in ABU specifically, ACU pattern accessories are authorized.
Despite improvements to the uniform such as wash and wear fabrics and improved NIR coverage, the uniform still has known problems. One of the most common complaints is that the uniform is too hot for wear in high temperature environments. In 2008, responding to these criticisms that the new Airman Battle Uniform was too heavy and hot, the USAF's 648th Aeronautical Systems Squadron at Brooks-City Base revealed their plans for a switch to a lighter, more breathable fabric with 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.
A second criticism is that the suede boots are too easily damaged and impossible to clean if they are exposed to grease, oil, or other petroleum products. Additionally, the uniform has been criticized for failing to incorporate any but the most superficial features designed into the ACU and MCCUU. The pattern itself has also been criticized for being ineffective and unrealistic. This specific issue was addressed in an open letter from the pattern developer to members of the USAF.
Several members of the USAF deployed to locations such as Al Udeid have been forced to ditch their ABUs in favor of DCUs because ABUs can't hold up in the intense heat, however, as of 1 October 2008 the DCU was no longer authorized for wear at AUAB.
The following suggestions regarding the ABU were rejected by the 98th Uniform Board:
Close-up of digital tiger stripe pattern.