We do a lot of posts based on tips commenters send us, but this one was tipped at least three times:
- By 10 x 25 mm on 19 November 2015;
- By S on 20 November 2015; and,
- By JeffCVille a little bit later on 20 November.
And yes, the article is worth reading in full (don’t neglect the sidebars and the documents). That said, we’ll have some critical comments after a short synopsis for those of you disinclined to click the link.
The story is a remarkable body of research by Damian Spleeters of Vice.com. Spleeters has conducted interviews, sent in (and pursued) FOIA requests, and all-around done the sort of job of shoe-leather reporting one seldom sees any more. His subject: the Defense Logistics Agency and the Army’s near-criminal failure to trace defective firearm parts, and (and this bit should sound familiar to WeaponsMan.com readers) their apparent lack of interest in holding anyone responsible.
Again, we’re astonished and pleased at the hard work Spleeters put into the story, work which clearly took him months to do and aroused his passions. We strongly recommend that you read the story, the sidebars, and especially the documents.
But as he isn’t familiar with the Army, with guns in general, or with the two for which he found trails of bad parts (the M2HB .50 Caliber and the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon), he tends to ride wildly off in all directions, following not the evidence but The Narrative™ — in this case, Narrative, Greedy Corporation edition.
The most extreme example of this may be the case of Northside Machine Company (NMC) or Duggar, IN, which had a contract to run off 482 M2 backplates in 180 days, delivered, for $56,380.36, or $116.93 each. (The backplate houses the trigger, bolt latch releases lock, buffer tube sleeve, and Left and right spade grips).
That’s an aggressive contract for a complex part with dozens of machining operations involved (We’re not clear whether they started from billet or from a forging. If a forging, the timeline was extremely tight). The parts were ordered in March, 2007 and delivered a little behind the 180-day schedule in November and December. In the interests of speed, the government waived the First Article Test (an in-depth test of a first run off the line, to ensure that the vendor is on the right track). The parts passed routine acceptance testing and were taken into inventory.
In anticipation of further orders, NMC had run off some extra backplates. They decided to conduct random checks on these against the drawings, and made an unpleasant, but hardly unprecedented, discovery. One dimension on the plate was wrong, and it probably wouldn’t fit on a gun. (They didn’t have a gun at NMC to check it with). They checked another plate, and another. All 40 plates in their inventory were bad.
They quickly determined what had happened. A machinist had set up his machine wrong. The production operator didn’t catch the error, and the quality manager missed the bad dimension in his inspections. They figured out how to prevent this error in the future, and contacted their Contracting Officer (CO) and Contracting Officer’s Technical Representative (COTR) immediately, explaining the error and taking full responsibility.
Mike Smith of Northside Machine, who wasn’t making a fortune on these parts to begin with, then volunteered to redo every backplate at no cost to the government, including shipping both ways. Here’s what Smith wrote in a later, follow-up letter:
We have found a dimensional issue on the Back Plate, P/N 6535475 (NSN: 1005-00-918-
2618). There is a slot dimension (0.10 + 0.01) found in zones A-61A-7 on the back side
of the Back Plate that will cause an interference issue when it is assembled to the end
of the .50-cal machine gun. We noticed this issue during the week of 12/10/07 while
performing a random inspection before stocking our spare parts to inventory. Upon
finding this mistake, we notified Robert Heavrin and Cheryl Middleton on 12/18/07 via
email requesting a return of all the parts for repair.
We are willing to incur all costs for this return and repair. This error was entirely our
fault and we take full responsibility for any actions needed to correct this issue. After
receiving the Back Plates, we should be able to repair and be ready to re-ship within
two weeks time. We currently have 40 Back Plates in inventory that we have pulled for
repair. We would be able to repair these parts within two weeks.
The reason behind the mistake is a failure to interpret the drawing during machine setup
by the setup machinist, production operation by our operator, and inspection by our
quality manager. We have initiated an in-house corrective action in order to eliminate
this problem from future shipments. We also completed a corrective action for Tom
Smith, QAR DCMA Indianapolis.
With the assistance of NSWC Crane, three Back Plates were tried on a .50-cal machine
gun this morning. There was an interference problem. This action was witnessed by
Robert Heavrin, QAR DCMA Indianapolis.
After that, the original documents collapse into a chaotic set of government employees in various stovepiped logistic activities asking the same questions that had already been answered:
- Was the problem a safety one? (No, the mistaken plates won’t go on the gun at all).
- Was the contractor willing to fix them (Yeah, he’s said so from Day One).
- Can we lay hands on the parts? Do we know the contractor’s “CAGE1 Code” ID, which is marked on every part? (Yes).
Then the whole thing would move to a new stovepipe and the questions begin anew, either because no one clued in the Army in general that the questions had been answered already.
By now, months later, many of the bad plates had been distributed in repair-parts kits. Any time they tried one on a gun, they discovered it wouldn’t go.
This is the story that Spleeters tells as a dull and pedestrian “greedy contractors gouging the .gov” tale. Despite their error, it’s hard to see the contractor in this case as anything other than a good guy, doing his best to correct the error. What’s depressing is the military in general’s poor leadership on this score. and what appears to be the extreme difficulty of something simple, getting everyone who has an M2 or spare parts thereof, to check the CAGE Code on the parts and send them back to Northside in the event of error.
That, to us, is the scandal. Not that a contractor made an error, but that when it stepped up to correct the error, the Army couldn’t be shifted to look for the defective parts.
- CAGE code stands for Commercial And Government Entity, and is used in various ways in the logistics system.