When Big Guns Go Down
The US military shipped thousands of defective gun parts to troops, and knew it for years.
Illustrations: Colin Snyder
The Fourth of July 2010 was blood and pain for Sean McMahon.
On Independence Day, five years ago, US Army Specialist McMahon was appointed to test a new M2 .50 caliber machine gun recently delivered to his unit a couple hundred yards outside Forward Operating Base Kunduz, Afghanistan, at the firing range. After McMahon fired his original weapon, his staff sergeant had him swap it out for the new one.
As McMahon pressed the trigger, the turret-mounted weapon wouldn't fire. He removed the ammunition and inspected the gun, preparing it once more for firing. He squeezed the trigger. Again, nothing. Switching from full-automatic to semi-automatic mode, McMahon fired one last time. That's when the weapon exploded. Shell casing tore through his right leg.
"I looked down and it was just my knee and just a pool of blood," McMahon remembers. "And the first thing that came to my mind was, 'Holy crap, I blew my leg off.'"
McMahon was rushed to a nearby hospital before returning to the US for additional treatment. After the incident, McMahon told me his unit refused to use the new M2 machine guns sent over by the Pentagon. His injuries didn't heal properly, and soon blood clots formed in his veins. He would not be able to run or jump anymore. Diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, McMahon retired from the Army in March 2012.
The M2 machine gun is the embodiment of simplicity in a killing machine. Nicknamed the "Ma Deuce," the M2 is fed with a belt of .50 Browning Machine Gun (BMG) rounds, and has been in use in the US military since the 1930s.
Assuming you have a round in the chamber, and a gunner to press the trigger, the M2's operation is fairly simple. The chain reaction is initiated when the firing pin strikes the primer, causing an explosion in the casing, and pushing the projectile out of the barrel. The recoil caused by the explosion pushes the bolt backwards, extracting the spent cartridge and feeding a fresh one into the chamber.
The bolt is the pumping heart of the gun. If it's damaged, or improperly manufactured, there might be too much room left for a cartridge to be chambered correctly in the weapon, which can result in a rupture of the case, damaging the gun and possibly injuring the operator. That's potentially what happened to McMahon, who is among a growing chorus of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who say these sorts of malfunctions, stemming from defective critical parts like bolts, pose a deadly danger.
While US Marines and soldiers like McMahon were fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon shipped defective gun parts over to them, according to previously unrevealed records obtained by Motherboard. I've reviewed thousands of pages of Department of Defense audits, studies, quality deficiency reports, contracts and correspondence, and court records, and have interviewed dozens of current and former military officials and manufacturers' employees, quality control inspectors, weapons experts, and veterans about the scope of the problem. My research found that tens of thousands of defective machine gun and other firearms parts, including bolts, backplates, firing and extractor pins, and sights have turned up in the field in the last decade, putting soldiers and Marines in harm's way.
Moreover, the government failed to test the quality of the critical gun parts it bought and, as issues were being reported from the battlefront, took months to find out where most of the defective parts had ended up. Yet the Pentagon awarded new contracts to the same contractors, waiving new quality tests along the way. Records also show US military contractors made mistakes manufacturing critical weapon parts after the government waived quality tests, and often took months to fix the problems.
The problematic parts affect particularly two of the most important machine gun systems currently in use in the US military: the M249 light machine gun and the M2 heavy machine gun, the model that blew up on McMahon. In 2012, the US Army said it had more than 54,000 M2s in its inventory. About 80,000 M249s had been made as of 2008, according to the manufacturer, FN Manufacturing. When critical parts for these two guns are deficient, the weapons jam. Sometimes they explode.
Today, there are three flesh colored scars on McMahon's right leg. A few months after the incident, he said he was irritable and isolated. He told his doctors he couldn't sleep, according to medical records obtained from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The pain in his leg was mild but always there. His ears rang.
Are there other Sean McMahons are out there with shrapnel in their legs? And with so many faulty guns in circulation today, how many troops are at risk of their guns exploding?
Illustration: Colin Snyder
Army Specialist Robert C. Oxman's machine gun jammed when he was in the middle of a fierce, close-quarter battle with Taliban fighters in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan in 2009.
"When the gun goes down in a fight, it affects your ability to think," explains Oxman, who was with the First Infantry Division. He said it's the worst possible time for a weapon to jam. "You enter a state of panic, you're sweating hard. You have to take your eyes off the target. When you operate a machine gun in a battle, it's not really a good time to take your eyes off the target."
Specialist Oxman's unit manned the Korengal outpost near the village of Wanat, where nine American soldiers were killed and 27 wounded after Taliban fighters attacked their position on July 13, 2008. In public records and a confidential investigation, the Army says several weapons jammed during the fight. The cause of the malfunctions is unknown.
In almost every instance, the government stated it would take steps to tighten controls over problematic contractors. But it seems that bad parts kept on reaching the field.
According to a 2010 Inspector General 16-month audit of M2 machine gun parts, the DoD agency responsible for buying weapons parts and supplying them to troops, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), failed to inspect many of the critical M2 gun parts it was buying and shipping to troops. As a result, the report notes, "an increased risk was placed on the warfighter." Furthermore, the logistics agency failed to correctly process most of the quality deficiency reports it received from the field for M2 machine gun parts.
Contacted by email, DLA said that since the DoD Inspector General audit, the agency has incorporated "several process and program enhancements designed to improve quality throughout the acquisition cycle."
Still, hundreds of pages of records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act spanning over 10 years give a better insight into the quality issues reported from the field. Some of those issues were critical. In one case, the government, in its internal investigations, stated that the weapons could "stop working as a result of the defect, which could result in operator injury or loss of life, especially in combat."
Although the government often found that the deficiencies were the result of "poor workmanship," or that "not all of the manufacturing operations had been completed and not all of the required inspections had been performed," the military kept buying parts from flagged contractors over the years. Reading through the quality reports, the same names keep appearing linked to quality issues, sometimes up to a dozen times. Some of those contractors produced bad parts while they were waived for some quality tests, and the government only found out about them when a quality complaint was filed later along the supply chain.
In the case of one contractor, Sigma Manufacturing Industries, the same parts were flagged twice for different quality issues. In 2005, a quality deficiency report found that Sigma's M2 breech locks were too soft. All Army stocks were screened and the vendor reworked the parts and sent them back to the government, only to have troops flag a new issue two years later, this time finding that the holes drilled in the part were too small.
In almost every instance, the government stated that it would take steps to tighten controls over problematic contractors. But it seems that bad parts kept on reaching the field. In June 2009, for example, DoD personnel investigating quality complaints on problematic brackets for M203 under-barrel grenade launchers wrote, "The same (...) complaint was submitted back on 10 Sept, 2008," and since then more parts were sent "only to have the same problem." According to the complaint, the grenade launchers could not be attached to the soldiers' rifles.
On top of the Alternative Release Procedures, the waiver system in which a contractor the government has worked with can bypass some quality tests, defective parts may have reached the field simply because there were not enough people to find them. Several times, around 2006 and 2007, at the height of the war in Iraq, the DoD received quality complaints for M2 machine gun parts but was unable to screen its stocks "due to lack of assets in the supply system." Several units based in Mosul, Tal Afar, and Kirkuk, Iraq, located bad M2 machine gun parts. Some of those parts, supplied by the same contractor, Grauch Enterprises, had already been investigated in the past, but this time depots could not be screened "due to lack of on hand assets."
The Pentagon is aware just how dangerous bad gun parts can be. In 2013, a quality complaint notes that a deficient M249 breech bolt that was being investigated could have caused "internal damage to weapon leading to shrapnel discharge." The same report states that the deficiency was first flagged four years earlier, in 2009, but at the time was considered an isolated case and not investigated further. "All defective stock was supposed to be removed at the time of the previous investigation, but the part referenced in this current report must have inadvertently made it into the supply system," noted the investigator.
Deployed troops like McMahon and Oxman faced the consequences of working with deficient weapons, but had to put up with it. In one case in 2009, a unit reported that deficient buffer bodies for XM296 machine guns mounted on OH-58D Kiowa helicopters were flagged for "causing gun malfunctions/jams during critical engagement/functioning of the weapon." The report notes that the "unit has stipulated that this has been an on-going problem for over a year."
But machine guns parts are cheap, and the "low cost" of the material did not always warrant a full investigation from the government. In 2010, a case of bad M2 machine gun breech locks was closed and would only be re-opened were there "any other quality issues" for the contractor. The contractor, Commercial Machine, was waived for preliminary quality tests.
In 2006, the US Army issued a general message advising all troops to check for deficient M2 machine gun bolts. The message starts with a warning: "death, serious injury, or damage to army equipment will occur if actions specified in this message are not implemented." Troops had to inspect their machine guns and immediately remove the deficient part. The contractor, United Standard Industries, had not properly heat treated the machine gun part, which could cause a "case rupture" when an operator fires the gun.
Basically, the cartridge would explode in the gun. Exactly what happened to McMahon.
A set of emails exchanged between DLA and DCMA personnel trying to locate deficient M2 machine gun parts. The two parent DoD agencies are scrambling to find the parts in the supply chain and assess the risk. DLA was reluctant to put the parts aside, and some of them reached units in Iraq.
United Standard Industries, based in Illinois, had provided the Army with thousands of M2 bolts since 2003. "USI prides itself on quality, service, attention to detail and working within competitive cost parameters," writes United Standard Industries on its website. "Our Quality Control Department employs only the latest inspection techniques and equipment and is staffed with highly trained inspectors."
But United Standard Industries also made defective machine gun parts that the government shipped to the troops. Online weapons parts databases indicate that the company signed a new $16 million contract with the US Army to supply the same parts only a few months after they were flagged.
These are not isolated problems, but the symptoms of a more profound issue.
The December 2006 issue of PS, the Preventive Maintenance Monthly, a US Army publication that has advised soldiers since the Korean War on how to maintain their equipment, informed its readers that "some poorly manufactured bolts have gotten into the system and must be weeded out immediately." The article goes on to say that the parts were not heat treated correctly by the manufacturer, and "as a result, those bolts develop headspace problems as they're fired."
The headspace is the room left for a cartridge to be chambered correctly in the weapon. An incorrect headspace can result in a weapon exploding and injuring the operator. When changing the barrel of an M2 machine gun—a frequent operation—the user is responsible for making sure the headspace is set correctly. The Army says many of the reported incidents involving an M2 machine gun appear to be due to incorrect headspace, and, most of the time, soldiers have taken the blame.
In order to help soldiers locate the defective bolts, the Army took the unusual step of identifying the faulty manufacturer by its identification number in PS. It was United Standard Industries.
The company did not return emails asking specific questions and seeking comment.
The military has known for years that defective gun parts were shipped to troops.
"Report Bad Parts," PS urged in its January 2014 issue. "Small arms repairmen, if you discover the parts you ordered to fix your unit's weapons are defective, it's important that you file a product quality deficiency report (PQDR)." If not, the article says, "The Army won't know there are defective parts kicking around the supply system."
But Defense Department investigators and small arms repairers say that soldiers and Marines would rarely report defective small arms parts back to the government.
"In combat, you don't waste time with that," says Kevin Holland. Holland served as an armorer in the Marine Corps from 2001 to 2006. He now works as a small arms repairer contractor for the Department of Defense. "If there were defective parts shipped to us, we would actually discard them and replace them with good parts that we had on hand," he adds.
And the Pentagon, while it tries to locate and replace defective parts, ends up turning to the people who depend on them the most with the ultimate question. Every month, PS asks soldiers: "Would you stake your life (right now) on the condition of your equipment?"
In 2006, the Army commissioned a study from the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded research and development center serving defense agencies, to assess soldiers' experience of the reliability of their weapons. The report, titled "Soldier Perspectives on Small Arms in Combat," surveyed more than 2,600 soldiers from five divisions who experienced firefights during their deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan.
When soldiers were asked if they experienced a weapon stoppage at any time during an engagement in theater, almost a third of them reported stoppages with the M249 machine gun. Forty-one percent of those stoppages had a large impact: The soldiers were unable to fire "during most or all of the engagement," according to the report.
The center's study did not investigate the cause of the stoppages, but it said the amount of ammunition fired, the teardown cleanings of the weapon, and the amount of lubrication applied had no significant effect on soldier reports of weapon stoppages. This suggests that something else, a more profound issue related to the quality of the weapons and its parts, is at play here.
The US Army office that commissioned the study did not reply to written questions and requests for comment on the study.
Other services were also impacted by the performance of the M249.
"If one gun goes down, it can be pure chaos," former US Marine Corps Sergeant Jonathan Marohn explains. "For the M249 gunner, that's the main weapon. If it goes down, he's pretty much screwed."
Marohn, who deployed three times to Iraq and once to Afghanistan with the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines and 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, remembered seeing the M249 machine gun jamming quite often. He also described the tactical damage a malfunction can have: "You won't be able to cover somebody's movement and suppress the enemy," he told me. "It can be dangerous for the squad."
In fact, deficient gun parts surfacing to soldiers in battle is a common enough occurrence that the US Army has addressed the problem in comic strips.
In the August 2009 issue of PS, a comic-style M249 machine gun with a surprised expression on its face informs a US soldier trying unsuccessfully to fire at an invisible and distant enemy that his efforts are useless.
"Uh-oh, I'm jammed up," says the weapon. "I've got a bad extractor pin. No more firing until you get a new one." The drawing of one of the most common machine gun in the US Armed Forces appeared on top of an article titled "Extract Bad Extractor Pins."
The extractor pin is a tiny yet essential part of the machine gun. It will eject a spent cartridge in order to make room for a fresh one. When one breaks it can cause the weapon to jam or explode, and it is an additional example of deficient gun parts that found their way into the field when US troops were fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Some bad M249 machine gun extractor pins have gotten into the Army supply system," PS noted in its August 2009 article. "They need to be extracted ASAP." The authors, Department of the Army civilians, took care in explaining to soldiers the consequences of firing their weapon with a deficient extractor pin that can "break or back out of the bolt, causing the M249 to stop firing." A defective extractor pin could also lead to a "cook-off," in which a cartridge prematurely explodes in the weapon.
When a deficient part—be it a bad extractor pin, backplate, firing pin, bolt, whatever—is formally reported, "even if something is not defective when we check, we try to be proactive," Kevin Holland tells me. As a small arms repairer for a DoD contractor, he was part of a team that inspected the small arms for each unit that would be sent overseas when he worked for the Pentagon at Fort Dix, New Jersey, from October 2009 to March 2010.
"Every weapon was checked and every extractor pin had to be changed whether the parts were defective or not," Holland recalls, referring to the defective M249 part. Another weapons specialist, who still works at Fort Dix and doesn't wish to see his name published, said that the extractor pins were supposed to be replaced ultimately on every single M249.
Each new extractor pin costs about one dollar, according to an online private database tracking parts prices over the years.
"It's bureaucracy at work," Holland says. "Everybody wants the US Army guns, but everything made for the government is made by the lowest bidder, the cheapest."
"Having your big gun down in a firefight, honestly it's going to be a big 'Oh fuck' moment."
In May 2007, General Manufacturing Co. of Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, was awarded a 5-year, $2 million contract for various M249 parts, including extractor pins. (On its website, the company says: "We are dedicated to providing our War Fighters with the highest quality assemblies a soldier could ask for.")
General Manufacturing confirmed it was awarded a contract for the M249 extractor pin. "This contract was in response to replacing the defective parts which were produced incorrectly by another contractor," Mike Fastuca, vice president of production, said in a written statement. In 2008, DoD investigators received a quality deficiency report for a single extractor manufactured by General Manufacturing. The company considered it an isolated case and chose to replace it without an investigation.
Another company, Tri-Technologies Inc., was flagged in 2008 and 2009 for extractor pins that would shatter when installed. The contract resulting in those deficient pins had been awarded in 2005. Tri-Technologies did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
Other issues were reported for the M249. The February 2009 issue of PS shows another M249 machine gun warning a soldier that it won't be able to "shoot straight" farther than 300 meters. "Some defective M249 machine gun rear sights have gotten into the field," the article reads. "You can continue to use the M249 while you're waiting for a new sight. Just be aware it won't be accurate beyond 300 meters."
According to a message circulated by the Army in June 2008, the weapons with defective sights were shipped to users from August 2006 through January 2008. The range of serial numbers indicates that the malfunction could have had an impact on up to 12,550 weapons.
In 2012, the US military warned that "a small number of bad M249 machine gun firing pins" had gotten into the field. The firing pin is designed to strike the primer of a chambered cartridge, igniting its propellant to shoot the projectile. A firearm with a deficient firing pin might not fire or misfire.
"The bad pins may not protrude completely through the bolt or may protrude too far, causing probable misfires," reads an article in the October 2012 issue of PS. The deficient parts were made "on or before December 2011."
In other words, the military has known for years that defective gun parts were shipped to troops. But in at least one instance, the government knew the parts were defective before shipping them to troops who needed them.
In March 2007, Northside Machine Co., a small business headquartered in Dugger, Indiana, was awarded a contract to make about 500 backplates for the M2 machine gun.
The backplate assembly is a critical part of the gun, as it contains the trigger mechanism. Such a part is defined by the government as "essential to the preservation of life in emergencies or essential to end-item or system performance, the failure of which would adversely affect the accomplishment of a military operation."
Former Marine Corporal Kevin Holland puts it in less bureaucratic language about the M2: "Having your big gun down in a firefight, honestly it's going to be a big 'Oh fuck' moment."
"There's not a whole lot you can do about it," adds Holland, who is now a weapons repairer sometimes working for the government and who's been to Afghanistan and Iraq as a small arms repairer. "All the way round it's a bad situation to be in."
In order to avoid buying bad gun parts, the government applies quality tests. At least on paper.
Federal regulations indicate that quality testing "may be appropriate when the product acquired under a previous contract developed a problem during its life." Pentagon rules say it can require contractors to provide a "first article test" on gun parts like backplates in order to identify possible quality flaws. Basically, the contractor would have to manufacture a smaller amount of parts and ship them to the government for quality control way ahead of the contract. This would give the government enough time to make sure the parts are good. The March 2007 contract specified that this test was required. For Northside, however, it was waived.
Northside supplied the parts, exactly 482 M2 backplates in October and November 2007. But in December, the company contacted the government—while performing an inspection on its spare parts, Northside noticed that the M2 backplates it had shipped had not been properly manufactured. The mistake would cause "interference" when the part was assembled to the end of a machine gun, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Northside notified the Defense Contract Management Agency, a Pentagon contracts agency monitoring DLA contracts, taking full responsibility and requested a return of all the parts for repair. In a letter it would later send to the agency, the company identified three mistakes, committed by the employee who set up the machine to make the part, the machine operator, and the quality control manager. Northside promised it could repair the parts and be ready to re-ship within two weeks.
"My concern is that some of these get issued and someone gets killed"
Upon receiving notice from the company, the Pentagon logistics agency that bought the parts was advised to tag them and keep them until the completion of an investigation that was expected to take not more than a week. But in January 2008, as the agency searched through depots for the parts, none of the material was reported in stock; it had already been shipped to US troops in Iraq.
A few months later, previously unrevealed records show that Elizabeth Stange, then commander of the contracts agency's office in Indianapolis, sent a message to Colonel Dion King, then commander at the DCMA Detroit office, in which she wrote that DLA was "not inclined to put the parts to the side until this was resolved."
"Bottom line: The weapon will not function with these parts," Col. King wrote the next day to a US Army official. In the same message, sent three months after the issue had first been reported, Col. King noted that the Pentagon had yet to determine whether the mistake put soldiers' lives in jeopardy. "We do not know whether the part causes a safety risk, or whether the part can even be installed on a full-up weapon," Col. King wrote.
"My concern is that some of these get issued and someone gets killed," he added.
In the next few days, Pentagon officials from Alabama, Indiana, Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio would exchange volleys of emails, trying to locate the defective parts. Eventually, Michael Friedman, then Director of Logistics and Integration at the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey, informed his colleagues that one report had been received from the Small Arms Support Center in Balad, Iraq.
"These parts have unfortunately reached the field," Friedman wrote. "All that is known is the parts will NOT fit into the weapon system." He added: "This is a high demand part so having non conforming material is certainly bad news and adding to an already bad supply position."
According to the people in charge, the part would not fit the weapon. Whether soldiers would try to make it fit and try to fire the weapon with it was unknown. The important point here is that a DCMA commander thought somebody might be hurt or killed, and still the parts were shipped.
Friedman told me over the phone that defective small arms parts "happened a while ago, a couple of times back in 2007 and 2008," adding that they were "not very common anymore." He said he was not at liberty to talk about what changed in the procedure.
In April 2008, more than a hundred days after Northside first notified the Pentagon about the defective part, the logistics agency asked for help. "I need to be certain that the field units are alerted to this problem and that they return the material," wrote then DLA Product Specialist Supervisor Donald Robinette. "We will send out an alert," he added, "but I'm not certain if this reaches all the field units. If someone could help me with that, I would really appreciate it."
Robinette did not return calls and emails seeking comment.
Months after the issue had been reported, then, the majority of the defective items were still unaccounted for. The US Army, however, required new parts urgently in order to support an M2 overhaul program scheduled to begin in February 2008. So, in January 2008, the logistics agency initiated an emergency buy for 3,000 more backplates and, on April 22, while most of the defective parts were still missing, Northside was awarded a new contract for the same items for $68,000.
Once again, the testing was waived.
An additional contract for the same M2 machine gun part would follow in 2009, with quality tests waived once again. But deficient backplates kept kicking around in the system: Troops were still sending quality deficiency reports flagging issues with Northside backplates in April and June 2009. Northside did not respond to emails posing specific questions and seeking comment, declined to answer questions about a former quality inspector, and refused to talk to me when I visited the company's headquarters.
In an emailed response, DLA said that, upon notification of the defection, it "took immediate action to locate material delivered under this contract. Upon determining that all parts had been issued from stock to our military customer, we issued an alert to these field units. In response to this alert, the field units confirmed that the backplates received did not fit properly. All customers who responded to our alert were provided with conforming backplates."
As for the lack of First Article Test (FAT), DLA explained that "While another award for this item was issued to NMC [Northside Machine Co.] in April 2008 without a FAT requirement, the award did include a requirement for source inspection by DCMA and product verification testing (PVT) at NMC prior to delivery to ensure that parts delivered would be conforming. Unlike FAT that only verifies a manufacturing capability, PVT is an inspection and acceptance tool used by the government at the source prior to delivery and is considered a more reliable means toward ensuring conforming parts."
The Product Verification Testing had been incorporated to the three NMC backplates contracts, even the one that produced defective parts.
"I wish I could say that this is a surprise to me," a defense investigator told me, talking about the M2 backplates, "but I see this over and over: A company that there are concerns about, and yet they still are shipping to the government. The Department of Defense is a gigantic organization, with different agencies that don't necessarily talk to each other. There is not always coordination. You would think it would be common sense to test the parts you receive from a company that supplied defective parts in the past."
Instead of blatant fraud, the investigator, who requested anonymity because he is not at liberty to talk to the press, tended to blame "incompetence and sloppiness" on the part of both contractors and government.
Former Col. King, who had been worried in 2008 that someone could get killed because of the defective parts, told me, "There is a good chance that because they self-disclosed, their records were wiped out." King remembered how asking the logistics agency to take the defective parts off the shelves in order to send them back to the contractor "was like pulling teeth." He emphasized that, with older weapon systems such as the M2, "you buy so few parts, and there is not a lot of bidders."
The logistics agency's land and maritime component reports more than 24,000 customers and 10,000 contractors. On its website, it says it manages more than 2,000,000 different items and accounts for about $5 billion in annual sales.
Andrew T. Pool, a former quality inspector for Northside, sued the company in 2009. Pool, who had been hired in 2005 as Northside quality inspector and fired in 2007 after he allegedly complained over forged quality test results, claimed the company had knowingly been providing defective M249 machine gun parts to the government.
In Pool's case, Northside denied any wrongdoing, and the wrongful termination case was settled in 2012. The government investigation on his fraud allegations was inconclusive. Northside still works for the government.
Court records and an excerpt of a deposition detail how Northside hired Pool without making sure he would be qualified to inspect weapons parts at the level required by governmental standards. He was not able to measure the parts with the instruments required.
Under the terms of the settlement, neither Pool nor his attorney could comment on the lawsuit. Northside declined any comment. Government records and interviews show that the allegations in the Northside case are far from isolated however.
In its 2010 audit on the M2 machine gun parts supply chain, the Department of Defense Inspector General concluded that weapons manufacturers working with the logistics agency "provided at least 7,100 nonconforming parts on 24 contracts."
In addition, the audit said Pentagon employees "did not always follow Federal and DLA guidance and ensure adequate and efficient Government inspection" of M2 critical parts.
Furthermore, the report said the logistics agency "omitted or waived contract first article testing requirements." Performance of these contract quality assurance provisions would have assisted the logistics agency "in determining whether contractors could provide conforming spare parts," the report said.
In fact, the Inspector General reviewed thousands of critical M2 machine gun parts between May 2008 and September 2009 and found that one fifth of the contracts produced defective parts.
A 2010 Department of Defense Inspector General audit of contracts for M2 machine guns parts. The IG found major flaws in DLA quality control.
The Inspector General found that US troops had to wait for thousands of critical M2 parts for extended periods of time because of these flaws in the supply chain. As defined by the government, critical parts are "essential to the preservation of life in emergencies or essential to end-item or system performance, the failure of which would adversely affect the accomplishment of a military operation."
Soldiers who received defective parts for their firearms are supposed to notify the logistics agency of the issue. Neither Oxman nor McMahon flagged any issue. However, the Inspector General's reports showed that the government failed to adequately process most of the quality deficiency reports it received from the field on those defective parts.
For example, one contractor supplying trigger bars—a part connecting the trigger mechanism to the firing mechanism of a gun—was allowed to ship parts directly to customers without government inspection, based on its performance history. A US Army unit based in Baghdad, Iraq, reported in 2008 that the rear bend of the trigger bar had been manufactured to the right instead of the left. Eventually, Evans Machining Service, Inc., the contractor, accepted full responsibility and offered to replace more than 1,400 defective parts. Eleven months after the contract initially required the parts to be delivered, though, the contractor had only replaced half of them. Evans Machining Service did not reply to our request for comment.
The Inspector General noted that in order to determine whether a first article test is appropriate, the logistics agency "must consider previous product quality problems, performance specifications, and the complexity or sensitivity of the production." In 76 percent of the contracts reviewed by the DoD auditors, the logistics agency did not include a first article test requirement. For 27 percent of those contracts in which the inspection did not occur, contractors ultimately provided defective parts.
For instance, the auditors found that the logistics agency contracted for firing pins without including sufficient quality provisions despite the contractor's previous quality problems identified by soldiers. The logistics agency "continued to purchase parts from the same contractor without requiring it to submit items for first article testing," the DoD audit said.
Colonel Ryan Kivett, who was the DLA land and maritime director of supplier operations from 2009 to 2011 and chief of staff from 2011 to 2012, declined to comment.
Because of the quality problems identified over the course of the audit of M2 machine gun parts, the Inspector General said, "The Government spent at least $655,000 in funds that could have been put to better use," and the logistics agency "missed an opportunity to obtain approximately $405,000 in contractor compensation for late deliveries."
Although DLA stated it incorporated several "enhancements designed to improve quality throughout the acquisition cycle" since the DoD IG audit, an examination of several quality deficiency reports obtained under FOIA shows that deficient parts were still circulating after 2010.
"We are experiencing an extremely high number of avoidable soldier injuries from improper setting of weapon headspace and timing on the .50 caliber machine gun," former Sergeant Major of the Army Kenneth O. Preston wrote in September 2008. Preston stated that 25 out of 42 reported malfunctions of the machine gun were due to improper setting of the headspace in fiscal year 2007, and that in fiscal year 2008, 44 out of 63 reported machine gun malfunctions resulted from headspace problems.
"Soldiers in the recent years did not have the mechanical aptitudes and the skills they had before when you have to know and understand how the machine gun works and why those settings are important," Preston, who is now working for the Association of the US Army, told me. "Prior to 9/11, the headspace was not a problem. It's only after 9/11 and especially with the deployment in Iraq that it became a problem. We had a lot of units trained very quickly then deployed. The M2 was on all trucks."
There were 150,000 soldiers in Iraq in the immediate wake of 9/11, Preston explained, and "one out of five or seven" of those individuals dealt with an M2 machine gun.
The other malfunctions, not cited by Preston in his open letter, are "wear and tear, basic errors, ruptured cartridges," he explained. Preston told me he was not aware of the fact that defective parts had entered the supply chain. "All those parts are made in the US," he said, "under very strict quality control."
It wasn't until 2010 that the US military felt it was time to modify the design of the M2 to eliminate the need to manually calibrate it after each barrel change, an operation that increases the risk of accidents and the exposure time to enemy fire. "It was never in the budget to do the redesign," Preston said. "But recently there was the possibility to do a low-cost upgrade. It's good for taxpayers and soldiers." That year, the US Army awarded the redesign contract to General Dynamics.
"Any accident that results in lost time due to an injury, or involves property damage of more than $5,000, must be investigated and reported," Larry Kulsrud, Chief of Accident Investigation at the US Army Combat Readiness/Safety Center, said during a phone interview.
The Safety Center receives and processes about 8,000 ground and aviation accident reports each year. When asked to provide a database of all accidents involving small arms like rifles and machine guns that occurred since 2002 in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Safety Center only provided records of exactly 700 cases.
Out of those incidents, about 60 appear very similar to the explosion that lodged shrapnel in McMahon's on the Fourth of July in 2010, with soldiers being "struck in the legs" when their M2s "malfunctioned and blew up" during "test fire." The years 2008 to 2009 saw twice as many accidents of that kind occurring than other years, according to the records provided by the Safety Center.
The number of accidents caused by weapon malfunctions is ultimately unknown. The database seems far from complete, with many accidents not reported, or partially recorded. One such incident, absent from the Safety Center database, involved Sean McMahon.
A Native of Somerville, New Jersey, Sean McMahon enlisted in October 2009. After four months of basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, in which he learned to dismantle, clean, inspect, reassemble and fire the M2 machine gun, US Army Specialist McMahon was sent to Fort Drum, New York, home to the 10th Mountain Division, where he received further weapons training. On April 1, 2010, McMahon's unit deployed to Afghanistan.
As an M2 machine gunner, McMahon trained each and every day on proper weapon care and maintenance, and spent hours on the range firing the gun he had been assigned to, according to court files.
After McMahon's gun exploded on him, the Army issued a report on the incident, concluding that it had been caused by McMahon's error in "not screwing in the barrel all the way and not confirming the weapon's headspace." In its closeout report, the Army confirmed the findings. No additional investigation was deemed necessary.
In June 2012, shortly after he was retired from the Army, McMahon sued the manufacturer, General Dynamics Armament and Technical Product, a division of General Dynamics, charging that the weapon was defective. McMahon and his counsel refuted the Army report's findings, underlining a discrepancy in that the document places the event on July 6, 2010, while McMahon was hospitalized in Kunduz, according to his medical files.
The problematic machine gun was produced under a $26 million contract awarded in July 2007 for about 2,000 weapons. The submittal of a first article test report was not required. Court documents show that the M2 at issue had been delivered to the government in April 2010, along with 144 other machine guns. The Army "inspected and accepted" the shipment, according to Army records.
"Now I can't even protect my community. It hurts."
General Dynamics Armament and Technical Product recently consolidated into General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems, whose vice president and general manager, Brian Berger, is also chair of the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) Small Arms executive committee. The NDIA is an association that connects government and military officials with industry professionals. The Small Arms committee has held a conference on defective weapons parts in the past, NDIA Meeting Planner Rebecca Danahy said in an email.
In the lawsuit, General Dynamics asserted that M2 machine guns it manufactured "were subject to rigorous quality control measures created by and performed by or on behalf of the United States military." The manufacturer also provided records showing that the machine gun had been tested, and the military inspected and accepted the weapon in April 2010. The case was settled in September 2014.
General Dynamics could not comment on any specific aspect of the litigation. "General Dynamics has stringent quality, testing and safety processes to ensure each weapon manufactured is compliant to the military standard," a representative for the company wrote in response to a request for comment. "If deviations in materials are discovered, the non-conforming element is pulled immediately from production and corrective action is taken to rectify or replace the non-conforming material."
When he joined the military, McMahon knew he eventually wanted to become a police officer after doing his time. His dad was a cop. It's something he grew up with.
"Now, after I was out, I was unable to, because of the disability," he says. "Not only the fact that I couldn't serve my country anymore, now I can't even protect my community. It hurts. But I'm still able to work. I'm still able to walk. I have a normal life. It hasn't affected me too much. But it definitely affected something that I always wanted to do."
This investigation was supported by the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.
With additional reporting and research by Brian Anderson and Yiwei Tian.