A Catastrophic Failure of Verification

So your competitor has come out with a new product.  It beats yours hands down.  You’ve been working away on a similar thing, but your engineers are arrogant and uninterested in the ideas of others.  You’re now hopelessly behind.  You panic.  An outsider comes to you with a new design that’s much flashier than what your team has been doing.   A sharp salesmen shows you impressive demos.  The first reports from the field are good.  You rush it through testing, skipping a lot of the normal steps, and not testing the configuration that will actually ship.    You build a pile of them and get them out into the field as fast as possible.  Unfortunately,  it’s not as reliable as your competitor’s, and your users get killed.

A history of automatic weapons, particularly the AK-47

That’s literally killed.  The users were US Marines in Vietnam in 1967.  What you shipped too soon was the M-16 assault rifle.  It’s 3/4 the weight of its competitor, the Soviet AK-47, holds more rounds, and has greater range.  It looked great during the demo, but has this problem – it rusts out and jams.  The Marines found themselves surrounded by NVA with non-working guns.   It’s hard to know just how many US troops were lost, but it’s probably at least in the hundreds.

A full account of this disaster is given in “The Gun”, by the New York Times correspondent C. J. Chivers.  He served as a Marine in the Gulf War, leaving as a captain, and has since reported from half the world’s military hellholes.   He won a National Magazine award for his Esquire story on a Chechen siege of a Russian school in 2004, and shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for coverage of Afghanistan.  He’s seen more havoc in his time than a hundred guys like you or I.

As he reports, the M-16 disaster unfolded under Robert MacNamara, who was Secretary of Defense for Kennedy and Johnson.    When he came into office, he was astonished at how far behind the US was on basic equipment like rifles.   The Army’s standard weapon, the M-14, was much heavier than the AK-47 and had so much recoil that one person had trouble firing it when it was set to automatic.   Its successor was supposed to be the Special Purpose Individual Weapon (SPIW), which fired flechettes, bullets with vanes.  That gave them flat trajectories and large ranges for a light bullet, permitting many more rounds for a given weight.  Unfortunately, they also had less piercing power and the weapon was nowhere near ready for use.   30 more years of research still couldn’t make it work – it was cancelled in the 90s.

Faced with a choice between the obsolete M-14 and the impractical SPIW, MacNamara’s whiz kids desperately reached out to a third design, the Armalite AR-15.   An Armalite salesman wormed his way into General Curtis LeMay’s heart by taking him out for a picnic and using the gun to explode watermelons at  100 yards.  Watermelons are nothing like human heads, but they make spectacular red splashes when hit.  Early reports from South Vietnam made it sound like it caused much more gruesome injuries than other guns, because its smaller bullets would tumble inside the body.

The AR-15 also looked good because it was lighter than the AK-47.   It used lighter ammo, and had a simpler method of re-cocking the gun.   In both rifles, the energy for re-cocking comes from the expanding gas behind the bullet, but in the AR-15 the gas was re-directed to push on the bolt directly, while in the AK-47 it pushed a piston that then pushed the bolt.  That turned out to be a fatal design flaw.   The gas is hot, which corrodes the bolt metal, and dirty, which fouls the mechanism.

But it worked in demos with clean guns and only a few rounds fired, and the DoD went for it.  They had to improve it, of course.   They renamed it the M-16 to make it part of standard Army terminology.  They thought it needed more range, so they put a more powerful kind of gunpowder into it.  Unfortunately, that powder left more residue when it burned, which made the fouling problems much worse.  They didn’t test it with the new powder, figuring that couldn’t make much difference.  Famous last words for verifiers.

They also saved weight and money by not putting chrome plating on the barrels, as the AK-47 did.   That threatens it with rust, but only if you test it in a wet environment, which they didn’t.   It was now the mid-60s, though, and Vietnam was getting hot.  They desperately needed something to counteract the North Vietnamese, so they built tens of thousands of these untried guns and rushed them off to the Marines.

Clearing a jammed M-16, just what you want to do when people are shooting at you (George Schneider, 1968). The white stuff is sand, not snow.

When the reports of rusting and jamming came back, they did the worst thing you can do during verification – they blamed the user.   The brass told the troops that they weren’t keeping their guns clean. They ordered more manuals and cleaning rod kits to be sent over.  When the soldiers started complaining directly to their hometown newspapers, the military shut them up.  When congressmen finally started asking them about problems with the M-16, they denied them in front of House committees.

That cost the DoD the trust of their troops.  The soldiers knew the guns were junk, so when their superiors denied it, they wondered what else they were lying about.  Quite a bit, it turned out.   When the Tet Offensive came in early 1968, it was clear that the military didn’t know what was going on, in spite of all their confident predictions.    The skepticism spread to Congress and the general public, and probably helped put the odious Richard Nixon into office.

They eventually did fix the problems of the M-16, and it’s still in use.    Its reputation was shot, though, as was that of the whole Army Ordnance division.  This small failure of testing rippled up through the whole military.  Did it contribute to the US losing the Vietnam War?  Chivers doesn’t say so, and I certainly don’t know enough about it to comment.   Once you let bad stuff through, though, it can take decades to get your reputation back.

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One Response to A Catastrophic Failure of Verification

  1. Paul McD says:

    The thought that something was not fully tested (something that people depended on with their lives) is unconscionable. Imagine telling a widow or mother that her husband/son was killed because his gun had jammed like all the other guns. It sounds like a Steven King horror novel. All I can do after reading this is feel sad for the affected families and shake my head.

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