[April 15, 2020] One of the more embarrassing episodes of my military career happened on a 50 caliber Browning Machine Gun live-fire range when I was a lowly Lieutenant. I’d been given the assignment of Support Platoon Leader and was responsible for supplying ammunition and equipment to the ranges. What I had failed to do was to dig into my leadership toolbox: the pre-combat inspection.
I had run many ranges in the past. I was confident but not overly so. I figured that it was easy to run a range, and, besides, I had experienced NCOs with me. Our planning had gone smoothly, and everyone cooperated with my men. Firing an Infantry Battalion on the large-caliber ranges is inherently dangerous, but we were ready. Or so I thought.
When the ranges went “hot” (meaning firing could commence), none of the 50 cal. BMGs would fire more than one round. Something was wrong, and I blamed the Executive Officer for failing to check his guns before arrival. Diagnosing the problem took half a day. The “ammo guy” took his time getting out to the range but quickly diagnosed the problem. There are two distinct and non-compatible metallic links used for the .50 BMG cartridges. One type is for the M2 BMG (used by us) and one type is for the M85 (used in armored vehicles). We were using the latter, and they would not function properly in the M2.
What I had failed to do was use my standard operating procedures, which included a written range checklist, a Pre-Combat Inspection. None of us looked at the ammo boxes to verify they were of the correct type. I learned the hard way to follow the PCI.
The Pre-Combat Inspection is what military units use, so they don’t forget mission-essential equipment or supplies. Just as the name implies, the PCI is a check or inspection that you do before any operation (combat or peacetime). Everyone is responsible for PCIs, but the leader’s job is to verify. We all use PCIs even if we don’t call them by the military name.
We use PCIs in our work, family, religious gatherings, and in our everyday lives. Pilots do PCIs, but they call them Pre-Flight Inspections. Airborne soldiers inspect before they jump and call it the Jump Master Parachute Inspection. These are PCIs with another name.
The use of a PCI, written or not, is one of the most important items a person can have in their leadership toolbox. Failure to use them correctly usually means being embarrassed. There are more significant problems like when NASA lost a $125 million Mars orbiter because a Lockheed Martin team used English units of measurements while the Agency used the metric system.1