Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who died Aug. 25, fought for acquisition reform within the U.S. military with a precision and drive that few senators before him did and few may be able to follow.

A Navy combat veteran and prisoner of war, McCain was 81 years old when he passed after a lengthy battle with brain cancer. He served as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) since 2015, and his level of detail to Pentagon contracts and programs has helped encourage speed and flexibility in the acquisition community, analysts and fellow lawmakers said.

Sen. John McCain during a 2016 Senate Armed Services Committee.  (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)
Sen. John McCain during a 2016 Senate Armed Services Committee. (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)

For decades, McCain worked to streamline contract negotiations and encouraged transparency and flexibility, and few programs or capabilities escaped his notice.

Over the years, he was notorious for identifying “pork” in budget submissions and calling it out: In 2007, he vowed not to sign the fiscal year 2008 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) conference report because of several earmarks, including one authorizing the purchase of eight C-17 Globemaster aircraft for $2.28 billion (Defense Daily, Dec. 11 2007).

His signature accomplishment in this area was derailing an Air Force plan to lease tankers to Boeing [BA] to replace the service’s aging KC-10 fleet. His investigation of the leasing arrangement uncovered improprieties that roiled the aerospace giant and the Air Force acquisition community. Ultimately, the service abandoned the lease and held a formal competition, which was won by Boeing. 

Although a Navy man, McCain did not exclude his own service from criticism. He was a frequent critic of the service’s Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) program, at one point calling it a “failure” due to its major cost overruns and because it had less capability than expected. He also called out the Ford-class aircraft carrier program for its own cost issues and technical delays. In the early 1990s, he was a harsh critic of the Navy’s Seawolf-class submarines. 

He supported the Navy investing in more unmanned aircraft and smaller carriers to balance capability and cost. On Aug. 30, five days after his death, the service awarded a contract to Boeing to build the first unmanned carrier-based tanker aircraft, dubbed the MQ-25 Stingray.  

McCain was a longtime advocate of fixed-price contracts in the Defense Department. As a 2008 presidential candidate, he called for an end to cost-plus Pentagon contracts, to the dismay of defense contractors who felt that high-risk programs could be better served by such agreements.

“We need very badly to understand that defense spending is very important and vital, particularly in the new challenges we face in the world, but we have to get a lot of the cost overruns under control,” McCain said at the time (Defense Daily, Oct. 9 2008). He again pushed for fixed-price contracts for the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program in 2017, arguing that it would help keep the cost down by forcing contractors to pay for overruns, rather than taxpayers.

More recently, McCain urged the Air Force to be more transparent about the cost of the B-21 next-generation bomber, currently in development by Northrop Grumman [NOC]. Service officials have said revealing any cost estimates could reveal sensitive information to adversaries.

“This committee and the American people deserve to know more about how the Air Force intends to use the $2 billion in research and development funding for this program, as requested for the coming fiscal year,” McCain said at a 2017 Air Force “posture” hearing held by SASC.

Frederico Bartels, policy analyst for defense budgeting at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., said McCain “had the willingness to carry the torch of the issue that a lot of people were not interested in.”

The senator’s level of scrutiny forced acquisition personnel to be more careful with taxpayer dollars, he added. “They knew the type of attention that he would bring to the situation.”

Bryan Clark, a Navy veteran and senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment in Washington, D.C., said the Pentagon’s current efforts to move faster and reduce overhead requirements are directly because of McCain’s efforts.

He found a like-minded partner in the House Armed Services Committee chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), and together they “pushed acquisition reform to a higher level of focus” in the Senate, Clark said.

The two chairmen “made clear the [funding] authorities DoD already had, and encouraged their use,” he noted. In the past few years, the Pentagon has introduced several many rapid acquisition efforts, such as the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) and its service-centric offshoots. “You would not have seen a SCO-type office” without McCain’s influence, he added.

In January 2017, both McCain and Thornberry released defense budget white papers that were widely seen to identify key military programs and capabilities that lawmakers should support over the next several years.

McCain’s paper, “Restoring American Power,” advocated for the Air Force to purchase up to 300 new aircraft used for light attack and close-air support missions in permissive environments. The service began exploring the feasibility of off-the-shelf aircraft for such a mission around that time, and a year later has expressed an intent to award a contract by 2020.

It’s likely that receiving support from McCain through the white paper at an early point in the experiment encouraged the Air Force to continue the effort, Clark noted.

It will be difficult but necessary for another SASC member to take up McCain’s mantle when it comes to defense acquisition reform, Bartels said.

“Like it or not, that’s the type of thing that deserves congressional scrutiny, even if it’s just to check if things are yielding the proper results,” he said. “Right now, I don’t know if there is anyone who is, one, willing to take up that portfolio … and two, willing to do that with the emphasis that Sen. McCain brought to the issue.”

Acquisition reform efforts McCain pursued should remain a priority among SASC members, as they will want to see how many of those efforts – such as the light attack experiment – play out, Clark said.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the senior Republican on SASC who is expected to take up the chairmanship, told reporters last week that the issue of acquisition reform would not fall by the wayside.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a SASC member and close friend of McCain’s, told reporters that “When it came to the Pentagon, [McCain] was a ferocious reformer.”

“He loved nothing more than getting in” the defense budget, he added. “We’re going to have to take that up.”