The Arizona Republican crafted the upper chamber's version of the 2016 Pentagon policy bill, which contains a section that, if adopted in the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), would give the service chiefs, secretaries and acquisition executives program management authorities now held by the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics (AT&L).
The biggest changes McCain is proposing — and the full SASC backed — would be to make the service acquisition executives the milestone decision authority for non-joint weapon programs transferred to or started under service control.
A committee aide said lawmakers would like new service-specific programs to be launched under service management. If the McCain-crafted proposals are enacted, a committee aide said "a small number" of major acquisition programs would eventually transfer to service control.
The SASC-passed bill, dubbed by McCain as a "major reform bill," also contains provisions aimed at keeping each service chief and secretary better informed about program progress and problems. The idea, committee aides say, is to make those senior officials "more accountable" for their weapon programs.
"They would have to ensure the [uniformed] program manager serves longer, and that that doesn't hurt them in the promotion process," the aide told Defense News on Friday. "The service chief has to understand the program and provide overall direction.
"The chiefs have been complaining that they don't have enough authority, but then they're held accountable when they come up here," the aide said, referring to tense exchanges between lawmakers like McCain and service brass over poorly performing programs.
"We're trying to bring the chiefs back into the accountability structure," the aide explained, "but the program managers would be the ones executing."
The legislation seeks to give the armed services key incentives: Execute your program without major cost breaches and you get more control and say over its annual budget.
If the services fail to manage major weapon programs without substantial cost increases — known as a Nunn-McCurdy breach — the Pentagon acquisition executive would have a decision to make: Take over the initiative or cancel it.
The idea is to "decentralize" the management of major weapon programs, the aide said. "One person cannot do it all," he said, referring to the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.
SASC members and senior aides discount notions that McCain is stripping the Pentagon acquisition chief of any power.
"This is not a blanket destruction of AT&L's authority," the aide said. "I would call this a midcourse correction of Goldwater-Nichols. … It proposes a very targeted and limited application of a few service programs transferring to service control under certain circumstances."
He was referring to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, which ushered in a myriad Pentagon reforms. One was to remove the service chiefs from significant acquisition duties.
McCain and his SASC colleagues want to find out.
And they want to allow the Pentagon acquisition chief to focus on issues like controlling costs in information technology and the other areas that make up 80 percent of the military's annual contracting.
"This would allow AT&L to focus on greater potential returns on investment," the aide said. "It really would free him up to go back to the role of Harold Brown or Bill Perry when they were the DDR&E [Director of Defense, Research and Engineering] to think about how do we develop the technology that will help us maintain technological dominance."
Committee aides say their proposals are aimed at speeding the time it takes to field — or reach a decision to cancel — a major US weapon program. The panel believes 10 years is too long.
"We've optimized a Cold War system," the aide said. "The problem is, we're not facing a Soviet Union that's also doing 20-year development cycles. I don't think the enemies we're facing are going to take that long to innovate."
One congressional source told Defense News that McCain's Pentagon buying reforms, including the language on the chiefs, would go well beyond proposals included in the House-approved version of the 2016 NDAA.
If the full Senate signs on, McCain and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, would have to negotiate compromise language. Notably, Thornberry did not include parts of his stand-alone acquisition reform bill that pitched a bigger role for the service chiefs after Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall publicly objected.
The Pentagon buying boss said at a conference that the service chiefs are not acquisition experts.
"They are responsible for approving requirements through the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, they oversee their respective services' defense budgets and set spending priorities," Kendall said. "And most importantly, they are responsible for managing and developing the more than 150,000 men and women in the defense acquisition workforce that deliver enormous capability to our war fighters.
"The secretary of defense testified that further empowering the service chiefs in the acquisition process in a balanced, appropriate manner would be a welcome reform," Kendall said. "I believe there are numerous ways to do this without statutory changes and look forward to working with the committee on efforts to improve the performance of the acquisition system."
A review of McCain's proposed reforms shows they go further overall than would those crafted by Thornberry, setting up a major issue for a House-Senate conference committee once the Senate approves McCain's bill later this year.
A Thornberry spokesman had yet to respond to a request for comment at time of publication. SASC aides said "conversations are occurring" between staffers of the committees, and McCain and Thornberry are trying to work out a time to meet about the acquisition-reform differences.
— John T. Bennett, Aaron Mehta and Vago Muradian contributed in Washington.