The Arizona Republican also provided a snapshot into his thinking about the kinds of new weapons he believes the Defense Department should be pursuing.
"We need to make the necessary investments now in next-generation technologies that can enable us to outpace our adversaries," McCain said.
"Those include cyber and space control capabilities, directed energy weapons, unmanned combat aerial vehicles, and our future power projection capabilities, especially the future of the aircraft carrier and the carrier air wing," he said. "I intend to be a champion for these kinds of new technologies."
McCain long has been a leading critic of the Defense Department's purchasing system. And now his perch atop the Armed Services Committee gives him an opportunity to reform it.
McCain told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that he and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, Calif., are "working closely" on Pentagon acquisition reform. For his part, Thornberry this week introduced a bill with a list of proposals.
"My hope is that we can also take some ambitious steps this year on which we both agree to make meaningful changes to our defense acquisition system," he said. "I believe the scale of the problem demands nothing less."
As always, the Senate's "maverick" pulled few rhetorical punches.
"Many of our military's challenges today are the result of years of mistakes and wasted resources. According to one recent study, the Defense Department spent $46 billion between 2001 and 2011 on at least a dozen programs that never became operational," he told the crowd.
"And what's worse, I am not sure who, if anyone, was ever held accountable for these failures," he said. "In today's vast acquisition bureaucracy, where personnel and project managers cycle through rapidly, everyone is accountable, and no one is accountable."
The SASC chairman said he is concerned that the US military's "technological advantage," as a result, is experiencing "erosion." McCain warned, "we are in danger" of losing that edge "altogether if we persist with business as usual."
"That is why our failing defense acquisition system is not just a budgetary scandal," he said, "it is a national security crisis."
McCain warned of an "emerging innovation gap," due in part to commercialical firms finding it too difficult and costly to even consider working with the Defense Department.
"Even when the Defense Department is innovating, it is moving too slowly," he said. "Innovation is measured in 18-month cycles in the commercial market. The Defense Department has acquisition cycles that can last 18 years.
"The defense acquisition system is leading many commercial firms to choose not to do business with the Defense Department, or to limit their engagement in ways that prevent the department from accessing the critical technologies that these companies have to offer," he said. "Export controls, security mandates, and Buy America barriers also limit cooperation with our allies and global commercial firms.
"In short, the defense acquisition system itself increasingly poses a threat to our future military technological dominance," McCain said, adding: "We must create better incentives for innovation by removing unnecessary legislative and regulatory barriers to new commercial competition."
Industry has been leery of McCain's time wielding the SASC gavel. And he made clear Thursday morning he intends to be a hands-on chairman.
"I will take an active interest in what priorities the Defense Department sets for its procurement of weapons systems," he said. "We have a lot of large and costly programs of record that have been many years, even decades, in the making. We need to review these programs closely in light of new threats. And we need to make the necessary investments now in next-generation technologies that can enable us to outpace our adversaries."
Meantime, McCain said acquisition reform is bit "a large piece of an even larger priority." And that is "the structure, roles and missions of our civilian and military organizations within the Defense Department." To that end, he suggested the committee will examine how aspects of the 1986 Goldwater Nichols Act have been implemented, including what he called "unintended consequences."