WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain's first defense policy bill is a reflection of the Armed Services Committee chairman: bold and complicated. It is the kind of legislation that in one breath proposes lower aircraft carrier cost caps but in the next flirts with potentially costly design changes.
The legislation also goes to great lengths to keep aging aircraft flying — a costly proposition — even as the Arizona Republican issues regular warnings about what he calls an underfunded US military.
"On the one hand they want DoD to get more efficient and modernize for the future, yet on the other hand they want to prevent base closures and protect legacy platforms," said Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. "They [lawmakers] want to have their cake and eat it too.
"This just exacerbates the strategy-resource mismatch already built into the Pentagon's plans. And to top it all off, Congress does not seem to be making any progress toward modifying the … budget caps still in effect through 2021," Harrison said. "They have effectively punted on that issue by trying to use the OCO loophole for fiscal 2016. None of this is consistent with long-term planning and strategy development."
But when a chairman has something on his or her mind, it typically shows up in legislation.
For instance, during several exchanges with reporters in recent weeks, McCain has brought up the cost of new Navy aircraft carriers. He has expressed frustration that follow-on models of the CVN 78 class of carriers are projected to come with larger price tags than the lead ship.
On May 19, McCain delivered one of these rants to a group of reporters. Hours later, his office issued a statement warning of $370 million in cost growth for the USS John F. Kennedy (CVN 79), the second ship in the new carrier class.
Tucked into McCain's version of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) are several provisions aimed at addressing these kinds of issues. And they are classically McCain in tone in scope.
For instance, one section proposes lower price caps for new aircraft carriers while also ordering the Navy to explore design changes. The history of US weapon programs is littered with examples of skyrocketing costs due to modifications made after a system already is in production.
McCain's bill would leave in place a $12.9 billion cost ceiling for the lead ship, CVN 78. But it would lower the price cap for all follow-on ships starting with CVN 79 from $11.49 billion to $11.39 billion.
The proposed change reflects a comment McCain made to reporters in mid-May: "Those follow-on carriers are supposed to be just cookie-cutter version of the first, right?" To McCain, the sea service and prime contractor Huntington Ingalls Industries should be able to build each subsequent carrier at an ever-declining cost.
"The committee is encouraged by the [Navy's] fiscal year 2016 budget request, which indicates the lead ship is on track to deliver in March 2016 at its cost cap and the estimated procurement costs for CVN 79 and CVN 80 are decreasing," states the SASC report.
Still, the committee's bill wants the service to at least explore other ideas.
"In view of the vital importance of aircraft carriers to national defense, the cost per ship, lack of competition, and history of cost overruns, the committee directs a report, which examines potential requirements, capabilities, and alternatives for future development of aircraft carriers that would replace or supplement CVN–78 class aircraft carriers," states the SASC report.
McCain also does not hide his frustration when the four-star chiefs of the armed services are unable to speak in specifics, or are unaware of major problems plaguing their weapon programs.
Yet not everyone in Washington believes the proposals being pitched by McCain the "Maverick" will overhaul Pentagon processes and programs.
"It's really hard to know whether to take any of it seriously," said Gordon Adams, an American University professor who oversaw national defense budgeting for the Clinton administration.
"McCain being McCain, at some point it's like an animal chasing the latest rabbit — something else will get in trouble and he'll go after that," Adams said. "We're not going to get major acquisition reform here, or a different aircraft carrier," Adams said. "Whatever happens will be a target of opportunity, not a strategic re-do of acquisition programs."
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.
To McCain, the chiefs must be more "accountable" for their major programs, a committee aide explains.
One analyst and defense-industry consultant, Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, said what McCain's acquisition overhaul plan "demonstrates is that the real customer of the defense acquisition system isn't the military services, it's Congress.
"The continuous congressional tinkering with acquisition practices is a prime source of inefficiency in the system," Thompson said. "McCain's changes would not constitute a major shift, but they would cause confusion as roles and responsibilities are realigned."
For the Air Force, the McCain legislation is more about "no" than it is about "yes."
Much of the SASC language is focused on preventing the service from retiring aircraft, including a provision establishing a new minimum number of fighter aircraft the service would have to maintain.
The SASC language proposes a change to the US Code, pitching a new requirement for a minimum 1,950 Air Force fighter aircraft. Of those, at least a minimum of 1,116 would need to remain combat-coded.
"The committee believes further reductions in fighter force capacity, in light of ongoing and anticipated operations in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, coupled with a potential delay of force withdrawals from Afghanistan, poses excessive risk to the Air Force's ability to execute the National Defense Strategy, causes remaining fighter squadrons to deploy more frequently, and drives even lower readiness rates across the combat air forces."
Service officials have been clear that they see a "family of systems" setup, one where networked assets blur the lines between fighters, intelligence gathering aircraft and bombers, as the future of US air power. If the McCain language is included in any final 2016 Pentagon policy bill eventually signed into law, it could alter the way the service plans is planning its technological investments for the next decade.
The measure contains language that would prevent the retirement of B-1, B-2 or B-52 bombers prior to the service's next-generation long-range strike-bomber (LRS-B) going operational.
The service, which has provided few details on the LRS-B program, have indicated an initial operational "mid-2020s" target date.
However, the McCain language contains an out-clause for that language. If the secretary of defense certifies in budget documents that the retirements are required to fund development of the LRS-B or that the retirements "in the near-term will not detrimentally affect operational capability," then retirements may be allowed.
Given that language, it appears this is more about sending a message of congressional intent to the service not to aim for large-scale retirements of the bomber fleet than it is creating a hard and fast rule.
More direct is language that would prevent the retirement of the A-10, the close-air support plane that has become a focal point of discontent between the Hill and the Air Force.
The service wants to retire the A-10 in a cost-cutting measure, while supporters of the plan say doing so puts the lives of soldiers on the ground at risk. McCain and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican who is a close ally of McCain, have been two of the most vocal defenders of the A-10.
Not only does the language aim to prevent the service from using any fiscal 2016 funds to retire the A-10, but it directs the secretary of the Air Force "to commission an independent entity outside the Department of Defense to conduct an assessment of the required capabilities and mission platform to replace the A-10 aircraft."
Similarly, the SASC also wants to prevent the use of any fiscal 2016 funds to begin retirement of the EC–130H Compass Call fleet, which has been slated to be cut under the presidential budget in a cost-saving move. The Air Force had requested funding for the EC-130H fleet as part of its "Unfunded Priorities" list sent to the Hill earlier this year.
Even when not preventing the wholesale retirement of aircraft, the SASC bill would place limitations on other fleets.
One such limitation comes into play with the C-130H fleet, the cargo plane that is largely used in the National Guard. Under the SASC language, no C-130H could be retired or transferred between facilities unless the Air Force can show Congress that such actions will not harm the daily training and contingency requirements.
Some experts wonder whether McCain's first swing as SASC chairman would do more harm than good.
"When you combine this legislatively driven churn with the uncertainties created by the election cycle and a broken budgeting process," Thompson said, "it shouldn't come as any surprise that the acquisition system wastes billions of dollars each year while leaving some key needs unmet."