WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. John McCain, the political maverick and war hero who chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee since 2015, was one of the Pentagon’s best friends and toughest critics.
The Arizona Republican helped shepherd historic defense spending increases for 2018 and 2019 and the most sweeping reform of the Pentagon since Goldwater-Nichols in 1986. McCain was also unrelenting when it came to cost overruns and schedule delays on military weapons programs.
“He’s done a great deal to restore confidence in the American military and make it clear that there is always going to be someone watching,” said Anthony Cordesman, a Center for Strategic and International Studies expert on military strategy and a former national security adviser to McCain. “He was one of the stronger voices saying we have been underspending on defense, and a lot of that message has gotten across.”
McCain, who died at 81 on Saturday after battling with brain cancer, was known to speak from his conscience and unique experience, voicing support for robust American alliances and leadership around the globe. Even as he convalesced away from Washington, McCain published statements lashing President Donald Trump’s performance on national security and other matters.
“Make no mistake, my friends, these are dangerous times. But you should not count America out, and we should not count each other out,” McCain said in a speech at the 2017 Munich Security Conference, widely read as a rebuke of Trump’s “America First” rhetoric.
McCain split with Trump by denouncing Russian interference in the presidential election and called for a select Senate committee to investigate the Kremlin’s cyber activities. In his recent book, McCain said America should weigh a cyber counterattack “to make [Russian President Vladimir] Putin deeply regret his assault on the foundation of our democracy.”
McCain was willing to go against Democrats and Republicans alike. He was not only a foil for Trump but President Barack Obama and his Pentagon, as he repeatedly slammed Obama on the Senate floor for his failure to act in Syria.
With the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, McCain bucked the Obama administration to quarterback an aggressive overhaul of the Pentagon’s acquisitions hierarchy, meant to establish a new culture of innovation.
Per the law, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics was split into two new jobs, the undersecretary for research and engineering and the undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment.
The reform legislation, still being implemented, also took aim at interservice rivalries by strengthening joint regional combatant commands and making joint duty assignments important to an officer’s career.
The law also elevated combatant commands to report to the defense secretary and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to become the president’s military adviser, while service chiefs became focused as force and resource providers.
Low tolerance for political games
In 2011, then-ranking member McCain and then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta clashed over the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq during a contentious SASC hearing. McCain, who predicted a dangerous security vacuum and favored a residual troop presence, accused the administration of botching talks with Iraq's government to secure legal immunity for U.S. troops.
The rise of the Islamic State group and Iran’s rising influence in Iraq may well have proved McCain right. Panetta has since said the withdrawal was a mistake and told Defense News that McCain “was in the right place."
In SASC hearings, McCain could be a cantankerous interrogator. What triggered McCain was when he felt he was getting hollow talking points instead of unvarnished truth, according to Panetta.
“There are two things he can’t tolerate when it comes to the Pentagon, and one is a waste of money. If he thinks there’s a weapons system that’s a huge waste of money, and it’s somebody’s favorite system but doesn’t make sense, that drives him crazy,” Panetta said.
“He has tremendous respect for military leadership, but if it is basically mouthing a White House position and not what they believe is the case, that too drives him crazy,” Panetta added. “He understands the games, and for someone trying to seek good national security policy for the country, he’s had a low tolerance level for people who think they can play those games with him."
Not long after McCain’s fight with cancer became public last year, he told reporters his relationship with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster was worse than it was with Obama-era Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
McCain’s complaint then was that the Trump administration had yet to share its strategy for Afghanistan and the still-hot fight against ISIS — and that it hadn’t been forthcoming about an attack in Niger that left four U.S. soldiers dead. McCain made clear he would not be the administration’s rubber stamp.
As leverage, McCain was refusing to advance Trump’s Pentagon nominees to the department, but seemed to relent after Mattis — with TV cameras waiting — visited McCain’s office to personally meet with him.
“We will not accept a lack of information, a lack of strategy, a lack of coordination with this committee,” McCain pointedly told Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford at a hearing in October.
McCain simultaneously railed against wasteful Pentagon spending and championed heftier Pentagon budgets, deriding the 2011 Budget Control Act’s caps vigorously and often before scoring a big budget win for 2018 and 2019.
“I will try anything I can do, including lying down on the floor of the Senate,” McCain once said of budget caps in 2017, as lawmakers tangled over a fix. “Sequestration is an act of sheer political cowardice because you let a meat ax act without any discrimination, judgment or value. It’s disgraceful.”
With House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, McCain raised an alarm about military readiness that propelled two years of historically high defense budgets; Trump ultimately abandoned his lower proposals to embrace that.
Alongside Thornberry’s persistent messaging, a key ingredient was McCain’s 33-page white paper, released in January 2017, that spotlighted threats from Russia and China, as well as battlefield nuclear weapons — themes that came to be central to the Trump administration’s eventual National Defense Strategy — despite Trump’s campaign trail rhetoric favoring fewer military interventions. (McCain also pressured Mattis to lobby for defense budget increases.)
McCain was a longtime advocate for robust defense budgets, at least as far back as the administration of President Jimmy Carter, when he teamed with then-SASC Chairman Sam Nunn, D-Ga., according to Arnold Punaro, Nunn’s former staff director and a retired two-star Marine Corps general. That advocacy also dogged President George H.W. Bush’s pursuit of a post-Cold War peace dividend.
In spite of his advocacy for defense spending, the industry was nervous when McCain announced his 2008 run for president because of his criticism of errant acquisitions programs.
McCain famously, in 2003, blocked a $29 billion deal in which Boeing would lease and then sell KC-767 aerial refueling tankers to the Air Force. The tanker deal collapsed in a scandal that sent two Boeing officials to jail and an Air Force secretary into retirement.
McCain later claimed in a presidential debate his intervention saved taxpayers $6.8 billion.
In 2005, McCain forced the Air Force and Lockheed Martin to rewrite a contract the service had signed using the other contracting authority route, or OTA, to buy C-130J cargo planes from Lockheed as if they were commercial off-the-shelf items instead of aircraft built to military specifications.
Under the unorthodox contract, the Air Force was paying more than $66 million per plane and had little insight into Lockheed's costs. Under a rewritten contract, Lockheed had to open its books, and the price of a C-130J dropped to about $57 million per plane.
McCain raised similar questions about the Army’s use of an OTA contract with Boeing for its Future Combat Systems — a $92 billion program in 2003 that had ballooned to $165 billion at the end of 2005. The program was eventually canceled and became a symbol of acquisition bloat.
“He was one of the first to point out how problematic Future Combat System was,” Punaro said.
But he was also credited last week — as the Army activated its new Austin, Texas-based four-star Futures Command, which will focus on modernization — for providing the political backing to make happen the service’s biggest reorganization since the early 1970s.
In 2015, McCain appeared to be closely watching when the Navy’s newest ship, the LCS Milwaukee, broke down 20 days after it was commissioned and had to be towed to port. Then-Navy Times reporter David Larter was aboard, and McCain must have known, because a statement was waiting in Larter’s inbox when the ship landed.
“I expect the Navy to conduct a thorough investigation into the root causes of this failure, hold individuals accountable as appropriate,” McCain said in a statement, “and keep the Senate Armed Services Committee informed.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.