GOP Win Sets Stage for McCain to Put Pressure on Pentagon, Industry

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, right, speaks to the crowd as wife Cindy McCain applauds her husband at election night festivities Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in Phoenix. (AP Photos/Ross D. Franklin)
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, right, speaks to the crowd as wife Cindy McCain applauds her husband at election night festivities Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in Phoenix. (AP Photos/Ross D. Franklin)

Sen. John McCain will likely take over as the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee after the Republicans assumed control of the Senate Tuesday night following a dominant performance in the midterm elections.

McCain's ascendancy to the chair has led defense analysts to take a closer look at some of the Arizona senator's outspoken stances in recent years on Syria, underperforming weapons programs, and Pentagon accountability.

The former Navy pilot who was shot down in Vietnam and spent four years as a prisoner of war has a lengthy record on military issues since he won a seat in the House of Representatives in the 1980s and then later the Senate.

He has stood up for service members throughout his time in office and earned an independent streak that fell in line with the Maverick nickname he attempted to ride to the White House in 2008. Defense analysts don't expect McCain to muffle his independent streak now that he will lead the most powerful defense committee in Congress.

He's taken outspoken stances on many of the recent defense issues that have dominated the military to include the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, supporting rebels in Syria and holding the defense industry accountable for failures on big ticket weapons programs.

McCain was one of the first lawmakers to urge President Obama to start arming Syrian rebels from the outset of the civil war. In fact, he snuck into Syria last year to meet with Syrian rebel leaders.

He has said the U.S. might have avoided the growth of power seen by the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) if the U.S. acted early and trained more moderate Syrian rebels. Similarly, he said President Obama should have pushed harder to maintain a U.S. troop presence in Iraq in order to aid the Iraqi Security Forces.

Pentagon leadership tried to signal a willingness to work with McCain once he officially takes the gavel from retiring chair, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan. Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's top acquisition official, said Wednesday morning at the Navy League in Washington D.C. that McCain would be "fine to work with."

However, earlier this month, McCain caused more friction with the Pentagon when he called the Defense Department's lead spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, an "idiot" on a North Carolina radio show.

McCain did enjoy a close relationship with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel when the two served on the Senate Armed Services Committee together for many years. The Arizona senator didn't make Hagel's nomination hearing easy, though. He repeatedly questioned Hagel on his lack of support for the Iraq surge in 2007.

Many defense analysts said Tuesday night's GOP victory was also a win for the defense industry. However, McCain has a record of taking large defense companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing to task for missing deadlines and budgets on the Pentagon's major weapons programs.

Loren Thompson, a defense consultant to multiple major defense companies, wrote in Forbes that McCain has been the "chamber's most persistent critic of cost overruns and schedule slippage on major weapons programs."

Last year, McCain called the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program one of the "great national scandals" as he said the repeated cost overruns "have made it worse than a disgrace." The trillion dollar program to develop the fifth generation fighter is the most expensive weapons program in American history.

He also took aim at the Boeing's handling of the tanker program accusing Air Force and Boeing leadership of incompetence and worse. He even released hundreds of internal Boeing emails regarding the tanker development program.

In a memorable 2011 Senate floor speech, McCain took on just about every major Pentagon weapons program the military was developing at the time. He criticized the acquisition process and the military's inability to deliver a program on time or on budget.

 No service was spared in McCain's blistering rebuke. The Arizona senator criticized the F-35, the Navy's Littoral Combat Ship and Zumwalt-class destroyer, the Marine Corp's cancelled Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, the Army's Future Combat Systems and the Air Force's F-22 and Airborne Laser.

"We have been left with a defense procurement system that has actually incentivized over-promising and underperformance. In the face of the military-industrial-congressional complex, the taxpayer and the warfighter have not stood a chance," McCain said three years ago.

-- Michael Hoffman can be reached at

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