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McCain could shake up US defence in powerful new Senate role

AFP | Wednesday, Nov 5, 2014

File photo of John McCain at a Veterans rally at the USS Kidd Museum on Oct 13 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

WASHINGTON - Senator John McCain's voice just got a whole lot louder.

One of President Barack Obama's noisiest detractors, McCain is expected to take the helm of the powerful Armed Services Committee in the new Republican-controlled US Senate when the US Congress convenes in January.

The Arizona senator, a critic of the $399 billion Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 fighter jet programme, is likely to push for tougher congressional scrutiny of costly US weapons programs, defence analysts say.

He has in the past launched investigations into waste in the US defence industry and shaped legislation to end cost overruns on major arms programs as a senior member of the Senate committee.

McCain, a former Navy pilot and Vietnam War prisoner who lost to Obama in the 2008 election, has also criticised the administration on everything from fighting Islamic State militants to arming moderate Syrian rebels, while seeking a tougher US response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. As committee chairman he could summon Pentagon officials to public hearings to explain their strategy on Syria.

He has challenged the US Air Force to end a monopoly rocket launch programme with Lockheed and Boeing Co, the Pentagon's top two suppliers, and is pushing for development of a new US rocket engine to end reliance on Russian-built engines that power one of the firm's rockets.

In his new position, McCain would oversee policy legislation that underpins the Pentagon's budget, although the House and Senate appropriations committees oversee the Pentagon's actual finances.

He would play a major role in writing the annual defence authorisation bill. It sets policies on everything from defence spending and new weapons to military base closures and the elimination of specific weapons programs. The committee does not control how much money the Pentagon gets, but because it sets policies, it can control how the money is spent.

"I wouldn't forecast any huge shifts right away," said one defence industry executive, speaking on condition of anonymity, noting that McCain had worked closely for years on acquisition reform and weapons oversight with Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who now heads the committee.

The executive said companies and defence officials were bracing for more requests for information, briefings and hearings from a McCain-led panel.

US weapons makers are wary of what they see as McCain's propensity to exaggerate problems when they occur, and worry that he does not understand their need as publicly traded companies to generate profits for shareholders.

But, McCain also offers them a ray of hope. He wants to ease automatic across-the-board cuts in military spending that are squeezing defence industry revenues.

McCain's office did not respond to requests for comment.

LIGHTNING ROD PROGRAMS

If McCain becomes chairman, he is expected to focus oversight on weapons programs that failed to meet their targets for cost and delivery schedules, said Brett Lambert, a former senior Pentagon official and industry consultant.

In recent hearings, McCain has singled out the Navy's $34 billion Littoral Combat Ship programme. On April 9, he said poor planning had led to a new class of ships that could not survive in combat, cost far more than expected and provide less capability than earlier warships. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has defended the programme.

Congressional aides and industry executives said the F-35, the Pentagon's biggest arms programme, had made progress after years of cost overruns and technical setbacks, but McCain has vowed to keep close tabs on it given its importance.

Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, who runs the F-35 programme, told reporters last week that McCain was "very, very discerning and critical" in his oversight of taxpayer dollars and acknowledged the programme could face increased scrutiny.

"I would imagine that I'm going to see Senator McCain more than I have been," he said, when asked how a Republican-controlled Senate might affect the programme.

McCain is also likely to scrutinize a new presidential helicopter programme under way by Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United Technologies Corp, and the Navy's stalled plan to develop an unmanned carrier-based drone, a programme that is expected to draw bids from Lockheed, Boeing, Northrop Grumman Corp and privately held General Atomics, said Jim McAleese, a Virginia-based defence consultant.

McCain's dogged questioning of a 2001 Air Force deal to lease, not buy, 100 Boeing 767 aircraft as refueling tankers triggered a federal investigation and uncovered serious ethics violations by senior Air Force and Boeing officials, two of whom served prison terms.

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