The Army may be in a readiness crisis, Sen. John McCain said Wednesday, but the Senate is reluctant to pour more money into the service as it blows billions of dollars on failed acquisitions programs.
McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and his colleagues grilled President Trump's nominee for Army undersecretary, former Ranger Ryan McCarthy, as a potential civilian leader of the service, stressing the need to overhaul the Army's procurement style. Without a Trump administration pick for Army secretary, McCarthy would immediately be promoted to serve as acting secretary.
"Mr. McCarthy, one of the sources of frustration in this committee is the Army's acquisition track record," McCain said. "It's unbelievable."
The former 75th Ranger Regiment soldier served during the Afghanistan invasion in 2001 and, following his Army career, worked as a staff member for former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on the House Committee on International Relations staff, and, most recently, as a vice president at Lockheed Martin, working on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
Meanwhile, the Army has wasted up to $40 billion by some estimates, McCain said, on programs like the $2.2 billion Crusader howitzer, $5.9 billion on the armed reconnaissance helicopter, and the joint tactical radio system.
"Every one of those that I mentioned never became reality," he said. "Never."
Army leaders have testified on Capitol Hill multiple times this year that the service needs more funding to meet its current operational requirements and increase end strength for the future.
But McCain has rejected the idea of increasing funding until the procurement process shows improvement.
"I’m embarrassed to go in front of my constituents saying, ‘We need more money,’ when we just blew $7.5 billion for a thing called Warfighter Information Network-Tactical — or WIN-T — which the Army still is trying to hang on to," he said.
The issues are larger than a few mistakes, added Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.
"Number one, it seems to me the fact that the Army has had this series of failures without too many successes over the past 10 — or actually, almost 20 — years, says that there’s something systemic in their procurement system that needs to be thought about," he said.
McCarthy pointed to shifting requirements during acquisition as a major reason so many programs drag on for years and go so far over budget.
"I saw it firsthand with the Future Combat Systems in 2009, that changing midstream from light and fast to a heavier concept, that confusion in fluctuation confuses what you want to achieve with the system," he said.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, chimed in, indignant that the Army just last year awarded the contract for its new pistol, replacing a handgun it had been using since 1982.
"Russia continues to upgrade its service rifle and we continue to carry the M4 and the M16s," she said. "The Army just figured out how to procure new pistols. How simple. I can’t believe how long it took to procure a new handgun."
McCarthy suggested looking at off-the-shelf rifles that could be modified to fit the Army's needs. For instance, he said, the successful mine-resistant, ambush protected vehicle used by both the Army and Marine Corps was inspired by a similar vehicle used by South African forces.
Despite the hammering, McCain agreed that readiness — Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley's top priority — could not continue to slip.
"Mr. McCarthy, the U.S. Army is facing a crisis," he said. "With current operational demands, we can no longer accept that only about one third of the Army's [brigade combat teams] are ready for deployment."
"Six years ago, when I left the Department of Defense, the world was a complex and dangerous place. The Army had over 178,000 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq," he said. "Today the danger and complexity in the world has only increased, while the size of the total Army has decreased."
The Army reversed its end strength drawdown this year and leaders have said they would like to see the number of soldiers spread throughout the active and reserve components continue to climb.
Despite his tough questioning, McCain said he would like to move the nomination along as quickly as possible, and promised a fight on the Senate floor if his Democratic colleagues continue to hold up Trump nominations.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.