The Complicated Relationship Between John McCain and Frank Kendall

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, shakes hands with Defense Undersecretary Frank Kendall, the military's chief weapons buyer, right, before the start of a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 27, 2016.

Susan Walsh/AP

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Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., left, shakes hands with Defense Undersecretary Frank Kendall, the military's chief weapons buyer, right, before the start of a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 27, 2016.

The Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer for the past five years says he’s lowered the cost of arms, but the watchdog senator never seemed satisfied.

The courtship between Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Frank Kendall began five years ago in the basement of a Washington think tank.

Kendall had just been nominated to become undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, the No. 3 civilian at the Pentagon, it’s “top weapons buyer.” Facing a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing, Kendall went to the Center for Strategic and International Studies to give a speech and take questions from reporters, something nominees rarely do.

Then he dropped a bomb. Kendall said the Pentagon’s prior management of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — the Defense Department’s largest, most expensive project with a long-documented history underperforming and being over budget — was “acquisition malpractice.” At the time, political observers said the comments were playing to McCain, the top Republican on the committee and fiercest critic in Congress of wasteful defense spending. One month later, McCain repeated those same two words at the beginning of Kendall’s confirmation hearing and it seemed the two were destined for a long, happy partnership.

It never happened. Despite have having the same goal of getting the most bang for the taxpayer’s buck on multibillion dollar weapons, the two never seemed to agree on best way to do it. Last year, McCain abolished Kendall’s job. According to new law, come 2018, the responsibilities assigned to Kendall’s position will be divided into two new undersecretaries. Kendall won’t be around to see it. He, with the vast majority of President Barack Obama’s political appointees, leaves the Pentagon this week.

Kendall returned to CSIS on the eve of his departure for one last public appearance  — and to perhaps toss one last dagger. “Acquisition improvement is going to have to come from within,” he said on Tuesday. “It is not going to be engineered by Hill staffers writing laws for us.” Aides said it was less of a personal vendetta between McCain and Kendall, and more the byproduct of the years of Capitol Hill and the Pentagon never coming to an agreement of how to do business.

Still the two traded barbs over some of the Pentagon’s most controversial projects: the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship, Russian RD-180 rocket engines that propel U.S. military satellites into orbit and the overall cost of weapons. In 2015, McCain blamed Kendall’s office for several problems they argued led to billions in cost overruns and delays to the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford.

Before becoming the Pentagon acquisition chief, Kendall served as deputy to then-acquisition chief Ash Carter. Since moving into Carter’s old job in 2012, he has looked for ways to improve how the Pentagon buys arms through Better Buying Power, an initiative started by Carter and updated twice by Kendall. Data has been Kendall’s guide. He has published numerous data-driven reports that have looked for the root causes that have sent arms projects off the rails. And his data has repeatedly shown that the reforms he’s put in place are lowering the cost of weapons. He published a 228-page book this week with his parting guidance and advice for the Pentagon’s acquisition workforce.

Throughout his Pentagon tenure, Kendall has been an outspoken critic of U.S. investment levels in new technology and has often expressed worry that China and Russia are closing the gap on America’s tech edge. He’s pushed defense firms to invest more money on research projects, a move that drew criticism from some CEOs.

Kendall made it clear at an October meeting with reporters that he wanted to stay in his position, even with a different administration in the White House. His advice for the Trump team: Don’t appoint businessmen who don’t understand how the Pentagon works.

“[The Pentagon] brings with it some very interesting cultural things and so does this town,” Kendall said. “Bringing somebody in who does not have the experience working in that environment I think is a disservice.”

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