Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, made news yesterday with a decision that could shake up the way the Pentagon buys weapons. According to a Politico Pro Defense report Tuesday (subscription required), McCain’s proposal would give the military services power over their programs, rather than having a centralized authority in the form of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics. The plan also attempts to cut down on cost overruns and schedule delays by imposing penalties on both the services and contractors.

A couple of thoughts come to mind immediately with regard to this proposal.

First, it is a good initial step. There is always a great deal of uncertainty inherent in the defense acquisition process. Centralizing authority for program development as Goldwater-Nichols did three decades ago exacerbates information gaps and coordination problems that contribute greatly to skyrocketing costs and frequent delays on major weapon systems. McCain’s proposal to put the services back in charge of developing their programs will help shrink those gaps.

Second, there is still a long way to go. During his confirmation hearing before McCain’s committee, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter discussed the possibility of bringing the services back into the acquisition process. In a piece for RealClearDefense on the heels of Carter’s comments, I wrote,

During his confirmation hearing, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter offered a small window into his plans to fix the Pentagon’s much maligned acquisition system. Responding to a question, he declared his intention to “reintroduce the role of the customer” by giving the chiefs of the military services greater oversight in the acquisition process. Fine, but if Carter really wishes to use the services to fix what currently ails the Department of Defense, he should reintroduce their roles as competitors.

Decentralizing defense acquisition will go a long way toward ameliorating some of the uncertainty inherent in program development. Competition will take it farther. Services in competition for resources and missions will show a much greater willingness to share information on the wasteful practices of their brethren, thus creating a feedback mechanism that will further reduce information gaps and help maintain accountability. Moreover, competition for scarce resources will create powerful incentives to innovate—a top priority for the Pentagon’s current leadership. Service self-interest—often derided as mere bureaucratic parochialism—can thus benefit the military as a whole.

During his speech in March at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) announcing a review of Goldwater-Nichols, McCain said any reassessment would take place slowly. Wednesday’s news suggests the senator is moving quicker toward reform than he suggested at the time. As I wrote in another piece for RealClearDefense following McCain’s remarks at CSIS, I his next step in reviewing Goldwater-Nichols should be to revisit the joint service requirement for promotion to flag grade to move the military away from the culture of “managerial jointness” that has stifled competition among the services.

As Austin Wright and Leigh Munsil of Politico note, there are many within the Department of Defense and in the defense industry that will not be pleased with McCain’s proposal. And there are other aspects of the proposal that need to be examined when it is released in full. But it is clear structural changes are needed in the way the Pentagon does business. The Armed Services Committee chairman’s proposal seems to be a good first step in that direction.