Insight by George Mason University

National security threats abound, but the biggest might be the way government works

China, Russia, cyber, space, Iran, North Korea. The United States has a long list of threats that it’s trying to get its arms around.

But John Cotton, executive MBA adjunct faculty for the School of Business at George Mason University and retired Navy vice admiral, says there is one threat that outweighs all of them.

Ourselves.

The military, and the government as a whole, has fallen victim to unpredictable budgeting, sequestration and other hang ups over the last decade and 2020 isn’t shaping up to be much different.

“Will we have a continuing resolution in October? I believe so,” Cotton told Federal News Network during the discussion National Security, Defense and Educating Our Future Leaders sponsored by George Mason University. “Could it be a half year or full year? I think so.”

Cotton said the election is what is likely to spur that decision.

“Why make that decision now, when things might change in a year?” he said.

But, continuing resolutions are tricky for the Pentagon and contractors relying on defense funds. The budgetary limbo keeps the Defense Department from starting any new programs and keeps funding at the previous year’s level.

This year’s on-time budget was an anomaly compared to the wake of continuing resolutions Congress resigned to in the past.

In 2017, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said the constant unpredictable funding takes a toll on the military.

“It’s the cumulative effect. We’ve been doing CRs now for eight years and a shutdown in [20]13,” Milley said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing. “It’s like smoking cigarettes. One cigarette is not going to kill you, but you do that for eight, 10, 20 years, 30 years you’re eventually going to die of lung cancer.”

Manpower

The budget isn’t the only area where the government seems to be shooting itself in the foot, Cotton said.

With the nation in a period of low unemployment and less people being eligible to serve in the military, DoD is in the middle of a talent war. One of the things keeping DoD from winning that war is its security clearance process.

The current backlog for a clearance is about half a million people.

“Clearance is a showstopper for some folks,” Cotton said. “The longest I’ve heard is about two years for some people. In most cases it’s nine months to a year to get a clearance. This is why I tell people who are in the military or in the government who have a clearance that it might be their most valuable asset.”

The Office of Personnel Management is currently in the process of moving the defense security clearance process over to the Pentagon.

Cotton said he thinks that might help speed things up.

“They want it to happen, they can set the standards,” Cotton said. “We do it internally. There’s no reason they can’t do this properly. I think just policing and setting the standards is important.”

Cotton said what he hears most from his students about the security clearance issue is frustration.

“If you’re a smaller company and you win a contract, you want to scale up as fast as you can,” Cotton said. “If it takes a year to scale up, oh my gosh, you’re not meeting what you promised to the customer. That’s where the frustration comes in.”

Teaching at George Mason University

Will we have a continuing resolution in October? I believe so. Could it be a half year or full year? I think so.

The Security Clearance Process

Clearance is a showstopper for some folks. The longest I’ve heard is about two years for some people. In most cases it’s none months to a year to get a clearance. This is why I tell people who are in the military or in the government who have a clearance that it might be their most valuable asset.

The JEDI Contract and the Future of Technology in the Military

If you’re a smaller company and you win a contract, you want to scale up as fast as you can.

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