University of Tennessee

NSA Site Access: Twenty-Fifth Air Force’s $95M Problem

July 14, 2020

Edward Snowden. Reality Winner. Bradley Manning. These leakers of classified intelligence materials dominated headlines over the last decade – and the fallout from the scandals has significantly affected the way the U.S. military approaches security.

Heightened fear of leaks has understandably created concerns in the intelligence community, prompting additional steps for security clearance processing. But for units such as the Twenty-Fifth Air Force, that military branch’s top military intelligence organization, these steps brought longer processing timelines. That’s why the organization’s director of intelligence, Shane Smith, decided to track and quantify that cost and propose solutions as the focus of his Aerospace and Defense MBA organization action project (OAP) at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business in 2018.

At the launch of his OAP, Smith calculated that extended timelines cost $95 million in personnel expenses, with 985 airmen unable to perform their missions while awaiting security clearance. Each day an airman waits for clearance, the Air Force spends $263 on that personnel with no return. That figure doesn’t include the intangible effects of lack of mission readiness or the costs to career development of those who must stay on mission indefinitely while their replacements wait to be processed.

Smith believed the situation could be improved one process at a time without compromising security, an effort directly in line with his commander’s posted priorities.

Key Operational Improvements

Smith’s OAP emphasized streamlining, rather than overhauling, existing processes. First, he and his office obtained permission to prioritize the applications of intelligence-related personnel at military entrance processing stations, and instituted operational steps supporting that move. That priority upgrade would shave an average of 278 days off the wait, at a cost of only $600 per airman.

While tracking data and outlining improvements, Smith stayed in contact with his senior leadership, who were eager to learn the results of each step. This engagement led to meetings between Smith’s security working groups and high-level leadership, where more clearance inefficiencies were identified that, once solved, could lead to real gains.

For example, four contract clearance screeners were added to the Basic Military Training workforce, speeding the process through more accurate paperwork, earlier prioritization and the disqualification of candidates unlikely ever to gain NSA clearance. This change benefited the entire U.S. Air Force, not just Twenty-Fifth Air Force units.

Some of the biggest rewards were achieved when a new NSA Military Affairs Division (MADO) chief open to suggestions for positive change arrived. The NSA agreed to begin accepting site-to-site transfers of previously cleared personnel, rather than putting each airman back through the vetting process for each new assignment. MADO was committed to processing these “clean cases” within three business days, so long as 1) a fully adjudicated clearance was present; 2) there were no unreported foreign national contacts; and 3) the airman’s counterintelligence polygraph was current.

To expedite the manual site-to-site transfer process, Smith’s team initiated a processing code that required an up-to-date polygraph before certain airmen were moved. They also standardized email subject lines related to transfers, streamlining the chain of communication. The team won approval for a $1M investment in a web-based information technology solution for all service branches, which will automate all paperwork and screening. This should save the Air Force alone an estimated $1.4M per year.

Taking Stock

As Smith’s team implemented these and other improvements from January to October 2018, the number of personnel waiting to achieve NSA access fell from 985 to 822, a 17 percent decrease. That equaled a net cost improvement of nearly $16M.

A 61 percent improvement in MADO site-to-site holds helped to offset an increase in security investigations that otherwise might have added significantly to the Air Force’s personnel costs. Smith estimates that without the 2018 improvements, that additional cost might have approached $12M. 

This OAP’s success has highlighted the potential for more sweeping changes, and its most significant impact is likely yet to be felt as the effects of individual improvements roll forward.

“We saw millions of dollars in improvements just by making substantive tweaks to the current system,” Smith says. “I think that through innovation, transformational changes could be made to the security clearance process that could achieve a real breakthrough.”

For more information about the Aerospace & Defense MBA program in the Haslam College of Business, please contact Ben Skipper at



Scott McNutt, business writer/publicist (