WASHINGTON — U.S. military commands responsible for North America spent millions of dollars meant for COVID-19 relief on space-related data analytics connected to the Pentagon’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control endeavor as well as on office information technology upgrades, a Pentagon watchdog said.
An audit by the Department of Defense’s inspector general found that U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command spent some $13 million of the money it received to respond to the pandemic on JADC2, a department-wide vision for seamless communication, which is said was improper.
Of the 2020 $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill, known as the CARES Act, more than $10 billion was provided to the Defense Department. Of NORAD and NORTHCOM’s nearly 500 COVID‑19 transactions worth $66 million, auditors looked at 25 transactions worth $61 million. Of those, $34 million was used properly, while $19 million was not, and some $7 million was uncertain because officials lacked the required documentation, the watchdog said.
“Consequently, the officials may have violated the purpose statute by using CARES Act funds to pay for projects unrelated to COVID‑19,” the auditors said in their review, made public Wednesday. “NORAD and USNORTHCOM officials’ improper use of CARES Act funds diminishes Congressional and taxpayer trust in the DoD.”
The investigation was spurred by an allegation made on a Defense Department hotline.
The JADC2-related contract was for space-related data analytics, and its statement of work required software to analyze data for space tracking, space weather and environment and radar. Officials with Colorado-based commands NORAD and NORTHCOM contend the contract was a “broad effort” spanning many command-and-control initiatives as well as the tracking of personnel and medical statistics, documents show.
JADC2 aims to better connect the military services and accelerate the sharing of information to enable precise, and more appropriate, responses to threats. It is commonly summed up as connecting sensors to shooters.
Officials also used nearly $5 million in CARES Act funds on an existing contract to acquire steady‑state, cloud-environment software for homeland air defense that receives data from a project called Pathfinder. Pathfinder uses machine learning and other capabilities to analyze data from military, commercial and government sensors to create a common operating picture.
The software aggregates data from multiple systems that in the past would not have been analyzed or assessed in a timely manner, Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, leader of NORAD and NORTHCOM, said of Pathfinder last year.
Auditors reviewing the contract and supplemental documents failed to find a relation to the public health crisis. Instead, they said they determined the spending aligned more with the charge of defending the homeland.
Command officials disagreed, saying Pathfinder tech was used to monitor the status of the workforce and quickly respond to COVID-19 relief needs.
For more than a quarter of the transactions examined, totaling more than $7 million, auditors said the commands maintained no adequate evidence to support whether officials used the funds for pandemic responses, and what records there were lacked a clear and documented connection to the COVID‑19 pandemic.
More than $5 million was used on the first phase of a project to completely re‑cable a NORAD and NORTHCOM building. Auditors said there was no documentation to show how the cable infrastructure project was COVID‑19‑related. Similarly, some $531,500 was used to build out a wireless network that officials argued would allow for better social distancing. Auditors said several documents, emails and testimony were not enough to substantiate it.
Officials with the commands told auditors that they had retained sufficient support for all of their CARES Act expenditures.
The auditors did find that millions of dollars were appropriately spent on projects that boosted bandwidth, maximized teleworking possibilities and let people spread out. Money was also properly used to quarantine, feed and care for troops, a proactive measure that likely stymied the spread of the coronavirus. Those charges fell within the Defense Department’s spending plan for the CARES Act, which defined what was acceptable — medical care, cleaning supplies and Defense Production Act purchases, among other expenses — and what was not.
The audit recommended that the Air Force’s budget director determine whether there were any violations of the Antideficiency Act, which states the executive branch can’t spend money unless Congress authorizes it. Officials agreed to coordinate with NORAD and NORTHCOM to correct issues the auditors identified.
Reached for comment Friday, a spokesperson acknowledged the inspector general’s report and said the “recommendations were already appropriately addressed by U.S. Northern Command. We have nothing further to add.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.
Colin Demarest is a reporter at C4ISRNET, where he covers military networks, cyber and IT. Colin previously covered the Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration — namely Cold War cleanup and nuclear weapons development — for a daily newspaper in South Carolina. Colin is also an award-winning photographer.