By Daniel McGroarty
It’s a truism that technology is transforming all aspects of our lives, a fact that’s especially apt in the case of the advanced weaponry that increasingly supports the U.S.’s battlefield superiority. It’s equally true that the metals and minerals on which U.S. weapons platforms depend are all too often sourced from foreign suppliers – a vulnerability that America’s adversaries could exploit in time of conflict.
Until now, however, awareness of the problem has not produced action anywhere near adequate to reduce this dangerous dependency.
That could change today, as a group of House members move to add comprehensive critical minerals reform language to the FY2019 National Defense Authorization Act, scheduled for floor debate in a matter of hours.
The language is drawn from a bill backed by Congressman Mark Amodei (R-NV). And while the path to passage may be new, the bill is anything but, having passed the House five times in recent years, only to stall in the Senate. It would set clear and consistent deadlines for a federal mine permitting process that has grown maddeningly opaque, resulting in a permitting odyssey that stretches an average of 7 to 10 years and oftentimes even longer. Indeed, the only thing longer than the American permitting process is the list of metals and minerals we need for our weapons systems.
As the House debate grinds into gear, expect objections that adding a mining-related provision to the NDAA is improper, non-germane to use the parliamentary term.
That’s wrong. In fact, one might argue that ensuring that the U.S. does all it can to ensure the reliable domestic supply of defense-critical metals and minerals is about as germane to the NDAA as it gets.
According to the most recent US Geological Survey Mineral Commodity Summary, the U.S. is 100% dependent on foreign supply for 20 metals and minerals, and 50% or more dependent for a total of 43 metals and minerals. That’s nearly half of the naturally-occurring elements on the Periodic Table.
That deep and wide dependency is the catalyst for the President’s Executive Order on Critical Minerals, issued in December 2017, which has just produced the first unified Critical Minerals List, prepared by the Department of interior in coordination with the Department of Defense.
Consider it Exhibit A in the argument for adding Critical Minerals provisions in the NDAA. The case for inclusion is strong:
16 of the 35 Critical Minerals appear in a non-classified defense study as “hav[ing] already caused some kind of significant weapon system production delay for DoD.”
For 22 of the 35 listed minerals, China is either the leading global producer, leading U.S. supplier – or both.
All of this at the precise moment that we’re seeing headlines like this one in the defense press: “The US is running out of bombs — and it may soon struggle to make more.” The story notes that in the case of many key materials, “…key suppliers are foreign-owned, with no indigenous [U.S.] capability to produce vital parts and materials.”
Connect the dots, and it’s clear that the U.S. lacks reliable access to a wide range of metals and minerals critical to our military’s advanced weapons platforms – materials that in nearly two-dozen cases, we are sourcing from China, a nation that the 2017 U.S. National Defense Strategy identifies as presenting “the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security.”
That’s a five alarm fire bell when it comes to strengthening the raw materials supply chain in the U.S. Defense Industrial Base, and it’s all the reason Congress needs to include critical minerals language in the National Defense Authorization Act.
One last observation, given the dire situation the U.S. is in. The U.S. has known resources of nearly all of the 35 minerals and metals on the Critical List. Whether those resources can be economically developed is an open question – one that the private sector, and private capital, will be ready and willing to answer, once the U.S. Government sends a clear, consistent signal that it is serious about remedying our deep dependency on foreign-sourced critical minerals.