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Misconceived Notions of America’s Military Might Spell Trouble

“We still have the most capable military in the world, but that position is increasingly in jeopardy.”

That’s the sobering verdict of ret. Col. Wesley Hallman, senior vice president of policy at the National Defense Industrial Association, in a commentary for Defense News.

Hallman argues that there are three misconceptions of America’s martial powers that have led us to believe that “we are — and always will be — more capable than our adversaries and can rapidly build to overcome any threat.” Without significant investments, he says, we’re “probably wrong.”

As Hallman outlines, our military today is “a smaller, more expensive force largely operating Desert Storm vintage equipment” – though that state is masked by the fact that we haven’t met a “serious conventional foe” in Afghanistan or Iraq.

The three areas in which Americans hold misconceived notions which have “put the United States into a precarious position” according to Hellman are:

  1. the military’s capacity,
  2. its relative capabilities, and
  3. and industry’s ability to supply it quickly with weapons systems that can dominate our peers.

From an ARPN perspective, the most relevant point of course is number three.

Writes Hellman:

“[M]ost American’s (sic) believe our nation enjoys the same defense-industrial base that served as the ‘arsenal of democracy’ in World War II, capable of scaling up production and innovation when truly needed, or the so-called military-industrial complex that powered the United States through the Cold War.

Today, instead of a robust bench of large and mid-sized companies and their myriad small-business suppliers competing and producing new capabilities at the speed of information-age innovation, our defense industry has shrunk to a few standout corporations. This has obscured fragile supply chains that are hampered by a risk-averse government acquisition system that takes 10 years to field a replacement handgun for the services.”

The issue is compounded by the availability of the mineral resources needed to develop our military’s equipment.  As our very own Daniel McGroarty wrote a few years back:

“Since the implosion of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the U.S. defense stockpile has been treated as a kind of raw materials garage-sale, with nearly all metals marked for a phased sell-off — calibrated so as not to unduly undercut current metal prices. Stockpile silver went to the U.S. Mint for the striking of silver dollars, an almost literal swords-into-plowshares swap. Other metals were sold to pay for the cost of erecting the World War II Memorial without having to appropriate federal funds. Still more metals were sold with the proceeds flowing back to the U.S. Treasury, where they were spent on whatever it is the federal government funds to the tune of $10 billion a day.”

Meanwhile, as the 2016 USGS study “Comparison of U.S. net import reliance for nonfuel mineral commodities—A 60-year retrospective”shows, 30 years ago, the U.S. was 100% foreign-dependent for 11 metals and minerals.  Today, that number has increased to 21. Meanwhile, we are more than 50% import-dependent for 50 minerals in all – nearly half of the naturally-occurring elements on the Periodic Table.

Making matters worse, the federal mine permitting process has grown increasingly convoluted and opaque, and has left miners struggling with a “permitting odyssey that stretches an average of 7 to 10 years and oftentimes longer.”

Thankfully, efforts to address these issues are underway.  The Department of Interior has provided a good starting point for reforms with its recently released list of 35 metals and minerals deemed critical for U.S. national security.   And an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by Rep. Mark Amodei (R, NV) would streamline the above-referenced permitting nightmare – and there are compelling reasons for its passage. As Dan McGroarty recently wrote:

  • “6 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.”

The situation is dire, but luckily, as McGroarty points out, “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 domestic minerals deficit.” 

However, there is still resistance against the necessary reforms, particularly on Capitol Hill. Col. Hallman’s piece should be required reading for policy makers and their staff, and they should take his conclusion to heart:

“It’s time to see reality, recognize these challenges and their root causes, and make the hard reforms necessary to reinvest in American strength.”