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This Week’s Dramatic Development: The Rise of the “Defense Criticals”

by Daniel McGroarty

The Critical Mineral space in the U.S. experienced a dramatic development this week, largely overlooked beyond specialty reporting in the defense and energy media:  With his February 27, 2023 Presidential Determination, President Biden once more invoked Title III of the Defense Production Act (DPA) to strengthen critical mineral supply chains – and in doing so, effectively created a new category of Critical Materials.  Two days later, the President followed with another DPA Presidential Determination (2023-5), designating airbreathing engines, advanced avionics navigation and guidance systems, and hypersonic systems and their “constituent materials” as priority DPA materials.

Tied to the Korean War-era Defense Production Act, the action carries the force of federal law, unlike Executive Orders, which carry no legislative weight — and while they can be enacted with the “stroke of the presidential pen,” can be rescinded with the same pen held by the next president.

Here’s where things get interesting, or more accurately, complicated.  ARPN followers are well aware of the frequency with which we focus on the U.S. Government Critical Minerals List, enacted via a Trump Administration Executive Orderpromulgated in 2018, codified into federal law in 2020, and updated in 2022, to its present list of 50 minerals, metals and elements.

Alongside the Critical List we’ve seen a series of DPA Presidential Determinations involving specific Critical Minerals, beginning with President Trump’s July 2019 designation of the Rare Earth permanent magnet supply chain being designated as “essential for the national defense,” followed by President Biden’s designation of what ARPN calls the “Battery Criticals” as DPA Title III eligible in March 2022, followed by Platinum and Palladium in a DPA Presidential Determination in June 2022.

So, for anyone compiling a Critical Mineral Defense Production Act scorecard, at the close of 2022, the DPA list numbered 12:  5 “Magnet Rare Earths” (Neodymium, Praseodymium,  Terbium, Dysprosium and Samarium), plus 5 “Battery Criticals” (Graphite, Nickel, Cobalt, Manganese and Lithium), joined by Platinum and Palladium.  [For ARPN’s more detailed take on each of the battery criticals, see these previous posts.]

ARPN dubbed these 12 the “Super Criticals,” to distinguish this dozen from the 50 in the Critical Minerals List.

With this week’s new DPA Presidential Determination, the Super Critical category got a lot larger.  Just how large will take a bit of sleuthing, as President Biden’s three paragraph determination is framed around specific supply chains, implying without naming the specific minerals, metals and materials that will now be “strategic and critical materials,” instead directing Critical wonks to the White House 100 Day Supply Chain report, covered extensively by ARPN.  As for the hypersonic and airbreathing engines DPA announcement, it lacks any breadcrumbs on the metals, minerals and materials that will fall under the “constitutent materials” category.

Which makes building out the new Criticals list a work in progress.

What can be said so far?  To build out the new Strategic and Critical Materials list, start with the semiconductor materials referenced in Department of Commerce’s section of the 100-Day Report:  Gallium, Germanium, and Indium.

Then look to the Department of Defense portion of that report and a table said to list the 53 “materials” – get used to the DoD nomenclature, which unlike the U.S. Critical Mineral List, includes metals, minerals, materials including alloys and composites – found to be in shortfall by DoD.  (I’ll save a post on how DoD determines shortfalls for another time.)

But count the materials listed in the 100 Day Supply Chain Report, and you’ll end at 38, not 53.

15 of them are mentioned only in the Report appendices — and the appendices are withheld from the public document, as Classified and/or Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI).

What’s CUI?  You’ll be unhappy you asked: “Controlled Unclassified Information is information that requires safeguarding or dissemination controls pursuant to and consistent with applicable law, regulations and government-wide policies but is not classified.”  So it’s not classified, but without a U.S. Government security clearance, you can’t see it.

With just a quick look over the edge of the rabbit hole, ARPN will be scratching its head for a bit on how private sector resource developers will get to work producing 15 essential DPA Title III materials whose names cannot be spoken outside a government SCIF.  More to come on that.

As for the rest of the new 38 DPA Title III materials, what are they?

Aluminum (high purity)
Al-Li Alloy
Arsenic (molecular beam grade)
Beryllium ore
Beryllium Metal
Boron (Boron 10 isotope – and other unnamed classified isotopes)
Carbon-Carbon (and classified variants)
Energetics (classified variants)
Graphite (ISO-molded, civilian applications)
Graphite (ISO-molded, defense applications)
Lithium metal
Manganese (Electrolytic Manganese Metal)
REE NdFeB magnets
REE SmCo magnets
Steel (1080 grade ultra-high strength cable tire cord)
Steel (grain oriented electrical, silicon-based)
Titanium (sponge)

…Plus 11 Rare Earths:

Yttrium (multiple types, classified)

(Notice that 3 of these Rare Earths were already DPA Title III materials via the Trump Presidential Determination)

All together, counting the unique minerals/metals/elements in the new DPA announcement compared to the previously-designated Super Criticals, that’s 7 new Rare Earths plus 13 new elements, for a total of 20.

Back to the scorecard:

  • 12 prior “Super Criticals”
  • 3 semiconductor materials (Department of Commerce section, Supply Chain Report)
  • 20 newly-designated metals/minerals/elements (DoD section, Supply Chain Report)

…For a total of 35.  For now, anyway:  as we’ve yet to dig in on the hypersonics, airbreathing engines and navigation and guidance system materials:

Cobalt (2022)
Dysprosium (2019)
Graphite (2022)
Lithium (2022)
Manganese (2022)
Nickel (2022)
Neodymium (2019)
Palladium (2022)
Platinum (2022)
Praseodymium (2019)
Samarium (2019)
Terbium (2019)

Meet the “Defense Criticals:”  

A strong signal that the quest to create domestic supply chains just got serious.