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Waiting for DoD: What does the Pentagon think of our rare earths vulnerability?

Inquiring Congressional minds want to know — or at least the Congressional mind belonging to Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), co-chair (with Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman) of the newly-formed Rare Earths Caucus. During Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s House Armed testimony this week, Cong. Johnson seized the opportunity to ask where things stood with the Pentagon’s report on the use of rare earths in the defense supply chain. That report, due in October 2010, remains missing in action 16 months after its due-date, and 28 months after Congress first directed DoD to undertake the assessment.

In response to Cong. Johnson’s query, a DoD legislative aide answers for the Secretary that the report is in interagency clearance and will be sent to Congress “very soon.” When Congressman Johnson politely presses for a bit more specificity, Secretary Panetta promises it within “a couple of weeks.” Judging from the body language, no one at the Pentagon seems too worried about keeping Congress waiting.

American Resources readers can rest assured we’ll share the report — or whatever unclassified version of it the Pentagon publishes — the minute it crosses the Potomac and reaches Capitol Hill. In the meantime, we suggest that anyone interested get a feel for the vital nature of these critical metals questions by reading the April 2010 GAO Report: Rare Earths Materials in the Defense Supply Chain. There you’ll find a summary of the major U.S. weapons systems which use rare earths, ranging from precision-guided munitions, lasers, avionics and night-vision equipment to communications systems, radar and satellites — plus a sober recitation of concerns occasioned by our 100% dependence on China for our rare earths imports. If anything — now that the Pentagon has announced its pivot to Asia — the concerns surfaced by the GAO deserve immediate attention.

When we do learn where DoD stands on its rare earths vulnerabilities, perhaps Cong. Johnson and his peers will follow on by asking the Pentagon for a full strategic review of the 18 metals and minerals in addition to the rare earths for which the United States is 100% import-dependent. If the quest for the DoD’s rare earths report is any indicator, Congress should ask soon.