A Government at War with Itself

By Daniel McGroarty

What’s U.S. Government policy on strategic resources? Not oil - where we’re fighting out on the front pages who’s to blame for higher gas prices - but the dozens of other arcane metals and minerals from Antimony to Zirconium that go into all the gadgets we use to update our Facebook pages, power our post-petroleum energy alternatives and - via our Government - launch drone strikes?

That depends on what part of the U.S. Government is doing the speaking.

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An array of alphabet agencies are sounding the resource risk alarm. USGS - the U.S. Geological Survey - shows the United States as being 100 percent dependent for 19 different metals and minerals, counting the Rare Earths (all 17 elements) as a single metal. The Department of Energy (DOE) says we’re at critical risk for five energy-specific metals, all of which are Rare Earths. GAO, the Government Accounting Office, says a score or more major U.S. weapons systems are dependent on Rare Earths coming from China, while government-commissioned reports from IDA - the Institute for Defense Analysis - document instances where metals shortages interfered with weapons production. Then there’s the White House, where President Obama recently joined the European Union and Japan to launch a World Trade Organization case against China for its Rare Earths export policies, following a few days later with an Executive Order on National Defense Resources Preparedness tasking government agencies to prepare for resource supply disruptions.

And then there’s the Department of Defense. Never mind the USGS, the DOE, the GAO or even the White House: The agency charged with safeguarding our national security is officially un-worried about Rare Earths in the defense supply chain, despite having been instructed by the U.S. Congress to report on potential vulnerabilities due to foreign - read: Chinese - supply.

DoD’s report arrived on Capitol Hill in March, nearly 18 months late. At a length of seven pages, the Pentagon’s planners have produced longer fruitcake recipes. (It’s true: MIL-F-14499F, the DoD's specifications for Army-ready fruitcake, runs a full 18 pages.) We can’t critique the report in detail, because it’s not been publicly released; the only accounts thus far come from private peeks given a favored few reporters, producing headlines like “Pentagon Downplays China’s Rare-Earths Controls.”

DoD’s message is clear: Move along, policy wonks, nothing to see here. All this government hand-wringing over Rare Earths is simply a non-issue.

Or maybe not. Less than a month after the leaked DoD report comes a new study by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), Rare Earths Elements in National Defense, that makes the DoD’s mini-study look like the Cliff’s Notes of complacency. CRS defense specialist Valerie Bailey Grasso documents in dispassionate detail a reality entirely at odds with the Pentagon report. CRS finds that 10 of the 17 Rare Earths are used in five functional areas that collectively encompass every major warfighting capability used to project power via ground, sea, air and space: Guidance & Control, Electronic Warfare, Targeting, Electric Motors and Battlefield Communications.

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Daniel McGroarty, principal of Carmot Strategic Group, an issues management firm in Washington, D.C., served in senior positions in the White House and at the Department of Defense.

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