A Government at War with Itself

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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.

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.

All told, CRS identifies 24 specific weapons systems or cross-platform capabilities with critical Rare Earths components, including:

JDAMS smart bomb converter kits, the Tomahawk cruise missile, Predator unmanned aircraft, the Zumwalt DDG 1000 guided missile destroyer, the Joint Strike Fighter, the FCS Future Combat Service armored vehicle and Army’s Stryker armored vehicle’s long-range area-denial capability, the SaberShot Photonic Disrupter - a non-lethal flash-blinding laser - fin actuators on the JAGM Joint Air-Ground Missile, to be used by the U.S. Army, Navy and Marines, jamming devices used by all services, Nickel Metal Hydride Batteries, Ground- and Airborne-Laser targeting systems, radar, sonar transducers, CHPS Combat Hybrid Power Systems to support silent operations, the Laser Avenger anti-IED weapon - and the Navy’s Electromagnetic Railgun, capable of launching a projectile 100 nautical miles.

In short, all the stuff U.S. warfighters need to control and defend the battlespace.

But if we’re worried about what will happen if China cuts off our Rare Earths supply, yet another new study, this one by the GAO, suggests that we also have to worry about counterfeit parts that make their way into the defense supply chain - including military-grade components in our defense electronics.

In its own “sting operation,” the GAO found a dozen instances of counterfeit electronic components - all of them from a single country of origin: China.

According to Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) - along with Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), the co-commissioners of the GAO study: “The Chinese government’s refusal to shut down counterfeiting that occurs openly in their country puts our national security and the safety of our military men and women at risk.”

A growing number of government agencies are realizing the dangers of resource dependency, an epiphany that should lead to a reexamination of policies that could promote domestic production not only of Rare Earths, but a range of other metals critical to our economic strength and national security.

And yet the department charged with ensuring our national security sees no danger. “Let not your heart be troubled” may make a marvelous moral precept, but it’s less compelling as a national defense strategy.

The Resource Wars is one conflict our military machine seemingly wants no part of. Here’s hoping the foreign-sourced parts in our warfighting machines hold up if they’re ever put to the test.

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