It's the last thing any Washington watcher would expect in the run-up to Sequestergeddon: a government agency proposing a new spending program. Yet that's precisely what the Pentagon did last week, with the quiet release of its National Defense Stockpile Report to the Congress.
Even experts in the industry are hard-pressed to recall when the U.S. Government last added to its metals and minerals inventory -- and for good reason. 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.
And why not, given the demise of the Soviet threat and the emergence of a global market not seen outside an economic textbook. Surely the U.S. could source metals and minerals from providers anywhere on the planet, for the right price. But after two decades of this post-Cold War experience, a new realization is dawning: Shifts in global metal production have produced a situation in which the U.S. is extraordinarily dependent on foreign-sourced metals and minerals. For the Pentagon, increasingly dependent on the metal-intensive weapons systems of a modern military, this foreign dependence is a dangerous exposure -- a weakness that can be exploited in time of conflict.
Not quite a year ago, the Pentagon issued a long-awaited report on its rare earths dependency -- the metals used not only in smart phones but smart bombs and a score of major weapons platforms. That study, delivered 18 months late, came in at a scant seven pages, the gist of which was to downplay any dependency whatsoever.
What a difference a year makes. The new DoD report, weighing in at 189 pages including 15 non-classified appendices, studied 72 metals and minerals (including 16 of the rare earths). Its finding: "DoD finds shortfalls -- insufficient supply to meet demand -- for approximately a third (23) of these materials."
DoD proceeds to recommend nine metals for near-term stockpiling, four of them rare earth elements. But the list of at-risk metals ranges freely across the Periodic Table of Elements: Gallium (used in computer chips for radar and electronic warfare systems), Tantalum (used in capacitors in anti-tank systems), Antimony (used to strengthen ultra-light weight plastics), Silicon Carbide (used in so-called loitering weapons, like drones) and Bismuth (used in ammunition).