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Got copper? New pentagon report spotlights key role of critical metals

A new national security report has just been released:  The 2015 National Defense Stockpile Requirements Report documents projected shortfalls in various metals, minerals and materials required for the U.S. defense industrial base and, in this day of dual-use technologies, the “essential civilian economy.”

In all, the new report details shortfalls that, in classified crises scenarios, would affect 30 metals and minerals – about 1/3 of the naturally occurring elements in the Periodic Table.  Many of the metals and minerals used in U.S. defense applications aren’t exactly household names.  There’s bismuth, used in defense thermo-electrics to capture ‘waste heat” and channel it back into weapons systems power sources.  Weapons builders need iridium – used in aircraft engines, satellites and rocket propulsion– as an alternative to America’s present reliance on Russian supply.   In the case of tellurium, used in thermal imaging and navigation systems, present tellurium production, already sharply limited, will soon drop to zero, increasing U.S. dependency on China, Russia and Japan.  Rhenium and molybdenum are essential to high-performance alloys used in jet turbines and other defense systems – as is more cobalt, used in jet engine super-alloys and samarium-cobalt permanent magnets.  As the Pentagon study notes:

{mosads}“Cobalt and copper output in DRC may increase substantially in the near future, assuming political and economic stability continues in the eastern part of that country.”

But then again:  “Chinese firms have been buying control of DRC mines to ensure supplies of raw material for cobalt refining.”

That’s six metals and minerals with little in common, except for one thing:  All are by-products of copper mining.  Copper – like nickel and zinc – is a kind of gateway metal, providing access to other elements present in concentrations too minor to mine in their own right.  Close the door on copper production, and you’re making a difficult situation far worse for national defense planners tasked with securing reliable supplies of critical metals.  Given that every crisis is a come-as-you-are event – your options are only as strong as your prior planning – failure today to provide reliable sources of supply will translate into battlefield loses in some unwished-for future.

But can’t U.S. defense system designers work around potential shortfalls, substituting more plentiful metals for those in short supply?  They’re working on just that.  Take potential shortfalls in tin and antimony – used in everything from old-school bearings and ammunition to high-tech touch screens, and Forward-Looking Infra-Red imagers. 

In both cases, Pentagon planners note that, for some defense applications, there is a metal you can use as a substitute:  Copper.

There’s only one problem:  This year, the U.S. will consume more copper than it produces — 600,000 metric tons more. 

Shortfalls for nine metals and minerals; supply dependencies on China and Russia; competition for scarce resources with Japan; concerns about sourcing from the conflict metals mines of DRC Congo:  These factors reflect the nature of today’s global economy – and the very real pressures it creates for defense planners. 

Not everyone feels the Pentagon planners’ pain.  There was controversy this winter that a federal land exchange related to an Arizona copper project was included in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act – the omnibus bill that funds all aspects and operations of the U.S. military establishment — with some critics claiming the swap’s inclusion “has nothing to do with ‘defense.’”  But as the new Pentagon report makes clear, domestic copper production is critically important.  By weight, copper remains the second most widely used material in weapons platforms, and as a previous Department of Defense report indicates, the inability to source copper has already resulted in a “significant weapon system production delay for DoD.”  The same is true of copper by-products molybdenum and tellurium – making copper the only primary metal whose absence has affected multiple weapons systems.

And that’s what’s wrong with the current debate on mining.  It has devolved into a binary battle: on the one side, pro-mining advocates citing jobs and GDP — on the other, anti-mining activists defending the environment. 

And the anti-mining forces are winning: The U.S. attracts less than half of the minerals exploration investment we did 20 years ago – and it takes twice as long to push a new mine through the permitting process as it does in other industrial democracies. 

Fighting against mining is portrayed as a moral cause, but it’s cynical, really.  After all, if you stop mines in the U.S., the metals in the stuff we buy will just come from somewhere else.  Do anti-mining activists stop to think of where the metals come from in the laptops and smart phones they use to organize their protests? 

But when the same metal that powers smart phones propels smart bombs – and import dependency becomes a weapon in the hands of an adversary – it turns out it really does matter where our metals come from.

It’s time for this debate to make room for a new thought:  in our tech-driven world, metals access is a matter of national security.

Pentagon planners are staying up nights tracking down every known metals dependency that could hamper our Armed Forces and idle our advanced weaponry.  Shouldn’t we welcome resource projects that provide our warfighters the metal they need to keep us safe?

McGroarty, president of the non-profit American Resources Policy Network, an experts-group focused on domestic resource supply, has participated in the shortfall analysis informing the last two National Defense Stockpile Requirement Reports.


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