Rare-Earth Mining: A National Security Imperative

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On April 30, the Department of Defense (DoD) published a new interim rule that will prohibit contractors from importing certain high-powered rare-earth and tungsten components produced in North Korea, China, Russia, and Iran for use in DoD systems. The rule is vital to securing our defense industrial base and has been sorely needed for some time.

Among the covered minerals in the rule, samarium-cobalt and neodymium-iron-boron magnets are critical for many defense systems including aircraft engines, radar, sonar, and guidance systems. Additionally, tungsten is widely used in defense applications, including armor and armor-piercing munitions. That the U.S. ever came to be reliant upon non-allied countries for the supply of such sensitive components is almost inconceivable, and it's created significant strategic vulnerabilities that our adversaries surely will exploit when the time comes.

Given rising tensions around the globe, Congress rightly understood that U.S. control over the supply of crucial defense components was key to our national security. In time, the FY19 National Defense Authorization Act and 10 U.S.C. 2533c, where the rule is codified, will stimulate demand for American mineral suppliers and specialized manufacturers. This is an initial step towards revitalizing our industrial base that had been hollowed out by post-Cold War downsizing and unfair trade policies that favored subsidized foreign minerals.

This vital effort compliments the good work done by the Trump administration on several fronts to strengthen the industrial base. In 2017, President Trump signed two executive orders; E.O. 13817 Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals and E.O. 13788 Buy American and Hire American. Both orders brought needed clarity and focus on American industrial policy and reoriented federal focus to address significant economic and security threats. Finally, E.O. 13806 Manufacturing and Defense Industrial Base and Supply Chain Resiliency, ordered a comprehensive assessment of our mineral supply chain. The resulting report was both timely and sobering. It identified over 300 serious supply chain vulnerabilities and an alarming dependence on foreign rivals for key weapon system components.

Fixes for some of these vulnerabilities are already underway, but others will require additional legislative action and years of joint government-private sector collaboration to solve. Although Congress and the administration have made significant strides, there is still an enormous amount of work to be done.

First, up should be mine-permitting reform. The U.S. geological survey has documented ample U.S. mineral reserves. However, bureaucratic red tape makes it exceedingly difficult to open a new mine in the U.S. 

To bring common sense reform to mine permitting and increase the competitiveness of the domestic mining industry, Congress should take up the National Strategic and Critical Minerals Production Act, introduced by Rep. Mark Amodei of Nevada on May 7. Originally introduced in 2018, the legislation attracted bipartisan support but was not ultimately included in the FY2019 NDAA. Its reintroduction this year is an opportunity we can’t afford to let slip throw our fingers as the nation’s dependence on foreign minerals grows ever-more alarming. 

Congress and the administration have done significant work to identify critical strategic vulnerabilities in our supply chain, including a foolish reliance on critical mineral imports from non-allied countries. Next, we must narrow these vulnerabilities to the extent possible by increasing U.S. production from American mines. Given that we're nearly at full capacity on domestic mine production, the only way to do this will be through investment in new projects.

New mines need new permits, which are nearly impossible to issue or receive in the current regulatory environment. Congress must do the right thing for national security and the economy and pass mine permitting reform this year while economic growth is still roaring and capital investment is readily available. The other option is to wait until we have no choice when the price will be exponentially higher—both in dollars and the lives of American warfighters who rely on these critical minerals to ensure our superiority on the battlefield. To safeguard all elements of our strategic supply lines, it is critical that we apply constant watchfulness to each step of the defense production chain, from raw mineral extraction to weapon system production.

Dean G. Popps is a lawyer and formerly served as the official US Army Acquisition Executive (AAE) and Acting Assistant Secretary of the Army

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