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NDAA takes aim at critical mineral supply chain

The Pentagon needs to address reliance on Chinese-dominated weapons materials, lawmakers say

Ground crew maneuver an F-35B Lightning II combat aircraft at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina on March 8, 2016. The fighter requires more than 900 pounds of rare earth materials.
Ground crew maneuver an F-35B Lightning II combat aircraft at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina on March 8, 2016. The fighter requires more than 900 pounds of rare earth materials. (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

Lawmakers are mulling a slew of new authorities and reporting requirements designed to shore up the U.S. supply chain of critical minerals as tensions with China deepen. 

House and Senate versions of the fiscal 2024 defense authorization put a new layer of pressure on the Pentagon to secure its access to materials used in a wide variety of weapons — provisions pushed by both Democrats and Republicans. 

China currently controls most of the market for materials known as critical minerals, including cobalt, lithium, nickel and “rare earth elements,” a subgroup of critical minerals that come from a smaller number of sources. Although these minerals are found around the world, China dominates the market for processing and refining them. 

That leaves the U.S. highly vulnerable to shortages if growing tensions with China cause economic rifts between the two nations, lawmakers argue. Critical minerals are used in many modern defense technologies, including aircraft engines, batteries, high-powered magnets and more. 

“It’s one thing to be reliant on a foreign source,” said Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., chairman of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee, whose portion of the NDAA requires a review of the Defense Department’s requirements for  identifying, tracing and stockpiling critical minerals and metals. “It’s another thing to be reliant on your greatest adversary.”

Reliance on China

Defense-minded lawmakers have spent years raising concerns about critical minerals, a list of 50 minerals the U.S. Geological Survey deems “critical to the U.S. economy and national security,” including aluminum, cobalt, graphite, magnesium, manganese, titanium, tungsten and zinc.

Cobalt, for example, is a component in high-temperature sections of jet engines and industrial gas turbines. Tungsten is used in armor-penetrating projectiles as well as aircraft weights and counterweights. 

Rare earth metals have specific, crucial uses too: Samarium is used in permanent magnets for tank navigation; lanthanum is used in infrared-absorbing glass for night vision goggles. A single F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter requires 920 pounds of rare earth materials, a 2013 Congressional Research Service report concluded.

But China dominates the processing and refining market for many of those materials. According to research from the Brookings Institution, China refines 68 percent of nickel globally, 40 percent of copper, 59 percent of lithium and 73 percent of cobalt — even though those materials are sourced from a variety of countries. For rare earth elements, China dominates both mining and processing. 

“While they don’t have dominance across all the mineral mining itself, they are very strong and have made a lot of investments over a long period of time in companies that do that mining,” said Morgan Bazilian, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines who was previously the lead energy specialist at the World Bank. 

“So even if they are not mining the cobalt, say — which is the one that most people look at in their country — they certainly own a lot of the companies that do it in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” he said. 

That level of dependence has lawmakers worried amid worsening relations with Beijing and broader efforts by the United States to decouple certain parts of the U.S. supply from China. 

The fiscal 2023 defense policy bill boosted the National Defense Stockpile by $1 billion specifically to acquire critical minerals. And the 2022 climate, tax and health care law created a tax credit to encourage the domestic production of critical minerals used in renewable energy generation, storage and related manufacturing. 

Presidential administrations have sought to take on the problem too. Former President Donald Trump invoked the Defense Production Act to produce samarium cobalt magnets and signed an executive order asking agencies to boost domestic mining and refining capacity. 

And President Joe Biden invoked the Defense Production Act to strengthen the U.S. industrial base for large-capacity batteries, specifically targeting lithium, nickel, cobalt, graphite and manganese.

“The Pentagon is taking it very seriously and, from what I can tell, is one of the most sophisticated players in the critical minerals supply chain discussion and action,” Bazilian said. “And so I think that bodes well for the defense aspect of this conversation.”

Legislative approach

Despite the efforts made so far, many lawmakers see opportunities to go further. 

The text of the House NDAA, which advanced to the floor last week, would authorize multiyear contracting for domestic processing of rare earth elements, an effort to show U.S. companies that the Pentagon is committed to broadening its critical mineral industrial base for the long term. 

“You have to signal to the private sector that there’s going to be a demand — for the mining companies, the refining companies and most importantly for the investors,” Waltz said. 

The bill would also line up a series of briefings for lawmakers, including on the Pentagon’s strategies to build up domestic graphite mining and processing; ensure tungsten is available to U.S. industry; and develop carbon-neutral magnesium production capabilities. 

During the marathon markup, members of the House Armed Services Committee added hundreds of their own provisions, including several geared toward the critical mineral supply chain. All were adopted in bipartisan en bloc amendment packages. 

One provision, offered by Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., would require a briefing on how the U.S. can secure its nuclear-grade graphite supply chain. Another, proposed by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., would require the assistant secretary of Defense for industrial base policy to submit a report on the sourcing of rhodium within the defense industrial base.

Rep. Jill N. Tokuda, D-Hawaii, proposed amendments that would direct the Defense Department to consider recycled and reused minerals and metals as a source of acquisition for graphite, tungsten and magnesium. And Rep. Nick LaLota, R-N.Y., offered a provision that would require a report on the costs of adding terbium oxide, beryllium and gallium to the National Defense Stockpile.

Meanwhile, the Senate NDAA would strengthen domestic production of strategic and critical materials, according to a summary released by the Senate Armed Services Committee. It would also provide “additional flexibilities and authorities” through the Strategic and Critical Materials Stockpiling Act, a decades-old law that provides the statutory basis for amassing certain substances, and require the National Nuclear Security Administration to establish a supply chain reliability assurance program for critical materials.

The House NDAA is slated for floor consideration after Congress returns from its July Fourth recess; the Senate has yet to announce its timeline. 

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