America's Unilateral Disarmament In The Resource Wars

11 Feb 2019

The late Stan Lee, comic book king and father to a slew of American superheroes, was a futurist as well.  It was Lee whose fertile mind more than 50 years ago "invented" Vibranium, the imaginary metal used for Captain America's shield, IronMan's exoskeleton, and Black Panther's energy-absorbing suit.

Vibranium may not be found on the Periodic Table of Elements, but Lee seems to have sensed that many arcane metals and minerals would come to be essential to the closest the real world comes to a superhero —  the 21st Century American warrior.

Consider the gear carried by the SEALs, the U.S. Navy's elite special operations force.  When today's SEAL goes into combat, he takes one-quarter of the Periodic Table with him.

The problem is, unlike the comic book world, these metals and minerals can't be imagined — they must be mined and refined into advanced materials.

Better Fighting Through Chemistry

That's the finding of the U.S. Geological Survey, which notes that a Navy SEALs' gear contains at least 23 critical minerals and metals "for which the U.S. is greater than 50% net import reliant."  It gets worse:  for 11 of them, our dependence is total — the U.S. produces zero.  And for 15, the world's leading producer is China, a nation that the 2017 U.S. National Defense Strategy identifies as presenting a "central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security."

Without access to these metals and minerals, it's no exaggeration to say that our premier special operators would literally be disarmed.

Start with night vision goggles, the devices that allow the SEALs to "own the night" to such lethal effect, as demonstrated in the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound.  Night vision goggles require three Rare Earths and four other rare metals — all from China, and for five of those seven, the U.S. is 100% import-dependent, producing zero.

Then there's the standard SEAL carbine, the M4, which requires four metals from China and South Africa, with the U.S. 100% dependent for two of them.

How about ammunition, something it's hard to have enough of?  The SEALs' ammo is dependent on potassium from Canada — so far, so good — but also on four more metals and minerals from China.

Critical Metals And Minerals

And it's not just weapons and tactical gear.  Consider the SEALs' communications suite.  Like so much of our technology these days, it relies on lithium ion batteries — powered by four metals and minerals from China, South Africa and DRC Congo, including graphite and manganese, of which the U.S. produces precisely zero.

The GPS interface relies on a dozen metals and minerals, six from China, three from South Africa and two from DRC Congo.  For four of these minerals, the U.S. is 100% foreign-dependent.

Even the warfighter's essential infra-red strobe — the signal that protects SEALs from friendly-fire strikes — would go dark, with three key metals produced by China.  In the case of gallium and arsenic, once again, our foreign-dependence is 100%.

Admittedly, never bet against a SEAL — even if he's armed with nothing more than a paper clip and pocket lint.  But there's something wrong about equipping the United States' elite force with weapons and support systems that depend on metals and minerals we import from unstable regimes and doctrinally-declared adversaries.

And we can upgrade that to profoundly wrong, when we recognize that — for all 23 of the critical minerals and metals essential to SEALs gear — known resources exist in the United States, from Texas and the southwestern states, north through the Rockies and in Alaska.  In other words, the United States' minerals deficiency is self-inflicted.

Recognizing The Danger

To be sure, there are a few signs that the U.S. Government is recognizing the dangers of resource dependency.  The formal list of Critical Minerals itself is the result of a 2017 Presidential Executive Order.

Likewise, the dangers of dependence are drummed home by a new Defense Industrial Base study, which states that "a key finding of this report is that China represents a significant and growing risk to the supply of materials deemed strategic and critical to U.S. national security."

Yet, neither the president nor the pentagon have put forward policy changes that would address the U.S.'s strategic materials vulnerability.  And in a sharply divided Congress, there is little hope for a legislative fix.

But if the U.S. is slow in recognizing the dangers of resource dependency, the same cannot be said of China.  "Made in China 2025"the Chinese Politburo's strategic development blueprint, lists among its 10 target areas "new materials," defined as Essential Strategic Materials. These include "high-end equipment with special alloys, high-performance separation membrane materials, high performance fiber and related composite materials, new energy materials, electronic ceramics and artificial crystals, biomedical materials, rare earth materials, advanced semiconductor materials, and materials related to the advancement of the strategic emerging industries."

Stan Lee's Vibranium is not on the list, but just about everything else is.

A Strategic Clue From Sun Tzu

"To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill": Those words come down to us across 2,500 years of human history from Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu.

This dictum from the "Art of War" raises an urgent question:  Could it be that China's rising role as a technology metal provider — while the U.S. military becomes more and more dependent on metals and minerals we produce less and less of — is an asymmetry China is cultivating with an eye towards exploiting it in time of conflict?

Because the fact is it won't matter how razor-sharp skilled and implacably dedicated our forces are, if the U.S. Defense Industrial Base lacks the materials needed to provide them the weapons they need for the fight.

Unlike Marvel Comics or the movies, we can't make up the metals superheroes need to triumph over evil.  If we want our real-world warfighters to keep their edge over America's enemies, it's time we mine those metals right here at home.

McGroarty, former White House special assistant and presidential appointee at the Department of Defense, has testified on critical mineral issues in both the U.S. House and Senate.