October 05, 2009

Minerals and Security: Issues and Sources

With the help of Spencer Ackerman giving a nod to our use of music video to add a small glimmer of personality to the Natural Security Blog on what could have been a rather run-of-the-mill post about lithium (partially in homage to the master of that art form himself), the we saw some traffic from a few new sources last week. We like this. However, I’d like to clarify a few of the interpretations of what we’re saying about minerals and security: first, the description on the blog Manifest Destiny that we provided a “wishy-washy buy-in of the peak lithium frame,” the point that the author then goes on to argue against; and second, Matthew Yglesias’s description of us as advocating “‘war for lithium’ thinking,” and “an example of…the American foreign policy establishment’s ability to gin up ‘threats’ to our national security.” Both bloggers made several good points (and one good correction on batteries, h/t), but both writers read into our original post concepts that represent major departures from what I think on the minerals issue, and from what we’ve written on this blog in the past.

I’ll clarify up front (speaking for myself only. CNAS is a kind of anti-Borg) that I consider security issues to be far broader than war and conflict. Likewise, the responses to the challenges the country faces are not necessarily (and hopefully not) war and conflict. So when we say that there’s a security issue here, we are in no way implying military threats of the kind implied by the bloggers noted above. And we try to stay out of the business of adjudicating reserve/peaking estimates – an important component, but focusing excessively on it can distract from more pressing concerns.

There are very real security concerns involving minerals today. A big part of the problem is that no one seems to be sure exactly what the full range of potential problems are or could be in the near future. These are questions that the security community simply needs to reassess every so often as the geopolitical world and the natural world change.
We’re exploring this problem now, and will be further describing it as we see it based on this work over the coming months. But for today’s post I wanted to point you all to some of what I consider top sources that outline some of the security issues we may be seeing with minerals. This evidence makes the case on its own; more to the point, I’m interested in hearing interpretations of this information from all of you more than I am in reiterating my previous analyses.

The National Research Council conducted a review of the defense stockpiling system in response to a 2006 NDAA requirement to do just that. The results are a fabulous 2008 report called “Managing Materials for a Twenty-First Century Military.” In the Preface, page ix, the problem is outlined:

The committee has attempted to call attention to the dramatically different situation in which the country finds itself compared with 70 years ago, when much of the stockpile legislation and policy was originally conceived. The globalization of materials production and supply has radically changed the ability of the United States to produce and to procure materials vital to defense needs. Yet, little has been done in the face of changed materials needs in the military nor have the methods of computing stockpile requirements or the means of assuring continued supplies been adapted to reflect these changes.

And on page 2, the group describes its findings:

The committee concluded based on the preponderance of evidence it considered that the operation of the current NDS is disconnected from actual national defense materials needs in the twenty-first century and from national defense strategies and operational priorities. While there have been frequent changes in law and policy governing military planning and operations, there have not been any concomitant changes in the design or operation of the NDS.

This report outlines the nature of current challenges in great detail, and offers recommendations for better managing minerals for defense needs. It’s a great resource. And no, they of course do not recommend “war for lithium” as one of the potential solutions. You can also find useful Congressional hearings and briefings by some of the participants in this study and a sister report from the National Academies on minerals and the U.S. economy beyond just defense needs. 

The House and Senate draft National Defense Authorization Acts for fiscal year 2010 both direct the Department of Defense to look into our potential security vulnerabilities related to rare earth elements. Some of our elected officials up on the Hill are quite worried about these minerals, which are used in many weapons systems and high-tech devices widespread in the U.S. economy. (We embedded the language from both bills in an earlier post here.)

According to the National Intelligence Council’s projections (pdf) and many other sources, minerals are likely to be a major draw of private industry activity in the opening Arctic, which means increasing burden for the U.S. Coast Guard and potentially other services.

As Mike McCarthy noted in last Tuesday’s post, the Defense Logistics Agency “referred to lithium batteries as a ‘critical go-to-war item’ (pdf) and recommended expanding the number of vendors to avoid supply disruptions” in one budget summary. This doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem, of course, but indicates that it’s an issue of importance.

Everyone from The New York Times to Danger Room has been reporting all the recent news about China’s floating of an end to its exports of rare earths. While it’s unclear what will happen and how exactly it might matter, it has drawn attention from the high levels of our government. As Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said as he outlined the Obama administration’s approach to China at a CNAS event a few weeks back:

Resource competition is another area of concern. With its rapid growth and large population, China’s demand for resources, whether oil, gas, or minerals, is surging, but resource mercantilism is not the appropriate response. China’s moves in that direction have raised legitimate concern not only in the United States, but also among our other partners and among resource-rich developing nations. The problem is not just that China’s mercantilist approach disrupts markets; it also leads China to problematic engagement with actors like Iran, Sudan, Burma, and Zimbabwe, and undermines the perception of China as a country interested in contributing to regional stability and humanitarian goals.

And the private sector is itself concerned about minerals recently. According to U.S. News, the State Department got involved in a private business dispute with China over rare earths a few years back. If major alterations in private investment indicate the market’s concern, then there is definitely reason to believe this is an issue our government should be on top of. Though detailed private information is not often public to protect intellectual content, you can watch patterns of reactions to minerals news and quotes in the news to begin to gauge the extent to concerns over supply chains. You can flip through the news we post on this blog to see some examples (just click the minerals filter to your left), but here is one particularly good article from Defense News that I’ll leave you with to provide a quick sense of the situation – and the fact that it’s triggering some tough security and foreign policy decisions for which easy answers are elusive.

I hope these sources are useful. Even more, I hope that this puts to rest any notion that by outlining the security concerns involved with minerals we are advocating for war or aggressive U.S. government action, or that we consider such things likely outcomes. We’re a think tank, and it’s a problem, so we’re thinking the problem. We’ve received many good recommendations for different angles and issues to look at concerning minerals since last week, and I’m quite thrilled that a dialogue is starting to spark on the issue. Keep the comments coming.