October 21, 2009

Reading Old Magazines: Taking Stock

Given all our recent work and the recent press on critical minerals (or “strategic” minerals; more on the distinction later), I gave a look back this week to Peter Harben’s 1992 article “Strategic Minerals” from Earth magazine (print only, but those with access to databases like Ebsco should be able to access it). Harben has spent more than 30 years in the industrial minerals industry, founding his own consulting company for international government and private sector clients, so he writes about strategic minerals with some authority. This solidly-written and informative piece of reportage highlights the fact that concern over minerals in national defense is not new: interest from the media and the defense establishment waxes and wanes, but the problem remains.

Harben begins his article with a nicely compact history of mineral strategy, which points out the importance of copper to the Middle East of 7,000 years ago and the importance of iron and coal to the Industrial Revolution. But one of the real highlights of the article is his list of factors that can make a mineral “strategic”: “Extensive military use,” “the lack of domestic reserves,” “the lack of known substitutes,” “a small number of primary producers,” or a “hostage” situation in which a primary producer restricts the mineral for any reason (as China has contemplated doing with rare earth elements).

One of the flaws of Harben’s article is that he does not adequately define what he means by “strategic” or “critical,” which he appears to use interchangeably. He writes that when supply disruptions affect a mineral “that is crucial to a country’s military strength and economy, the mineral becomes critical and even ‘strategic.’. . . What constitutes a strategic mineral may vary from country to country and from time to time.” In this hierarchy, “strategic” appears to designate a material even more crucial or rare than “critical.”

This is not a settled issue. A 2007 report by a National Research Council committee defines a mineral as critical “only if it performs an essential function for which few or no satisfactory substitutes exist.” This report does not explicitly define “strategic” but notes that the word usually carries a national security connotation. The Department of Defense appears not offer a standard definition either, yet a 2008 report by the Strategic Materials Protection Board (pdf) puts forth several long-ish, elaborate definitions. Still, Harben would have been well served by making his definitions known so that the reader could judge whether specific minerals truly justified the labels they were given (good advice for DoD as well!).

Most of Harben’s article is a useful reference for then-current supplies and uses for certain minerals, including chromite (pdf) and manganese (pdf). But his discussion of future strategy and the Defense National Stockpile is especially interesting. He writes of the Stockpile’s efforts to streamline its supplies by selling off some materials, especially materials that are less in danger of supply interruption than they were in the World War I era when the Stockpile was created. The Stockpile’s managers appear to be in sales mode again today, which raises the obvious question: why? Harben concludes with this thought: "The rationale for the decision to sell off part of the stockpile appears to be that part of the generated revenues would be used to purchase the high-tech metals and materials required in the production of more advanced materials. Thus, it seems that minerals and metals will continue to be strategic, only the names will change."

It is heartening to see an older arm of defense infrastructure being adapted to face the current environment. Anybody interested in furthering this debate should make sure to read the National Research Council’s 2007 report Managing Materials for a Twenty-first Century Military, which recommends ways for DoD to improve the stockpiling process and infrastructure. And anyone looking for past perspectives on the stockpile to provide context should start with this article by Harben.