October 26, 2009

“Strategic” or “Critical?” Actually, Just Confusing

One of my recent posts mildly chastised an author for not strictly defining the difference between “strategic” and “critical” minerals. But as I looked further into language and definitions in minerals reports, I couldn’t really blame anybody for choosing the skirt the issue. There are basically as many definitions of these terms as there are agencies or committees writing about them. As a quick reference to give our readership an advantage, we decided to present the different definitions of critical and strategic minerals.

U.S. Code
The terms “strategic” and “critical” are not differentiated in the legislation used to create the National Defense Stockpile (NDS). In fact, they’re conflated in the U.S. Code (specifically, the Strategic Materials Act of 1939). 50 USC Sec. 98h-3 reads:

The term “strategic and critical materials” means materials that (A) would be needed to supply the military, industrial, and essential civilian needs of the United States during a national emergency, and (B) are not found or produced in the United States in sufficient quantities to meet such need.

The Department of Defense (DoD)
DoD’s Strategic Materials Protection Board issued a 2008 report is essential reading for defense mineral wonks. Thankfully, the report offers detailed definitions of both “critical” and “strategic” (though they’re the kind of head-hurting definitions that take a few reads-through):

  • Strategic Material: A material 1) which is essential for important defense systems, 2) which is unique in the function it performs, and 3) for which there are no viable alternatives.
  • Material Critical to National Security (“Critical Material”): A strategic material for which 1) the Department of Defense dominates the market for the material, 2) the Department’s full and active involvement and support are necessary to sustain and shape the strategic direction of the market, and 3) there is significant and unacceptable risk of supply disruption due to vulnerable U.S. or qualified non-U.S. suppliers.

Essentially, strategic minerals are those that DoD requires, while critical minerals are strategic minerals with sketchy supply chains for which DoD is one of the biggest customers. The history of these definitions was related to Congress in July by Rick Lowden, a senior materials analyst for the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Industrial Policy.

National Research Council
The National Research Council formed two committees to produce separate reports on mineral stockpiles, Managing Materials for a Twenty-first Century Military and Minerals, Critical Minerals, and the U.S. Economy. The goal of the first report was to assess the defense establishment’s stockpiling system, and the goal of the second was to examine the role of critical minerals for U.S. economic health. The economic report uses a “criticality matrix” that I will not even try to unravel here (though a summary is available in this brief on the longer report). The defense report was written in relative haste for a document of its kind, and the committee is careful to note “It was not possible. . .to fully digest the various critical materials definitions.” The committee apparently accepted the NDS legislation language uncritically due to time constraints; therefore, this report does not explicitly distinguish between “strategic” and “critical.”

There is no broadly-accepted definition for either “strategic” or “critical” when referring to minerals used in U.S. defense applications. DoD seems to have the most focused definition, and perhaps the most useful for defense purposes, but we should keep in mind that this issue is not settled. Until one definition becomes widely used, it is important to establish what exactly we are writing about when we discuss these materials.