Amanda Palleschi, Inside the Pentagon
The Defense Logistics Agency plans to address the Pentagon’s call to establish an inventory of rare-earth materials to reduce reliance on foreign sources of those metals deemed vulnerable parts of the U.S. supply chain.
Although the agency will address the issue in its Annual Materials Plan (AMP), it is unlikely the subject can be included as soon as the AMP’s next edition, slated to be released in February 2012, according to DLA spokesman John Reinders. It is “a little too early” to know for sure whether a rare-earth recommendation would be in next February’s report, he noted.
There is also a possibility that a supplemental plan — of the sort often issued issued to address specific issues — would be released addressing rare-earth materials, Reinders said.
“We are in fact addressing rare-earth materials,” Reinders said. “It’s not in the current [AMP] but it will be eventually.”
DLA is also responsible for preparing a study required by the Fiscal Year 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, which requires the defense secretary to assess the supply and demand for rare-earth materials in defense applications and identify the location and number of sources at each step of the supply chain.
A tardy, interim version of that report was prepared this summer, and a final version is anticipated this December.
“Supposedly there is going to be much more data there, a more robust analysis,” said Jeff Green, a rare-earth industry lobbyist. “I think the [Defense Department] would probably tell you their work wasn’t finished so they just gave some interim findings but the real, hard data and the work needed to be done.”
He added that the inclusion of a rare-earth section in DOD’s recent industrial capabilities report to Congress was “a very big deal.”
Parts of industry told DOD this wasn’t a problem, Green said, but the inclusion of the issue in the annual report shows “that they’ve discovered, when they’ve done their analysis, that this problem is more serious than they initially thought and I think they are wisely changing course on this.”
There is also legislation pending, authored by Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), calling for a rare-earth assessment with the aim of reducing the country’s reliance on China.
That bill currently sits in the House Committee on Natural Resource’s subcommittee on energy and mineral resources, and calls for the creation of a “Rare Earth Policy Task Force” comprised of secretaries from several federal departments including the Defense Department.
“Many modern defense technologies such as radar and sonar systems, precision-guided weapons, cruise missiles and lasers cannot be built, as designed and specified, without the use of rare earths and materials produced from them,” the bill states.
“Though at least 40 percent of the world’s rare-earth reserves are located within the United States and its ally nations, our country now depends upon imports for nearly 100 percent of its rare-earth needs,” it adds.
Coffman also penned an Oct. 13 letter to DLA urging them to use their Annual Materials Plan as a “vehicle” to address at-risk, rare-earth materials and reducing them as a supply chain vulnerability.
“Quite simply, a rare-earth inventory plan could alleviate the rare-earth issue for the department and should be pursued aggressively,” the congressman writes. “To be clear, I support the procurement of such high-demand, at-risk rare-earth materials to help fulfill DOD requirements and reduce this supply chain vulnerability.”
By using the Annual Materials Plan as a vehicle, DOD can “identify critical rare-earth oxides, alloys, metals or magnets, depending on what best suits DOD’s needs, and then fulfill a portion or the entirety of the associated requirements,” he adds.
Coffman sites as an example DOD’s “clear and pressing need” for neodymium iron boron permanent magnets, “without which several pivotal military applications cannot function” and suggested the department procure neodymium iron boron alloy “in a variety of grades from domestic sources,” stockpiling blocks of the material so that industry could access them “to fabricate finished components that meet DOD’s needs.”
This plan could be made possible by utilizing an authorization and consent clause of federal acquisition regulations through patent expiration, he writes.
“This limited program would reestablish a capability that is non-existent in the United States and leaves us totally dependent on unsecure foreign sources of supply,” Coffman concludes. A spokesman for Coffman said he has yet to receive a reply from DLA.