WASHINGTON — Congress seeks to more than double the net worth of the national strategic mineral stockpile to lessen the defense industrial base’s reliance on adversaries such as China for supplies needed to build everything from bullets to nuclear weapons to night vision goggles.
The Senate’s annual defense authorization bill, which the Armed Services Committee advanced Thursday, would authorize $1 billion in funding for the National Defense Stockpile in fiscal 2023 to “acquire strategic and critical minerals currently in shortfall,” per a summary of the legislation.
This would more than double the value of the stockpile of rare earth minerals, which includes many essential to defense supply chains, including titanium, tungsten, cobalt and antimony.
The fund is currently valued at $888 million, down from $42 billion in today’s dollars at its peak during the beginning of the Cold War in 1952. Lawmakers fear the National Defense Stockpile will become insolvent by FY25, absent congressional action, and are prioritizing shoring up the fund in this year’s defense appropriations and authorization cycle.
The stockpile is managed by the Defense Logistics Agency, and the Pentagon submitted a legislative proposal to Congress earlier this year asking for $253.5 million for FY23. The $1 billion the Senate seeks to allocate would cover this while backfilling multiple funding requests the National Defense Stockpile has made in previous fiscal years and providing greater financial security in the years ahead.
The Senate bill would also amend the law to give the Defense Department more discretion and flexibility over the fund. Current law encourages the National Defense Stockpile to engage in mineral sell-offs to satisfy Congressional Budget Office requirements rather than hold onto the reserve for emergencies.
Congress also authorized repeated stockpile sell-offs to fund other programs when the United States was less worried about near-peer competitors such as China, which dominates the strategic mineral supply chain, and more focused on counterterrorism operations in the Middle East and Africa.
Of particular concern is the supply of antimony, a mineral needed to produce basic bullets and ammunition, that comes almost entirely from China. Russia is gaining ground as the world’s second largest supplier of antimony, with Tajikistan coming in third.
The Senate defense bill would require the Defense Department to brief Congress on vulnerabilities in the antimony supply chain. Draft legislation of the House defense authorization bill also mandates a briefing on antimony as well as a five-year plan on supply chain vulnerabilities of critical minerals in the stockpile.
Both bills would require the Defense Department to instate a policy of recycling spent batteries to reclaim strategic minerals needed in the defense industrial supply chain such as cobalt and lithium.
The House is expected to advance its version of the defense authorization bill next week before both chambers vote on the legislation later this year.
The $40 billion Ukraine military aid package Congress passed last month also includes $500 million in Defense Production Act funding to bolster the U.S. critical mineral supply chain.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered the intersection of U.S. foreign policy and national security in Washington since 2014. He previously wrote for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.