WASHINGTON — The Defense Department, the world’s largest institutional greenhouse gas emitter, is trying to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, even as it seeks to lessen its dependence on China in the renewable energy supply chain.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are pushing back against the Pentagon’s climate goals by invoking China’s dominance over the raw materials necessary to manufacture the electric vehicles and solar panels that the Defense Department needs to meet its emissions-reductions targets.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, took aim at the Pentagon’s goal of transitioning its roughly 170,000 non-tactical vehicle fleet to electricity or alternative fuels by 2030 in an April Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. She accused Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm of “putting the climate crusade ahead of the [Defense] Department’s lethality,” an exchange the Republican National Committee spotlighted on Twitter.
“Right now, China controls the [electric vehicle] supply chain,” Ernst said in a subsequent floor speech. “The communist regime produces about 75% of all lithium-ion batteries that power those electric vehicles.”
Those batteries are also needed for military assets such as surveillance drones, and the Pentagon is trying to capitalize on recent spending Congress approved to help ease the defense industrial base’s reliance on the China-dominated critical minerals supply chain.
Late last month, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks discussed supply chain diversification with executives from lithium-ion battery and mineral companies Bren-Tronics, EaglePicher, Enersys, Forge Nano, General Motors Defense and Our Next Energy.
“Today, batteries are critical for powering our defense systems—from vehicles and aircraft, to munitions and platforms, to our unmanned systems and satellite systems and more,” Pentagon Spokesman Eric Pahon said in a readout of the April 28 meeting. “Deputy Secretary Hicks emphasized that increasing lethality and maintaining the United States’ asymmetric military edge will depend on advancing battery technology and ensuring a more resilient domestic supply chain.”
Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Bill LaPlante released a non-public, lithium-ion battery strategy in February, aimed at increasing the mining and production needed to produce them within the U.S. and friendly countries.
President Joe Biden last year also authorized defense production act authorities to address critical mineral shortfalls in large-capacity batteries. The Pentagon plans to spend $43 million on the effort in fiscal year 2023, which ends Sept. 30. It’s also collaborating with the Energy Department’s Federal Consortium for Advanced Batteries to improve supply chain resilience.
An Energy Department fact sheet issued on Thursday touted more than $95 billion private sector investment in domestic battery production since 2021 alongside 160 new or expanded minerals, processing and manufacturing facilities. The 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law and Democrats’ 2022 budget reconciliation bill included several subsidies for domestic electric vehicle and solar panel manufacturing.
‘Significant risk of disruption’
Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., who chairs the House Armed Services Readiness subcommittee, suggested at an April 19 hearing that he may insert language in this year’s defense authorization bill requiring the Pentagon to certify that these solar panel and electric vehicle materials do not come from China.
“China controls over 80% of solar panel production and 95% of elements needed to produce such product,” Waltz wrote in a letter this week to Army Secretary Christie Wormuth.
Last year, Ernst inserted a provision in the fiscal 2023 defense authorization bill to slow the non-tactical vehicle fleet electric transition by requiring the Pentagon to first supply Congress with a report requiring the Pentagon to identify any components of the vehicles sourced from China.
Democrats counter that the green technology push increases military readiness while reducing emissions.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., introduced a bill on Wednesday that would require the Pentagon to work with allies and partners to reduce “reliance on fossil fuels and employing more diverse and renewable operation energy sources.”
A factsheet accompanying her bill states “half of the U.S. combat-related casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan were directly tied to fuel and water resupply convoy operations,” citing a RAND Corporation study.
The frequent attacks on these convoys prompted the Defense Department to reduce fuel demand in both countries. For instance, the Marines deployed hybrid generators while relying on battery backups and solar power.
A February 2022 Energy Department report on solar panel supply chains noted that China produces 97% of the world’s silicon wafers need to make solar panels and that Chinese subsidiaries make 75% of the solar cells for modules imported into the U.S.
“The concentration of the [crystalline silicon] supply chain in companies with close ties to China, a country with documented human rights violations and an unpredictable trade relationship with the United States, poses a significant risk of disruption,” states the report.
Wormuth told Waltz at the House Armed Services Committee hearing that “We do need to work to get control of our supply chain so that the critical components we have, we control.”
Waltz pressed her on the origins of components for the new floating solar farm at Fort Bragg.
Ironically, an Army spokesperson told Defense News on Friday that the modules for the Fort Bragg solar farm were manufactured in South Korea before final assembly in Alabama.
A February 2022 Defense Department report on critical supply chain highlights the challenge of addressing China’s hold on solar panels and lithium batteries alike.
“Even materials and components manufactured domestically often have reliance on China-produced precursors or are fragile suppliers and single point failures within the supply chain,” it states. “As electrification is expected to accelerate dramatically by 2030, reliance on China will grow and China’s relative cell dominance is projected to remain stable.”
For instance, China has a majority ownership of 70% of the cobalt – an essential component of lithium-ion batteries – mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the world’s largest supplier of the metal.
China’s critical mineral dominance gives it significant leverage over other crucial defense supply chains, including the antimony alloy needed to produce ammunition.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.