WASHINGTON — The United States has relied almost entirely on China — and to a lesser extent Russia — in recent years to procure a critical mineral that is vital to producing ammunition.
The mineral antimony is critical to the defense-industrial supply chain and is needed to produce everything from armor-piercing bullets and explosives to nuclear weapons as well as sundry other military equipment, such as night vision goggles.
Antimony is now on the front lines of recent congressional efforts to shore up the strategic reserve of rare earth minerals, known as the national defense stockpile. The stockpile includes a multitude of other minerals critical to the defense-industrial supply chain such as titanium, tungsten, cobalt and lithium, but lawmakers expect will become insolvent by fiscal 2025 absent corrective action.
The House Armed Services Committee took its first stab at addressing China’s grip on the antimony supply chain in draft legislation it released Wednesday. A report accompanying the bill would require the manager of the national defense stockpile to brief the committee on the status of antimony by October while providing “a five-year outlook of these minerals and current and future supply chain vulnerabilities.”
“The committee is concerned about recent geopolitical dynamics with Russia and China and how that could accelerate supply chain disruptions, particularly with antimony,” the report noted.
The draft legislation would also require the Defense Department to instate a policy of recycling spent batteries to reclaim “precious metals, rare earth minerals and elements of strategic importance (such as Cobalt and Lithium) into the supply chain or strategic reserves of the United States.”
The House’s readiness subcommittee is expected to approve the draft text on Thursday, and the Armed Services Committee is set to advance the legislation as part of its annual defense authorization bill later this month.
After Japan cut off the U.S. supply of antimony from China during World War II, the United States began procuring the mineral from ore in an Idaho goldmine. However, that mine ceased production in 1997.
“There is no domestic mine for antimony,” according to a 2020 report from the U.S. Geological Survey, a government agency. “China is the largest producer of mined and refined antimony and a major source of imports for the United States.”
The report noted that China is “losing market share with Russia, the world’s second-ranked producer,” with Tajikistan gaining ground in the global market as the world’s third-largest supplier of antimony.
Lawmakers’ recent interest in shoring up the national defense stockpile of strategic minerals marks a significant about-face for Congress, which had repeatedly authorized multimillion-dollar sales of the reserve over the past several decades to fund other programs.
At its peak during the beginning of the Cold War in 1952, the stockpile was valued at nearly $42 billion in today’s dollars. That value has plummeted to $888 million as of last year.
The Defense Department submitted its own legislative proposal to Congress last month, asking lawmakers to authorize $253.5 million in the defense authorization bill to procure additional minerals for the stockpile.
Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, led seven Republicans in April in asking the defense appropriations subcommittee to provide an additional $264 million in funding for the stockpile for FY23.
“The current stockpile is inadequate to meet the requirements of great power competition,” the lawmakers wrote. “The [national defense stockpile] is no longer capable of covering the Department of Defense’s needs for the vast majority of identified materials in the event of a supply chain disruption.”
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.