Air University Review, November-December 1983
Dr. Leonard G. Gaston
In congressional testimony in 1980 General Alton D. Slay, then Commander of the Air Force Systems Command, pointed out that it was not just petroleum that presented serious problems of import dependency for the United States. Noting that some forty minerals were essential to an adequate defense and a strong economy, he reminded the Industrial Readiness Panel of the House Armed Services Committee that the United States imported more than one-half its supplies of more than twenty essential minerals.
Since that time, more discussion has appeared in the press; and recently a study has been released by the Library of Congress that will be of interest to Air Force professionals who would like to know more about the nature and extent of U.S. dependency on imported minerals.*
*A Congressional Handbook on U.S. Minerals Dependency/Vulnerability (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1981), 404 pages, a report to the Subcommittee on Economic Stabilization of the House Committee on Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs, prepared by the Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress.
This study by the Librarys Congressional Research Service contains an almost overwhelming array of tables and statistics. It lists twenty-nine minerals included in the National Defense Stockpile, defined as "strategic and critical" by public law and provides an informative discussion of each: its uses, possible substitutes, where imports came from, and the status of actual supplies versus stockpile goals. Information as to what percentage of U.S. use of each, from 1976 to 1979 was imported, is given in a summary table.1 The reader who is not familiar with General Slays testimony may find sobering the information that two regions, Southern Africa and the U.S.S.R., loom large as sources for certain scarce minerals essential to the industrialized world.2
The report examines the assertion that the U.S.S.R. is engaged in a "resource war" against the United States; and it concludes that there are three points of view or levels of concern regarding such a conflict. None of the three are particularly reassuring. The first view indicates that war is an inappropriate term. Supporters of this view suggest that the Soviet Union is in the process of changing from an exporting nation for many materials to an importer nation. Although only economic issues would be involved, such a shift could "dramatically change the world supply/demand status for the materials thus involved and necessarily, will strongly affect U.S. attempts to maintain the necessary level of mineral imports." (p.167) The highest level of concern maintains that a serious resource war is indeed being waged by the U.S.S.R. The middle view concludes that the Soviet Union lacks the foreign exchange necessary to get the minerals it needs on the international market and the capital to develop internal supplies. Consequently, it will attempt to combine intimidation and subversion with economic means to obtain and assure overseas mineral supplies. Some authorities would insist that recent Soviet behavior is not new. The ruling government of Russia has pursued a calculated policy of expansionism for some three hundred years from the time of Peter the Great, and it would be expected that the U.S.S.R.s increasing economic and military power would make it more able and willing to carry out such subversion. (p. 169)
The report discusses the relative stability and accessibility of various sources of minerals imported by the United States, including three critical countries of Southern AfricaZaire (formerly the Belgian Congo), Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), and the Republic of South Africa (all-important suppliers of essential minerals but vulnerable to unrest or terrorist activities). Other suppliers include Australia (stable but far away) as well as Canada and Mexico (already reliable, large-scale suppliers of some minerals). Among many interesting tabulations, the report lists the six countries that are major U.S. suppliers of more than one strategic or critical material: the Republic of South Africa (4 materials), Australia (3), Brazil (3), Canada (3), Thailand (2), and the U.S.S.R. (2).
The report singles out eight materials "for which the industrial health and defense of the United States is most vulnerable to potential supply disruptions"chromium, cobalt, manganese, the platinum group of metals, titanium, bauxite/aluminum, columbium, and tantalum and points out that the first five have been called "the metallurgical Achilles heel of our civilization."(p. 130)
An interesting sidelight is provided by a discussion of the commercial potential of deep seabed manganese nodules, which contain commercial quantities not only of manganese but of copper, cobalt, and possibly, molybdenum. Concentrations of these nodules lie far beyond normal national jurisdictions, and, until the late 1960s, this would not have been a barrier to mining. Unfortunately (in my opinion), the United Nations General Assembly in 1967 passed a resolution to consider national limits and jurisdiction over minerals beyond these limits. During the intervening 14 years, some 150 nations, most economically and technologically underdeveloped, have taken part in drawn-out negotiations over these questions. As a result, although American firms have led the way in sampling and analyzing deposits of nodular concentrations for commercial viability, "because of uncertainty over the outcome of the U.N. conference, plans for proceeding with commercial development of ocean mining are being delayed." (p. 295)
Another possible source of more minerals for the United States might be neighboring countries in the Western Hemisphere; but U.S. interests there appear to be losing out to aggressive policies of the Metal Mining Agency of Japan and Japanese government loan guarantees and negotiations. (pp. 322, 330-32)
The strengths of the report are in its assemblage of data and insights regarding them. Its weaknesses are minor: It quotes extensively in places from other reports, and possibly because of this the reader can lose his way in terminology. "Southern Africa" seems clear in meaning as does "Republic of South Africa," but "South Africa" as used on page 159, in a sentence which follows one that refers to "Southern Africa," is not. In addition, some readers might quarrel with the conclusion that new initiatives by the Reagan administration to improve the nations defense posture will increase the possibility of a return to the cold war. (p. 165) (Since the Soviet military buildup has proceeded apace and Soviet influence has continued to expand around the world, one could argue that the cold war never departed.) Another minor complaint concerning what was, overall, an excellent collection of data: Greater discussion of the potential offered by the Serra dos Carajás region of Brazil would have been desirable.
But the reports most serious drawback is not attributable to its authors but to the unknown person, who, for reasons of economy or to meet the definition of a "handbook," made the decision that the publication would be printed on 5-by 9-inch pages. The original, well-typed, double-spaced research report on 8˝ x l1-inch paper was no doubt highly readable; but, photographically reduced to 5 x 9 inches, it is not. Readers over thirty will want as a minimum to assure the availability of extremely good lighting.
1. I believe the terms adopted by the Wall Street Journal to be more descriptive: Critical meaning essential for the continued operation of U.S. industry (some 40 minerals), strategic meaning critical minerals that are available in large supplies only from foreign sources (roughly half of those designated as critical). Roger Lowenstein and Maria Shag, "Vital Ingredients," Wall Street Journal, April 15, 1981, pp. 1, 20.
2. Edgar Ulsamer, " In focus," Air Force, January 1981, pp. 17-21.
Leonard G. Gaston(B.S., Texas Tech; M.B.A., Ph.D., Ohio State University) is an operations research analyst with the Deputy for Development Planning, Aeronautical Systems Division, Air Force Systems Command. He is also an Air Force reserve officer assigned to the Air Force Business Research Management Center. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. He is a previous contributor to the Review.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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