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Rare Earth Elements in National Defense

In the December 2008 report, the SMPB defined critical materials in this way: “the criticality of a material is a function of its importance in DOD applications, the extent to which DOD actions are required to shape and sustain the market, and the impact and likelihood of supply disruption.”49 Based on DOD’s definition for “critical material,” the 2008 SMPD report defined one material, beryllium, as a “strategic material critical to national security.” The SPMB offered the following justification:

High purity beryllium is essential for important defense systems, and it is unique in the function it performs. High purity beryllium possesses unique properties that make it indispensable in many of today’s critical U.S. defense systems, including sensors, missiles and satellites, avionics, and nuclear weapons. The Department of Defense dominates the market for high purity beryllium and its active and full involvement is necessary to sustain and shape the strategic direction of the market. There is a significant risk of supply disruption. Without DOD involvement and support, U.S. industry would not be able to provide the material for defense applications. There are no reliable foreign suppliers that could provide high purity beryllium to the Department. Recognizing that high purity beryllium meets all the conditions for being a critical material, the Department should take, and has taken, special action to maintain a domestic supply. The Department has used the authorities of Title III of the Defense Production Act to contract with U.S. firm Brush- Wellman, Inc. to build and operate a new high purity beryllium production plant.50

The House Armed Services Committee criticized this definition, as discussed in the following excerpt that appeared in the House report accompanying H.R. 2647, the FY2010 National Defense Authorization Act. 51

This definition limits the purview of the Board to only those materials for which the determinations the Board is tasked to make are presupposed in the definition of the materials themselves. Furthermore, such a definition fails to include a range of materials that Congress has designated as critical to national security and, as such, has provided significant protection or domestic preference in DOD policy and in statute. For example, Congress has determined that reliance on foreign sources of supply for materials such as titanium, specialty steel, and high performance magnets, poses a heightened risk. The Board’s narrowing of the definition of materials critical to national security renders the Board unable to provide perspective on the adequacy, suitability, or effectiveness of those policies. Moreover, it limits the ability of the Board to consider any course of action, however minor, in relation to a material until the point at which potential damage to national security is imminent and severe. It also creates the perverse situation that a material could be critical to every element of the industrial base upon which the Department depends, but not considered critical to the Department itself if the material is also used significantly in commercial items. As an indication of the inadequacy of this definition for the Board’s functioning, the Board currently identifies only one material as meeting the definition for consideration as a strategic material critical to national security. The committee does not find this conclusion to be plausible and expects that the Board will swiftly revisit this definition to ensure that it is able to identify gaps in our domestic defense supply chain and provide the President, the

49 Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics. Report of the Strategic Materials Protection Board, December 12, 2008, http://www.acq.osd.mil/ip/docs/report_from_2nd_mtg_of_smpb_12- 2008.pdf.


Ibid., p. 6.

51 U.S. Congress. House Armed Services Committee, H.Rept. 111-166, Report on H.R. 2647: National Defense Authorization Act for FY2010, P.L. 111-84. The bill was signed into law on October 28, 2009.

Congressional Research Service


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