Innovation is essential for sustaining strong national defense and security. Take, for example, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Robotics Challenge (DRC). In June, teams representing some of the most advanced research and development organizations in the world will showcase the hardware, software, sensors and human-machine control interfaces of robots capable of aiding the U.S. military response efforts in environments that may be too dangerous or difficult for humans to navigate.
The $95 million project demonstrates the Pentagon’s commitment to innovation and the creation of state-of-the-art military technologies. But beyond the design and testing of these sophisticated systems, we must ensure that our military has secure and reliable access to the domestic raw materials needed for these systems.
The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) uses 750,000 tons of minerals each year in technologies that protect the very troops that protect our nation. Metals such as copper, lead and nickel are used in military gear, weapon systems and other defense technologies. Additionally, the mineral beryllium is used to reduce weight and improve guidance performance in fighter jets and NASA technologies such as the mirrors on the James Webb Space Telescope.
But despite the strategic importance of minerals and metals to our national security, the United States ranks behind China, Russia, Chile and South Africa in terms of production. Furthermore, we remain completely import-dependent for 19 key minerals resources and more than 50 percent import-dependent for an additional 24 mineral commodities, which subjects supply chains to geopolitical instability and supply disruption.
Many of the minerals and metals the DOD has deemed essential remain locked underground — inaccessible for military use — because of the duplicative, inefficient permitting process that wraps our domestic mineral development in endless red tape, stifling investment in new and existing mines in the United States.
Here, the process to obtain permits can take upwards of seven to 10 years, compared with countries such as Canada and Australia, whose modern minerals policies enable them to complete the process in two to three years, giving them a decided advantage over the United States. As a result of our stagnant policies, the U.S. military must look elsewhere to access these essential materials, increasing our import dependence and exposing our military to fragile supply chains with a higher potential for outside disruption.
The 2014 Defense Authorization Act acknowledges this risky dynamic and provides several proposals to ensure increased stockpiles of critical materials for defense applications. The DOD has also officially identified beryllium as a metal uniquely both strategic and critical, and has a program solely dedicated to ensuring a supply is maintained for national defense purposes.
If the United States is to sustain its superiority in military technology, definitive action must be taken to streamline the current mine-permitting policy. Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives heeded the call by passing legislation — for the third time — to improve the permitting process. And recently, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced the Mineral Security and Manufacturing Competitiveness Act of 2015, which would modernize the permitting system for U.S. mining. The time is now for Congress to pass this important legislation to ensure that our military gets the minerals and materials it needs when it needs them.
Quinn is the president and CEO of the National Mining Association.
See this post in The HIll