The US military is attempting to quickly replenish diminished weapons stocks in its largest production ramp-up in decades. With an eye on its pacing threats and the risk of major conflict—with China, in particular—it is transitioning to modern platforms, including attack submarines, heavy bombers, and air defense systems, as well as new approaches to electric vehicles. Given its security assistance to Ukraine and recent military support to Israel, and conflict risks with China, it is simultaneously rearming with legacy munitions—155-millimeter artillery, Javelin antitank missiles, and surface-to-air Stinger missiles. Because of the quantity of minerals required to meet these dual demands, for replenishment of munitions and construction of new platforms, both endeavors could be put at risk. Specifically, the mineral supply chains that the US military depends on could face overwhelming demand and possible supply disruption. To ensure a secure, resilient, and sufficient mineral supply for its platforms and munitions, the Department of Defense should refine its approach to mineral stockpiling, its engagement with mineral mining and refining, and its implementation of mineral recycling.
Legacy munitions are mineral-intensive. Generally, 155-millimeter shells have bodies of steel, which is an alloy of iron, carbon, and other elements; mortars have steel or cast-iron bodies; and small-arms munitions have cartridge cases of brass, which is an alloy of copper, zinc, and other elements. Copper is especially prevalent in munitions. It is often used as a driving band in artillery shells, as a liner in shaped-charge antitank munitions, and jackets for small-arms rounds. According to an Institute for Defense Analyses report for the Defense Logistics Agency, the Department of Defense used approximately 106,000 tons of copper in 2008, making it the second most used material by weight in US defense production.
Modern platforms are also mineral-intensive. The USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier contains 70,000 tons of steel. The B-2 bomber uses 4-foot by 12-foot panels of titanium in its wing sections. And about 40 percent of the F-35 fighter jet’s airframe is aluminum. Moreover, the Department of Defense intends to purchase up to nine thousand electric vehicles per year over the next ten years, and the US Army seeks a fully electric nontactical vehicle fleet by 2035. These vehicles will be powered by mineral-rich lithium-ion batteries. Lithium and graphite are necessary in these batteries, and depending on their chemistry, batteries also contain other elements, such as nickel, cobalt, and manganese.
Supply Chains at Risk
However, the mineral supply chains for these munitions and platforms face risks and there is competing demand from nonmilitary applications. For munitions, copper faces skyrocketing demand amid US arsenal restocking. For instance, the Department of Defense plans to increase its annual production of copper-containing 155-millimeter shells from ninety-three thousand to 1.2 million in 2025. Globally, Dubai-based Simon Hunt Strategic Services estimated copper usage in military applications in 2021 at 2.186 million metric tons—nearly 9 percent of global refined copper production—and growing at about 14 percent year-over-year through 2026. Copper supply chains also face disruption risks. In an Office of the Secretary of Defense survey conducted in June and August 2008, a Department of Defense respondent said copper supply problems have “already caused some kind of significant weapon system production delay for [the Department of Defense].” Furthermore, in a 2008 report for the Defense Logistics Agency, the Institute for Defense Analyses found that a peacetime supply disruption scenario may cause a copper shortage for defense-essential needs.
Mineral supply chains also face disruption risks as China, the top global producer and import source for many such minerals, has already shown a willingness to place export controls on key minerals and manufacturing technology. For example, China is the world’s largest producer of natural and synthetic graphite—which has both electric vehicle and military applications—and also the largest import source for the United States for natural and synthetic graphite. However, China now requires licenses to export certain graphite products, which will likely disrupt graphite supplies to the United States. China is also reportedly mulling export controls on manufacturing technology for rare earth magnets, which are necessary for electric vehicle motors and various defense systems. As the Department of Defense warns, “Dependence on foreign sources of minerals and on foreign production of lithium-ion battery components creates vulnerabilities for the [Department of Defense] and the US [electric vehicle] market.”
A Way Ahead: Three Steps
The Department of Defense can take three specific steps to address these mineral supply chain risks. First, it should refine and augment its approach to stockpiling key materials. Congress has appropriated $218.5 million for new acquisitions for the National Defense Stockpile. To ensure access to these materials and to support domestic miners and refiners, the Department of Defense should prepay domestic producers for minerals to supply the stockpile. This arrangement is common in the mining industry where customers like automakers prepay for minerals, providing mining companies with the necessary capital to develop their mines.
Second, the Department of Defense should continue its effective use of the Defense Production Act to support domestic mines. After World War II, the US government used the Defense Production Act to finance copper exploration, expand copper mining, and procure domestic copper to support the copper sector. Today, the department is again financially supporting domestic mining projects, including a cobalt refinery feasibility study and cobalt resource drilling in Idaho, a feasibility study for a graphite resource in Alaska, environmental and engineering studies for an antimony trisulfide project in Idaho, mining equipment for reopening a lithium mine in North Carolina, and nickel exploration and resource definition at a nickel project in Minnesota.
Third and finally, the Department of Defense could also implement broad mineral recycling programs, including for copper scrap and its end-of-life electric vehicle batteries. The National Defense Authorization Act for 2023 included the Strategic EV Management Act, which directs the US government to establish “guidelines for reusing and recycling the batteries of retired vehicles.” Yet, the law does not detail recycling requirements. Thus, recycling could be construed to pertain only to easily recyclable components like copper wiring, electrical steel, and aluminum battery pack enclosures, but not battery chemicals like cobalt sulfate, nickel sulfate, and manganese sulfate. Recycling all minerals from electric vehicle batteries—rather than disposing them and importing replacement minerals from China, Indonesia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—would increase US mineral production and decrease supply chain risks. As an example to emulate, the Department of Defense expects to yield up to three thousand kilograms annually of recycled germanium from various night-vision devices.
Minerals and their associated supply chains—including markets and institutions—are foundational to effectively producing defense munitions and enabling military platforms. However, these mineral supply chains face risks, including enormous demand and possible supply disruption. As regional wars continue and US-China tensions rise, these risks grow further. To ensure a secure and sufficient mineral supply for its platforms and munitions, the Department of Defense should support new approaches to stockpiling, mining, refining, and recycling of key minerals. Without these minerals, the defense industrial base cannot manufacture the munitions and platforms that the US military and its allies need to fight—and win.
Gregory Wischer is principal at Dei Gratia Minerals, a critical minerals consultancy.
Morgan Bazilian is director of the Payne Institute and Professor of Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines.
Macdonald Amoah is a researcher at the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Dori Whipple, Scranton Army Ammunition Plant