Senate to move Pentagon acquisition and industrial base nominees amid critical minerals row

WASHINGTON — The Senate Armed Services Committee has reached an agreement aimed at promoting Pentagon nominees who would oversee acquisitions and defense industrial policy after controversy over a road in a mining district in Alaska.

Senator Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, in July blocked three Pentagon candidates from walking out of the committee to protest the Interior Department’s decision to block the industrial access road to his state’s Ambler mining district. Sullivan argued that the department’s move would inhibit mining of critical minerals – a market in which China’s dominance has created several vulnerabilities in the US defense supply chain.

Sullivan told Defense News on Tuesday that he received an update on the matter from the Biden administration last week, but the Interior Department has done nothing to address his concerns. He did note, however, that he would allow two nominees to advance by oral vote from the committee in the near future, as “proof of good faith” to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, DR.I.

“We’re making sure Senator Sullivan has access and conversations with critical individuals because he’s trying to do his job for the people of Alaska,” Reed told Defense News Tuesday. “But then we have to vote at some point.”

The two nominees set to receive votes from the committee in the coming weeks are Laura Taylor-Kale for Assistant Secretary of Defense for Industrial Baseline Policy and Brendan Owens for Assistant Secretary of Defense for Energy, Facilities and Environment.

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However, the committee must also convene a quorum to conduct a recorded vote on Radha Plumb to serve as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Retention.

“The quality of these people is unquestionable and so is the need for them over there [the Defense Department]’ Riede said. “Every time we have a hearing, someone will say that our industrial base needs to be overhauled.”

Congress has pushed legislation in recent months to boost domestic supplies of critical minerals for the defense industrial base in a bid to reduce Washington’s dependence on the supply chains of potential adversaries such as China and Russia.

Sullivan argues that permitting construction of the industrial access road to the Ambler Mining District would increase the US supply of critical minerals. He and fellow Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska raised the case to Home Secretary Deb Haaland in a letter obtained by Defense News.

They wrote that closing off access to the mine by not permitting the access road “would jeopardize US economic and national security by prolonging our dependence on foreign adversaries for the minerals and metals we need.”

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The Ambler Mining District contains large reserves of copper, silver, gold, lead and zinc.

“The area has been characterized as one of the largest undeveloped copper-zinc mineral belts in the world, which is of particular significance given recent projections of global copper supply shortages,” Sullivan and Murkowski wrote. “These minerals are necessary for the manufacture of electric vehicles and renewable energy sources, and are critical to most modern defense systems.”

A 2020 US Geological Survey report found that the United States is the fourth largest producer of refined copper in the world, behind China, Chile and Japan. Copper is alloyed with the critical mineral beryllium for a variety of aerospace and defense applications such as radar, telecommunications satellites, and infrared targeting systems.

The Trump administration approved construction of the access road in 2020 after the Bureau of Land Management issued its final environmental impact statement. But the Biden administration applied to a US district court for a voluntary pre-trial detention on the project in February, which it received in May.

Sullivan and Murkowski have asked the Home Office for a specific timeline by which it will complete its review of the project. They have also requested that the department continue with baseline scientific data collection and planning work, as well as permitting geotechnical drilling.

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The Home Office declined to comment.

Nonetheless, Plumb and Taylor-Kale will have to deal with the critical minerals supply chain if the Senate approves their nominations.

Even after the nominees clear the committee, any senator — including Sullivan and Murkowski — can delay their Senate nomination.

Nine other Pentagon candidates remain stuck in the Senate after Senator Josh Hawley froze all Defense Department nominations for a year in protest at the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Hawley, R-Mo., first demanded the resignations of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken in exchange for ending his deadlock on Pentagon candidates. But he has since narrowed his call to a public hearing on last year’s Abbey Gate attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport, which killed 13 American soldiers and some 170 Afghan civilians.

Bryant Harris is a congressional reporter for Defense News. He has been reporting on US 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.

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