Strategic Materials

     As worldwide trade rapidly expands, nations become increasingly vulnerable to trade disruptions. This may be in the form of an economic embargo, a blockade, or a military threat that deters merchant ships from sailing or trains from rolling. Commercial ships may not sail into dangerous waters if their insurers threaten to end coverage. History has shown that unionized workers in transport industries may refuse to work in dangerous situations, or demand a war bonus many times their normal pay. During World War II, dockworkers in Australia went on strike to demand hazardous duty pay while US Marines were fighting on Guadalcanal.  Just prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, some foreign merchant seamen refused to sail into the Persian Gulf to deliver supplies to the US military.

     The first step a nation should take in protecting national security is building up stockpiles of strategic materials. The United States did this during the Cold War when it stored various materials whose foreign suppliers were unstable or unfriendly. Some nations spend tens of billions of dollars a year to build and maintain a first class military, however, if fuel is unavailable, this force is worthless. After the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the United States established a Strategic Petroleum reserve with six months worth of crude oil import needs stored in old salt mines. Some of this crude was released in recent years after hurricanes disrupted crude oil supplies.  A simpler option for most nations is to set aside some domestic oil fields for emergencies and stop pumping from them. This idea was used after World War I when the United States established naval oil reserve land for wartime use.

     All nations must have some type of strategic materials program. For example, a nation may have its own ammunition plants, yet if it uses efficient "just in time" inventory management, it may have only a few days worth of imported metals on hand. Coal and metals are easy to store and do not degrade. Large ingots of metal can be stacked outdoors near industrial users for emergency use. These can't be destroyed by fire or air strikes, and are too heavy to steal.  Many electrical power companies already keep large piles of extra coal on hand in case rail or mine strikes disrupt deliveries. Local stockpiles are also valuable should bridges or rail lines from domestic sources suffer damage from strategic strikes. Private industry expects a federal subsidy to cover the cost of maintaining emergency stockpiles, so some funding is required.

     Emergency food stocks like rice and grain are important in most nations, but storage is problematic. A few weeks of stocks should be maintained for national security and natural disaster needs. They must be rotated into consumption after a few months to prevent spoilage. A strategic materials plan should be flexible. If war seems likely within weeks, that nation should order large quantities of imported goods in hopes of receiving them before hostilities begin.  Should war never arise, the nation can gradually consume those temporary stores.

    Strategic material programs have little support as there is little money to be made by defense contractors. Generals have no interest in economics while civilian leaders have little interest in the problems of future wars. Establishing a strategic materials program seems dull and wasteful during peacetime, yet pure genius during wartime. It will buy time for leaders to find alternatives to whatever materials are unavailable, or take diplomatic or military steps to secure vital materials. Having a stockpile may even dissuade a hostile nation from attempting a blockade or embargo. In addition, stockpiles can be drawn upon during supply disruptions caused by weather, natural disasters, union strikes, or wars elsewhere.

     Wartime security is a major issue as enemy agents or commandos may arrive. Therefore, local reserve units should be designated to provide additional security to material storage areas upon mobilization. A detailed study is needed during peacetime to identify vulnerable targets and reservists should routinely review and practice their wartime security mission during weekend drills.  

     The vulnerability of potentially hostile nations to embargos and blockades should be evaluated as well. Some nations have large industries that are completely reliant on imports from a single supplier of a critical material. That foreign supplier may impose a sympathetic embargo, or may be pressured to do so in support of an ally or common cause. Recall that Japan attacked the USA in 1941 after President Roosevelt organized an oil embargo. The idea of a strategic materials stockpile is not new, but its value will be rediscovered in future wars, probably too late for most nations.

Curbing Domestic Consumption

     If war, or rumors of war disrupts imports, political leaders must be presented with specific steps to curb domestic consumption. For example, if a nation imports half its crude oil and imports have stopped, immediate action is required.  While rationing has been used in the past, such plans take months to implement. However, a government can impose an immediate $5 a gallon tax on gasoline, causing domestic demand to fall in half.  If all rubber is imported, a 500% sales tax on tires is helpful. Another advantage of these wartime taxes is they generate money for the war itself. Taxes are very unpopular, but if a nation is at war leaders must take firm action to allow market forces to instantly curb consumption rather than allow panic as supplies of imported goods dry up. Determining these steps takes research and time, something best done during peacetime.

Military Stockpiles

    Military stockpiles are needed as well, especially spare parts for imported equipment. Many nations spend billions of dollars to purchase sophisticated jet fighters.  However, if war disrupts imports, or suppliers refuse to ship, those aircraft are worthless. After the Shah of Iran was overthrown in the 1970s, the United States refused to provide spare parts for the hundreds of modern jet fighters Iran had purchased, including 80 ultra-modern F-14s. Therefore, nations need to keep ample spare parts on hand. Even huge industrial nations like the United States must import key components for some weaponry, like certain circuit boards. Congress recently expressed concern when it learned that some components on the nation's new F-35 fighter aircraft were made in China, but the contractor insisted that such parts were not available in the USA. Planners must note the sources of these parts and develop contingency plans.

     Another key stockpile are munitions. Peacetime munitions use is minimal so wartime plans are needed. If munitions are domestically produced, plans should be in place to triple production overnight by expanding to three shifts for 24-hour production. Obtaining triple the amount of raw materials needed may be a problem, so plants must keep a couple months extra on hand. If munitions are imported or produced in batches, then a few weeks of wartime stocks must be maintained. This is not simple as munitions age, especially those with electronic components like missiles. In addition, munitions storage is dangerous and must be carefully guarded, especially from internal theft. Ideally, all munitions are stored in dehumidified bunkers, especially if they contain electronic components. Munitions with powdered explosives and solid rocket engines will last much longer if they are turned over annually to deter powder caking caused by gravity.  Munitions management is complex as well since it is best to use the oldest ammunition for training, thus firing it off before it becomes too old to be reliable.  

     It is important to continually test munition samples as they arrive from factories to learn of problems immediately. Something like every 20th "lot" of ammunition or every 20th missile manufactured should be shipped for immediate training use so that defects are identified and corrected promptly. Theoretically, factories conduct quality control tests and they do that with cheap, small caliber ammunition. However, if a million dollar missile will be tested, it is best to let the end-user expend it during training.  Moreover, military officers become upset when munitions fail and demand prompt action. History has shown that factory testers often ignore defects, or conduct unrealistic tests, so as not to lessen profits or fail production goals. Prior to World War II, the US Navy had failed to test samplings of its torpedoes. It took a year of complaints from American submarine captains that their torpedoes were not working in combat before action was taken.

     Stockpiling ultra-sophisticated munitions has spawned new methods. For example, the United States spends billions of dollars to maintain its nuclear weapons ready for immediate use.  However, these warheads are very complex so they must be disassembled, inspected, and tested every three years. This is not a simple task since warheads are aboard submarines and in missile silos.  Teams must continually swap out warheads and move them under tight security to a test and remanufacturing plant.

     As the Cold war drew to a close, some Generals questioned the need for thousands of ready nuclear weapons. They noted that billions of dollars could be saved by reducing the number of weapons, but concern remained about unexpected changes in the world. The US military realized that components can be stored separately and assembled within weeks if the world situation changes. This idea also makes sense for multi-million dollar munitions like cruise missiles. If they are to be stored for years, it is best to store them disassembled in separate components. When missiles are requested, technicians can test and reassemble components before shipping them. Final assembly may even be done by combat units, in the same way munitions are fuzed prior to use.

Professional Education

     The need to stockpile and plan for strategic materials is the least controversial topic in this book on future war. It is common sense, yet few nations have made such plans. Political leaders should inquire about wartime plans for strategic materials. They may find that no such plans exist, even though they have thousands of wartime planners sitting around during peacetime. Some who draw up plans learn there is no support for funding as politicians and Generals have other priorities.  

     Funding strategic materials as part of national defense is extremely important for smaller nations with limited natural resources, yet much of their military funding is often burned up in peacetime to support a few jet fighters. In contrast, strategic materials are a national investment. A thousand tons of copper purchased and stockpiled in 1980 would still exist and have grown in value. Many nations retain large stocks of gold to support their currency and for wartime emergencies.  Stocks of usable strategic materials are more valuable for emergencies. At the very least, they should exchange some gold bars for precious industrial metals like platinum, silver, uranium, and palladium, which the financial community should recognize as national assets. 

     The United States has the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, which produces some good but shallow studies. Although the United States is resource rich, it imports 98 percent of its cobalt and 82 percent of its chromium, mostly from South Africa and Russia.  Major uses for these imports range from jet engines to computer chips. After the lessons of World War II,  the United States stockpiled a large array of  wartime materials, described here: Defense National Stockpile Center. Unfortunately, most of this stockpile has been sold off since 1992 and the remainder are listed here. It wasn't sold all at once so as not to disrupt the global materials markets. 

     Note that almost all the American stockpile was sold, not just Cold War excess. The only explanation for this irresponsible action was that Congressmen and Generals were eager to cash in $5 billion of strategic materials to spend elsewhere.  One can blame Congressmen, yet no General expressed outrage during their frequent appearances before congressional committees. It is unlikely this topic is ever discussed at high-levels in the Pentagon. If top Generals in the US military are asked about strategic materials, few know anything about them.  This is a vital national security topic, which is why this book on future warfare devotes an entire chapter on the value of a balanced professional military education. Strategic materials have always been critical, and will be more critical in future wars because of the increase in international commerce and the complexity of modern weaponry.