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Senate to move Pentagon nominees amid critical minerals row

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WASHINGTON — The Senate Armed Services Committee has reached an agreement aimed at advancing Pentagon nominees who would oversee acquisitions and defense industrial-base policy following controversy over a road in an Alaskan mining district.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, blocked three Pentagon nominees from advancing out of the committee in July in protest over the Interior Department’s decision to stall his state’s Ambler Mining District industrial access road. Sullivan argued the department’s move would inhibit the mining of critical minerals — a market where China’s domination has created several vulnerabilities in the U.S. defense supply chain.

Sullivan told Defense News on Tuesday he received an update on the issue from the Biden administration last week but that the Interior Department has done nothing to address his concerns. However, he noted that he would allow two nominees to advance out of committee by voice vote in the near future as “a showing of good faith” to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I.

“We are making sure that Sen. Sullivan has access and discussions with critical people because he’s trying to do his job for the people of Alaska,” Reed told Defense News on Tuesday. “Then at some point though, we’re going to have to take a vote.”

The two nominations that are slated to receive voice votes out of committee in the upcoming weeks are Laura Taylor-Kale as assistant secretary of defense for industrial base policy and Brendan Owens as assistant secretary of defense for energy, installations and environment.

However, the committee will also have to convene a quorum to conduct a recorded vote on Radha Plumb to serve as deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment.

“There’s no question about the quality of these people and also the need for them over at [the Defense Department],” Reed said. “Every time we have a hearing, someone will say our industrial base needs revamping.”

Congress has advanced legislation in recent months to bolster the domestic supply of critical minerals for the defense-industrial base in order to lessen Washington’s reliance on the supply chains of potential adversaries, such as China and Russia.

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

They wrote that blocking access to the mine by failing to approve the access road would “jeopardize U.S. economic and national security by prolonging our reliance on foreign adversaries for needed minerals and metals.”

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

“The area has been characterized as one of the world’s largest undeveloped copper-zinc mineral belts, which is particularly crucial in light of recent forecasts of shortfalls in global copper supply,” Sullivan and Murkowski wrote. “These minerals are necessary for the manufacture of electric vehicles, renewable energy sources and are crucial to most modern defense systems.”

A 2020 report from the U.S. Geological Survey noted the United States is the world’s fourth-largest producer of refined copper, after China, Chile and Japan. Copper is alloyed with the critical mineral beryllium for a wide array of aerospace and defense applications, such as radar, telecommunications satellites and infrared target acquisition 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 in February asked a U.S. District Court for a voluntary remand on the project, which it received in May.

Sullivan and Murkowski have asked the Interior Department for a concrete time frame in which it will complete its review of the project. They’ve also asked that the department allow baseline scientific data gathering and design work to proceed, as well as for the approval of geotechnical drilling.

The Interior Department declined to comment.

Nonetheless, the critical minerals supply chain is one that Plumb and Taylor-Kale will have to contend with should the Senate approve their nominations.

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

Nine other Pentagon nominees remain stalled on the Senate floor as a result of Sen. Josh Hawley’s yearlong, blanket hold on all Defense Department nominations in protest of the Afghanistan withdrawal.

Hawley, R-Mo., initially demanded the resignations of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken in exchange for ending his blockade on Pentagon nominees. But he has since scaled back his demand to a public hearing on last year’s Abbey Gate attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport that killed 13 American service members and approximately 170 Afghan civilians.

Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. 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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