Europe sits out US race to stockpile strategic materials

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

America anxiously builds its stockpile of strategic materials. America's allies yawn. In March of this year, the Reagan administration announced that it would make the first purchases in more than 20 years for the National Defense Stockpile--61 "strategic" materials ranging from diamonds to manganese. In June, the government bought 5.2 million pounds of cobalt from Zaire for $78 million. Some reports say that the United States could spend some $2.5 billion on stockpile acquisitions over the next five years if Congress approves--giving purchasing priority to 15 metals and minerals determined to be most vital to the US economy.

No European country except France--a member of the political but not the military wing of NATO--boasts strategic stores even close to those of the US. Stockpile plans in some countries have been scrapped just as the US has shifted into high gear.

Until late last year, both West Germany and Britain were actively considering plans to stockpile a range of strategic materials for which their dependence on foreign suppliers was up to 100 percent.

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The idea in West Germany (tossed around by government and industry for 18 months) was to accumulate a year's supply of chrome, manganese, cobalt, vanadium , and asbestos as a hedge against future world tension. Like other countries in Western Europe--and the US--West Germany depends almost exclusively on South Africa, the Soviet Union, Zaire, and other questionably reliable suppliers for materials needed to run the country and to ensure military preparedness.

Last November, the Bonn government shelved the plan, citing the recession and related budgetary considerations as the main reasons. But in fact, the cost to the taxpayer, according to advocates of the plan in the business community, would have been only 300 million deutsche marks (about $150 million) over seven years.

Privately, the motives for shelving the stockpile plan may be different. "The Europeans simply don't see the issue in the same light as the Americans do." insists a raw-materials expert at the European Community (EC) in Brussels. "They sincerely believe that even in the worst of times, supplies will be available." he says.

The EC Commission has been pushing the Community member governments to rethink their strategic-materials policies, including stepping up European mining investments in the third world and searching for greater "trade stability."

"Building up emergency stocks as well could help guard against an eventuality such as a temporary breakdown in supply," according to one official.

EC statistics show that the 10 member countries of the Community (collectively, the world's largest consumer of imported raw materials) are completely dependent on foreign suppliers for manganese (45 per cent of it supply is from South Africa, 38 percent from the USSR); chromium (96 percent from South Africa); cobalt (50 percent form Zaire and Zambia, the other 50 from USSR and Cuba); platinum (82 percent from South Africa, 16 percent from USSR); tungsten (more than 50 percent from the USSR) and vanadium (75 percent from the USSR, 19 percent from South Africa) -- all products essential to defense and defense-related industries.

The US is dependent on foreign sources -- even the same countries -- to much the same degree. One difference is that the US has significant quantities of some elements (such as cobalt in Alaska, Idaho, California, and Missouri), while Western Europe does not. Ninety percent of the industrialized countries' raw-materials resources, in fact, are located in the US, Canada, Australia, and South Africa.

A year ago, France, the only US ally in Europe to stockpile, set up a new institution -- the Caisse Francaise des Matieres Premieres -- to help pay its stockpiling bill through public borrowing. The cost of increasing France's current hoard by just two months is expected to come to 3 billion francs ($500 million).

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