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Decreasing access to rare earth minerals put US munition production at risk

Feb 7

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In this episode of Weapons and Warfare, learn more about what it takes to make high-tech munitions available to the military today. The process, which begins with pulling precious resources from the Earth, is becoming further complicated as America’s access to the necessary resources is shrinking.

While the U.S. sends weapons to Ukraine and Israel, the military’s stockpile of munitions is starting to run low. Straight Arrow News’ Jack Aylmer explains how the government’s reserve of rare earth minerals needed to produce more is dwindling, compounding the problem.

There are 17 metallic elements essential for making a variety of modern-day weaponry. Those same resources are crucial for making vehicles including fighter jets, tanks and submarines, as well as the radar and sonar technology they use. Rare earth materials are even used in high-powered laser weapons.

“Rare earths play a key role as we know in our daily lives, but they’re particularly important for the defense for our defense efforts,” said former U.S. Army Brigadier General John Adams. “We have to secure control of the key natural resources that our 21st century military depends on.”

At the peak of the Cold War, the U.S. had a store of these minerals valued at $42 billion. Now, that supply is down to $888 million, and the U.S. is responsible for only about 14% of global rare earth mining. China controls 90% of the world’s rare earth processing and two-thirds of the global mining efforts.

“Since 2000, China has cornered the market on rare earth production, along with the high tech components that depend on rare earths,” Adams said. “Today they control more than 90% of global supply, and that should give all of us pause. Almost all new smartphones, computers, televisions, vehicles, and advanced U.S. defense systems depend on Chinese sourced rare earths components.”

Beijing has made moves to hold onto the monopoly. The People’s Republic of China banned the export of technology to make rare earth magnets, as well as the technology used to extract and separate the critical materials.

China’s superiority in this space has become a major concern for U.S. officials as the relationship between the two nations becomes increasingly strained.

“Our national security is threatened by this growing reliance on foreign sources for our military weapons and equipment,” Adams said. “Also for the raw materials, the parts, the finished products, everything we need for our defense industrial base is critical. Because if one part is not working right, the rest of it falls apart.”

Defense analysts believe the United States does not have the munitions needed for sustained conflict against Chinese military forces. Preparing for such a situation requires the very rare earth resources that the U.S. is running out of.

However, the American government has been reluctant to find a domestic solution, in part because extracting rare earth elements often involves significant land disruption and the use of hazardous chemicals, leading to pollution. Processing the minerals can also produce toxic waste, posing a threat to the environment and local communities.

Despite the risks, lawmakers have pushed forward legislation to boost American production. The Department of Defense has also reached an agreement to spend almost $100 million to acquire and install manufacturing equipment.

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[JACK AYLMER]

AS THE U.S. SENDS WEAPONS TO UKRAINE AND ISRAEL, THE MILITARY’S STOCKPILE OF THESE MUNITIONS IS RUNNING SEVERLY SHORT.

TO COMPOUND THE PROBLEM, THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT’S RESERVE OF THE RARE EARTH MINERALS NEEDED TO PRODUCE MORE, IS ALSO DWINDLING. 

THESE SEVENTEEN METALLIC ELEMENTS ARE ESSENTIAL FOR MAKING A VARIETY OF MODERN-DAY WEAPONRY. 

SOME MAKE BOMBS AND BULLETS. OTHERS, ROCKETS AND MISSILES.

THEY’RE CRUCIAL COMPONENTS FOR MAKING FIGHTER JETS, TANKS, WARSHIPS AND SUBMARINES, AS WELL AS THE TECHNOLOGY THEY UTILIZE, LIKE RADAR AND SONAR SYSTEMS.

RARE EARTHS ARE EVEN USED IN HIGH-POWERED LASER WEAPONS.

[General John Adams]

“Rare earths play a key role as we know in our daily lives, but they’re particularly important for the defense for our defense efforts … We have to secure control of the key natural resources that our 21st century military depends on.”  -Former US Army Brigadier General John Adams

[JACK AYLMER]

DURING 1950’S, AMID THE PEAK OF THE COLD WAR, 

THE U.S. HAD A STORE OF THESE MINERALS VALUED AT FORTY TWO BILLION IN TODAY’S DOLLARS.  

BUT FAST FORWARD TO 2024: THAT SUPPLY IS NOW DOWN TO JUST EIGHT HUNDRED AND EIGHTY EIGHT MILLION DOLLARS.     

AND BUILDING THAT SUPPLY BACK UP IS NO SIMPLE TASK. 

THAT’S BECAUSE CHINA CONTROLS A WHOPPING NINETY PERCENT OF THE WORLD’S RARE EARTH PROCESSING, WHILE ACCOUNTING FOR NEARLY TWO-THIRDS OF THE GLOBAL MINING EFFORTS FOR THESE MINERALS.  

[General John Adams]

“Since 2000, China has cornered the market on rare earth production, along with the high tech components that depend on rare earths. Today they control more than 90% of global supply, and that should give all of us pause. Almost all new smartphones, computers, televisions, vehicles, and advanced US defense systems depend on Chinese sourced rare earths components.” -Former US Army Brigadier General John Adams

[JACK AYLMER]

IT’S A NEAR MONOPOLY THAT BEIJING HAS MADE MOVES TO HOLD ONTO.

THE PRC HAS BANNED BOTH THE EXPORT OF TECHNOLOGY TO MAKE RARE EARTH MAGNETS, AS WELL AS TECHNOLOGY USED TO EXTRACT AND SEPARATE THE CRITICAL MATERIALS.

RARE EARTH MAGNETS ARE ESSENTIAL TO MANY MILITARY WEAPONS SYSTEMS AND THE PROCESS OF EXTRACTING AND SEPARATING THE MINERALS IS CRUCIAL TO MAKING THEM USABLE FOR INDUSTRIAL USE. 

CHINA’S SUPERIORITY IN THIS SPACE HAS BECOME A MAJOR CONCERN FOR U.S. OFFICIALS, AS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THESE TWO NATIONS HAS BECOME INCREASINGLY STRAINED.

[General John Adams]

“Our national security is threatened by this growing reliance on foreign sources for our military weapons and equipment. Also for the raw materials, the parts, the finished products, everything we need for our defense industrial base is critical. Because if one part is not working right, the rest of it falls apart.” -Former US Army Brigadier General John Adams

[JACK AYLMER]

SHOULD TENSIONS EVER ESCALATE TO OPEN WARFARE WITH THE PRC, DEFENSE ANALYSTS BELIEVE THE UNITED STATES DOES NOT HAVE THE MUNITIONS NEEDED FOR A SUSTAINED CONFLICT AGAINST CHINESE MILITARY FORCES. 

AND PREPARING FOR SUCH A SITUATION REQUIRES THE RARE EARTH RESOURCES THE U.S. IS CURRENTLY RUNNING OUT OF, AS CHINA DOMINATES THEM.

[General John Adams]

“Our military’s job is to be prepared for potential conflict. We cannot ignore the risk of future conflict with China by turning a blind eye to our own vulnerable defense supply chains.” -Former US Army Brigadier General John Adams

[JACK AYLMER]

BUT THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT HAS BEEN RELUCTANT TO FIND A DOMESTIC SOLUTION, IN PART BECAUSE THE EXTRACTION OF RARE EARTH ELEMENTS OFTEN INVOLVES SIGNIFICANT LAND DISRUPTION AND THE USE OF HAZARDOUS CHEMICALS, POTENTIALLY LEADING TO SOIL AND WATER POLLUTION.

PROCESSING THE MINERALS PRESENTS SIMILAR ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS, AS IT CAN PRODUCE TOXIC WASTE THAT POSES RISKS TO BOTH ECOSYSTEMS AND LOCAL COMMUNITIES. 

ITS A PRICE THAT CHINA IS ALREADY PAYING FOR ITS STATUS AS THE WORLD’S RARE EARTHS LEADER.

THE COUNTRY HAS HAD TO EVACUATE ENTIRE VILLAGES AFTER REPORTS OF HIGH CANCER RATES AND OTHER HEALTH PROBLEMS ASSOCIATED WITH THE NUMEROUS RARE EARTH REFINERIES THERE.

CURRENTLY, THE U.S. IS RESPONSIBLE FOR ONLY ABOUT FOURTEEN PERCENT OF TOTAL GLOBAL RARE EARTH MINING. 

AND DESPITE THE RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH ACQUIRING THESE MATERIALS DOMESTICALLY, LAWMAKERS HAVE PUSHED FORWARD LEGISLATION TO BOOST AMERICAN PRODUCTION, AMID FEARS THAT NOT DOING SO PRESENTS A POSSIBLY LARGER NATIONAL SECURITY THREAT.

[General John AdamS]

“The ultimate solution, frankly, is to create a domestic rare earth value chain and this can be done. Creating this value chain will end Chinese global market dominance of the rare earth market mitigate the national security risks of Chinese market dominance and create American capital and jobs.”-Former US Army Brigadier General John Adams

[JACK AYLMER]

A BIPARTISAN BILL HAS BEEN INTRODUCED IN CONGRESS THAT WOULD OFFER TAX CREDITS FOR RARE EARTH MAGNETS MANUFACTURED IN THE U.S.     

OTHER EFFORTS INCLUDE A SIXTEEN MILLION DOLLAR INVESTMENT BY THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT TO BUILD A FIRST-OF-ITS-KIND CRITICAL MINERALS PRODUCTION FACILITY IN THE U.S.

THE DEFENSE DEPARTMENT HAS ALSO REACHED AN AGREEMENT TO SPEND ALMOST ONE HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS TO ACQUIRE AND INSTALL MANUFACTURING EQUIPMENT, OPERATIONALIZE TECHNICAL INFRASTRUCTURE, AND ENGINEER PRODUCTION LINES.

IT’S ALL PART OF A GLOBAL RACE FOR MORE OF THE MINERALS, AND THE U.S. WILL HAVE TO PLAY CATCH UP