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Dwindling natural resources are a threat to the US military: Weapons and Warfare

Feb 7

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In this episode of Weapons and Warfare, take an in-depth look at the natural resources needed to build and equip a modern military, and how America’s stockpile of those materials is running low. Special contributor and Straight Arrow News Energy Correspondent Jack Aylmer breaks it all down and visits with host Ryan Robertson to talk about his reporting.

Also in this episode:

  • A shipping expert provides some insight on what’s at stake as conflict in the Red Sea continues.
  • The Army refurbishes nearly 2,000 Stinger missiles, saving millions of dollars while restocking inventories
  • The U.S. Air Force has issued a warning about a small laser creating big problems for pilots at a European air base.
  • Learn more about the “K4 MANTA” a sub-surface, unmanned drone from the Kraken Technology Group.

You can subscribe to the Weapons and Warfare podcast on the platform of your choosing here.

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[RYAN ROBERTSON]

HELLO FOLKS AND WELCOME TO EPISODE FIVE OF WEAPONS AND WARFARE. WE MADE IT THROUGH OUR FIRST MONTH! HUZZAH!

SO WHAT DO WE HAVE IN STORE FOR THE SHOW? WELL, IN THE DEBRIEF WE’RE MIXING THINGS UP A LITTLE BIT AS WE WELCOME OUR FIRST GUEST CONTRIBUTOR TO THE LINE UP–MY COLLEAGUE AT STRAIGHT ARROW NEWS JACK AYLMER PUT TOGETHER A PIECE WE’RE CALLING ROCKS OF WAR–ALL ABOUT THE U.S. MILITARY’S RELIANCE ON RARE EARTH MINERALS…

OUR WEAPON OF THE WEEK LOOKS LIKE SOMETHING A BOND VILLAIN WOULD OWN…AND IN THE WRAP WE TALK ABOUT THE NEED TO ACKNOWLEDGE REALITY….BUT FIRST, LET’S GET STARTED WITH THE HEADLINES YOU NEED TO KNOW.

HISTORICALLY WHEN THE U.S. AND ITS ALLIES CONDUCT NIGHTTIME AIRSTRIKES THE TARGETED PARTY USUALLY BLINKS AND BACKS DOWN. IF THAT WAS THE HOPED-FOR OUTCOME IN JANUARY DURING A SERIES OF STRIKES ON HOUTHI OUTPOSTS IN YEMEN, IT HAS YET TO BE REALIZED, AS THE HOUTHIS HAVE CONTINUED TO HARASS AND TARGET SHIPS OPERATING IN THE RED SEA. 

IN LATE JANUARY THE TANKER MARLIN LUANDA WAS HIT BY A MISSILE, SPARKING A FIRE THAT TOOK HOURS TO PUT OUT. AT THE TIME OF THIS RECORDING IT WAS THE LATEST STRIKE IN A SERIES OF ATTACKS THAT STARTED IN OCTOBER. SINCE THEN PRACTICALLY EVERY COUNTRY THAT HAS SHIPS, OR AN INTEREST IN THE AREA, HAS TAKEN STEPS TO DEFEND THEMSELVES. INCLUDING TAKING OUT SOMETHING KNOWN AS “WAR RISK INSURANCE”. WE RECENTLY CAUGHT UP WITH SAL MERCOGLIANO OF THE YOUTUBE CHANNEL ‘WHAT’S GOING ON WITH SHIPPING?’ WHO TALKED ABOUT WHY THAT INSURANCE MIGHT NOT BE A VIABLE OPTION.

[Sal Mercogliano, Ph.D.// Assoc. Prof. of History, Campbell Univ.]

When this all started back in October, where risk was very low about .02% The value of the ship and cargo, now it’s up to 1%.

And when you start talking about 1% of half a billion dollars. That gets to be a bit pricey. And what you’re gonna see is ships divert around that way, it’s longer, they got to pay more on fuel.

[RYAN ROBERTSON]

AND THAT’S WHERE CONSUMERS COULD START FEELING THE EFFECTS OF THE CRISIS. DELAYED DELIVERIES AND A HIGHER THAN ANTICIPATED DEMAND FOR FUEL MIGHT SOON MEAN COUGHING UP MORE CASH WHEN YOU FILL UP. 

THE REHAB MOVEMENT FINALLY HIT THE ARMED FORCES. NO, IT’S NOT ‘DREAM DORM MAKEOVER’, OR ‘TINY BARRACKS NATION’. INSTEAD IT’S THE ARMY REFURBISHING NEARLY 2,000 STINGER MISSILES. ACCORDING TO A NEWS RELEASE THE PROCESS STARTED IN 2017, BUT GAINED IMPORTANCE WITH THE ONGOING WAR BETWEEN UKRAINE AND RUSSIA. THE PLANT DOING THE WORK ESTIMATES NEARLY 70% OF THE MISSILES THAT WERE DESTINED FOR DISPOSAL WILL SOON BE BACK IN THE ARMY’S INVENTORY.  

FINALLY, LETS HEAD TO ENGLAND WHERE THE U.S. AIR FORCE IS ASKING SOME LOCALS TO KNOCK IT OFF. IT SEEMS SOMEONE, OR SEVERAL SOMEONES, ARE AIMING LASER POINTERS AT THE PILOTS OF THE 48TH FIGHTER WING AT R-A-F LAKENHEATH. BASE LEADERSHIP POSTED AN ADVISORY ASKING FOR THE CULPRITS TO CEASE AND DESIST. THE REQUEST COMES AFTER A SERIES OF “LASINGS” WERE REPORTED BY PILOTS NEAR THE BASE, WHICH IS ABOUT 70 MILES NORTHEAST OF LONDON. IT’S HOME TO FOUR SQUADRONS OF F-35s AND F-15 STRIKE EAGLES. FORTUNATELY NOTHING HAS COME OF THE RECENT INCIDENTS, BUT A BASE SPOKESPERSON TOLD THE STARS AND STRIPES A 2016 LASING MOMENTARILY DISORIENTED THE CREW OF AN F-15E. IF YOU’RE WONDERING WHAT THE PENALTY FOR LASING IS, IN ENGLAND PERPETRATORS FACE FINANCIAL PENALTIES OR IMPRISONMENT. WITH TIME RANGING FROM 12 MONTHS TO FIVE YEARS IF INDICTED.

[RYAN ROBERTSON]

Time for the debrief, folks. When you think of the modern American military and see all of the high tech tools and assets available to our troops, it’s pretty easy to get lost in the engineering and science that brought those ideas from the drawing board to the battlefield. But the road to weaponry is a long one, and it starts with pulling precious resources from the earth. In our debrief this week, one of my Straight Arrow News colleagues, Jack Aylmer, is playing the role of special contributor to the show, and he tells us about America’s shrinking access to rare earth resources

[JACK AYLMER]

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

[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.”

[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.” 

[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.”

[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.”

[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

[RYAN ROBERTSON]

CHANCES ARE WHEN YOU THINK OF STEALTH TECHNOLOGY, YOU THINK OF AIRCRAFT LIKE THE B-2 BOMBER, OR MAYBE THE NOW-RETIRED F-117 NIGHTHAWK. 

BUT FOR NEARLY 20 YEARS THE NAVY HAS BEEN WORKING TO MAKE STEALTH TECHNOLOGY A PART OF HOW THEY OPERATE AS WELL. THE MOST NOTABLE IS THE ZUMWALT CLASS DESTROYER. BUT IT COULD SOON HAVE SOME COMPANY.

MEET THE MANTA-4. BUILT BY THE KRAKEN TECHNOLOGY GROUP, THE MANTA IS DESCRIBED AS AN UNDERWATER STEALTH DRONE.

CLASSIFIED AS A USSV, OR UNCREWED SURFACE-SUBSURFACE VESSEL, IT LOOKS A BIT LIKE A HIGH-TECH FOIL SURFBOARD. A PROMOTIONAL VIDEO FROM KRAKEN TECHNOLOGY DETAILS SOME OF THE VESSEL’S ATTRIBUTES, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, ELECTRONIC WARFARE, AND CARRYING A PAYLOAD, LIKE A TRADITIONAL COMMERCIAL DRONE. WITH A TOP SPEED OF 45 KNOTS OR A LITTLE MORE THAN 50 MILES PER HOUR, THE MANTA HAS A RANGE OF 300 MILES. 

ENGINEERED WITH AN AREODYNAMIC AND HYDRODYNAMIC HULL THAT CAN CRUISE THE OPEN WATER ABOVE THE SURFACE, UNTIL IT’S TIME TO TAKE COVER. THAT’S WHERE THE STEALTH COMES IN. SLIPPING BENEATH THE WAVES, LEAVING BEHIND A LOW ACOUSTIC SIGNATURE, AND POTENTIALLY LINKING UP WITH OTHER PRE-STAGED MANTAS TO HELP DELIVER A DEVASTATING ATTACK. 

WHILE THAT DEMONSTRATION EXISTED ONLY IN TWO DIMENSIONS, THE MANTA-4 RECENTLY GOT SOME REAL-WORLD WORK. PARTNERING WITH THE U-S SPECIAL OPERATIONS COMMAND FOR A TECHNICAL EXPERIMENTATION EVENT. ACCORDING TO A POST ON THE COMPANY’S FACEBOOK PAGE, THE DECEMBER GET-TOGETHER WAS SUCCESSFUL.

WHILE THERE’S NO OFFICIAL WORD FROM ANYONE ON THE GOVERNMENT SIDE OF THINGS, FEATURES LIKE TEN DAYS OF AUTONOMOUS OPERATIONS, A MODULAR PAYLOAD BAY AND THE ABILITY TO HELP CARRY OUT INTELLIGENCE, SURVEILLANCE AND RECONNAISSANCE MISSIONS HAVE MADE IT AN INTRIGUING OPTION FOR THOSE ENGAGED IN NAVAL WARFARE.

[RYAN ROBERTSON]

Alright, folks, normally this is the part of the show called Comms Check where we kind of check in with the viewers. We go through our social media feeds and and respond to questions, comments or updates. But this week, we’re going to do things a little bit differently. For Comms Check, we’re going to hear from Jack Aylmer, who you just heard from in the story before on the rocks of warfare, as it were. So Jack, thank you so much for being part of the show today.

[JACK AYLMER]

Awesome. Thanks so much, Ryan. I’m excited to be here.

[RYAN ROBERTSON]

You bet. You bet. So Jack, we just listened to your story. Just watched your story. For those of us in, you know, should we be worried that the U.S. doesn’t have its rights secured?

[JACK AYLMER]

Well, I mean, I think just by nature of the geopolitical landscape, right now, we shouldn’t be a little concerned. We have this conflict in Taiwan, we’re not really sure where that’s going to lead us, we have the conflict in Israel, as well as the conflict in Ukraine. So we’re already sending weapons out to those two nations, before we even talk about, you know, our own national security and our own interest in Taiwan and what that all may lead to. So definitely something to be concerned about, especially when we have military experts talking about, hey, if we get into a sustained conflict with China, we’re not sure we have the resources to keep that going. So definitely some cause for concern here.

[RYAN ROBERTSON]

And the resources available to keep that going come from China. So it’s not like they’re going to be like, “Oh, we’re out of war here, here’s your shipment of rare earths that you can use to kill us.” Like, that’s, that’s not going to happen. You you’d mentioned the generals and stuff had been had been speaking about this for a while. You know, that that kind of stood out to me, and you’re reporting that you know, this, you know, six years ago, we’re talking about this 20 years ago, we were talking about this. In your mind, what’s the biggest thing that stood out to you while you were covering the story?

[JACK AYLMER]

Well, I think it’s just what you’re talking about, you know, the length of time that this has been a problem is really interesting. You go back to the height of the Cold War, and we’re talking about a $42 billion stockpile of these resources that the United States government had fast forward to today, we’re down to $888 million. And like you mentioned there, it’s not an easy task to build it back up, because China has so many of these resources controls the manufacturing and the processing of these resources. So it’s really difficult to get any more right now, unless we start domestic mining unless we find ways to get them within our nation or allies of the U.S. So just the length of time that you know, we’ve been concerned about this issue. It’s been a slow ticking clock, but you know, to go back to the 1950s and have $42 billion worth of these minerals available to us and now you know, fast forward 50 plus years. We’re in a tight spot.

[RYAN ROBERTSON]

And you mentioned you know, kind of a way forward is for the U.S. to find some domestic domestic sources for these rare earth elements. You’ve covered a story about a mine in Elm — Elk Creek, excuse me, Elk Creek, Nebraska, there is an Elm Creek further west, but this is in Elk Creek, Nebraska, and in this tower under this town really is one of the world’s largest known deposits of niobium and rare earth elements. Talk to me about that.

[JACK AYLMER]

Yeah, so really cool experience that we had going down Elk Creek, like you said. It’s a small town, there is one restaurant that’s open. And if you don’t want the cheeseburger, you’re out of luck. Really interesting story behind it where, you know, back in the day, they would have aircraft flying over the area and see that their instruments were running funny when they were above Elk Creek. And that led the discovery that there are all these natural resources underneath the land down there.

So a lot of talk about going in and mining, they have a whole bunch of infrastructure that they’re getting ready to try and go and get that stuff. But again, anytime we talk about, you know, domestic mining sources like Elk Creek, which, you know, if when that’s up and running, they’re expected to produce billions of dollars worth of these elements. It’s gonna take some time to get there, though, you know, we’re talking about years and years before they’re even operational.

And that goes for mines across the country, you know, there are different in Thacker Pass, you know, we’re talking about a another area where there’s potential mining that’s going to happen for these rare earth elements. Even looking outside of the U.S. to our oceans, we’re talking about deep sea mining and a lot of international governments.

U.N. is considering whether or not they’re going to allow countries to go in and try to scoop up these little nodules that are on the bottom of the ocean floor that contain rare earths. So lots of different strategies to go and get these but the timing behind it, you know, things could go wrong tomorrow, when it comes to, you know, our relationship with China. So when we’re talking about years and years before, you know, we’re seeing a sustainable, steady supply from these different areas that we’re talking about going in mining, you know, it’s we’re not sure if that will kind of line up with when we need them.

[RYAN ROBERTSON]

Well, Jack, let’s leave it there for now. And depending on how things play out with China, the Middle East, Taiwan, I’m gonna throw Ecuador in there now because of the drug cartels, and they’re asking for us support. So everybody wants a little bit of us weaponry. That’s going to only further deplete our stockpiles. So let’s let’s circle back and eight or nine months, if time permits, and we’ll see. We’ll see where we stand on this sound good?

[JACK AYLMER]

Absolutely. Yeah. I’d love to come back and talk about some more cheeseburgers with you. Sounds fun.

[RYAN ROBERTSON]

Always. Meers Burger in Oklahoma is it’s north of Fort Lawton. Or Lawton, which is home to Fort Sill. Meers Burger, Oklahoma has the best burger in America. I will die on that hill.

[JACK AYLMER]

Oh, okay. Some big, big proclamations being made on this show. I love it

[RYAN ROBERTSON]

Thank you, Jack. Appreciate your time, buddy.

[SAN DISCLAIMER]

All opinions expressed in the segment are solely the opinions of the contributors.

[RYAN ROBERTSON]

Man, can you believe it? We are just about done with the show this week. Of course, we can’t say goodbye until after the wrap which is all about acknowledging reality, like in the Middle East, where the reality is things are not going well. The war between Israel and Hamas is pouring gasoline on a fire that’s been burning for centuries, and dates back millennia. The U.S. is backing Israel in the war as it should. Hamas is a terrorist organization full stop.

But backing your closest ally in a volatile region has consequences and always does. The fact the U.S. and Israel are friends is enough for Iran and its cronies to declare America the great Satan. Iranian lawmakers even like to wish us death from the floor of their legislature from time to time. It’s also why Iran gives money and weapons to groups like Hamas, or the Houthis or Hezbollah, who also hate the U.S. They have a common enemy. And while Iran may not be directly instructing those groups on every military action, giving them a bunch of weapons and saying go cause chaos is in itself approval of those actions. Actions which claimed the lives of three U.S. service members in Jordan on January 28. Sergeant William Rivers, specialist Breonna Moffett and specialist Kennedy Sanders were killed when an Iranian made drone flown by an Iranian funded militant group crashed into the sleeping quarters at Tower 22.

I reported on the story for straight arrow news already. So if you want all of the details, or what’s available, you can find them at san.com. But the big thing to know is since October, when the war between Israel and Gaza broke out, pretty much every militant group in the region with a bone to pick with either the United States Israel or modern society is doing so. And while the strike on tower 22 was the first fatal attack on U.S. personnel. It was far from the first on more than 160 separate occasions. Militant groups in the region, mostly backed by Iran tried to kill us troops. Yes, they were largely unsuccessful, but that does not change. The fact U.S. troops are and have been under attack. As much as the White House wants to deescalate the situation. It’s time to acknowledge our enemies get a vote to and when it comes to warfare, not all votes are equal.

Those are my thoughts. Why don’t you tell me what yours are? You can let us know what you think in the comments section below and we may address them in a future episode of Weapons of Warfare. But in the meantime for senior producer Brett Baker, video editor Brian Spencer and graphics designer Dakota Piteo, I’m Ryan Robertson with Straight Arrow News, signing off.