DC ‘Leak’: Catalyst for Chinese Rare Earth Supply vs. US National Security Debate

The Obama administration’s case against China’s export policies on rare earth minerals is not only about business concerns — it is about national security. I just returned home from the TREM Critical Metals Summit about Washington’s policy on rare earths and it was “leaked” that a DC report was forthcoming that would negate the need for creating self dependence on rare earth supply and would instead cite global interdependence and the benefits of Chinese economics in supplying cost effective REEs.
 
Timed appropriately this week with President Obama’s news conference that the United States, joined by Japan and the European Union, has filed complaints with the World Trade Organization over China’s rare earth export quotas said this is an effort to give “American workers and American businesses a fair shot in the global economy”. He also brought up rare earths in clean energy applications – but there was no reference to what we all know and as eloquently summed up by a member in the audience:  “…every frickin’ defense platform uses rare earths.” 

I recall the 70’s (and yes, I do) and how upset we were about our dependence on the Middle East for oil. Today, China’s dominance of the rare earth industry with over 90% of the supply and 95% of the processing capabilities poses far reaching implications for the U.S.’ defense sector. Jeff Green of JA Green & Co. commented from a panel in response to the rumor: “Earlier promises to vertically integrate a supply-chain all in the US had tremendous political appeal garnered by wrapping yourself in the flag…” – we believe that James Hedrick had it right when he said: “Rare earths are the economic and technologic foundation of a safe and secure Nation. To possess them imparts independence, immunity to coercion, and the tools to invoke scientific advancement.”

What’s the answer? One conclusion at the TREM event was that no conclusion would occur until after the Presidential election. So we challenge the Presidential candidates to add this relevant issue to their platform for debate. 

So let’s drill down further…

A report released in February 2011 called Rare Earth Metals and U.S. National Security, by the American Security Project notes:

  • Though the Pentagon claims that the U.S. only uses 5% of the world’s supply of rare earth metals for defense purposes, the U.S. is fully dependent on China for the production of some of its most powerful weapons.
  • The U.S. does not track rare earth metals in its weapons systems or platforms. Therefore a shortage of rare earths will affect the strength and readiness of the U.S. military until currently used defense systems are no longer in operation.

In April 2010 the Government Accountability Office released a report titled Rare Earth Materials in the Defense Supply Chain commissioned by Congress to assess sources and projected availability of rare earth materials; to identify which defense systems depend on rare earth materials; and to assess national security risks identified by the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) due to dependencies on rare earth materials and review the actions that can be taken.

Here’s what the report concluded:

  • Use of rare earth materials is widespread in defense systems. These include precision-guided munitions; lasers, communication systems, radar systems; avionics, night vision equipment; and satellites.
  • Rare earths are responsible for the functionality of critical components in defense systems and would be difficult to replace without losing performance. For example, fin actuators used in precision-guided munitions are specifically designed based on the capabilities of neodymium-iron-boron rare earth magnets. Rare earths are also used in commercial-off-the-shelf products in defense systems such as computer hard drives
  • These defense systems will likely continue to depend on rare earth materials, based on their life cycles and lack of effective alternative substitute materials.    
  • While the U.S. has previously performed all stages of the rare earth material supply chain most rare earth materials processing occurs in China. Rebuilding a U.S. rare earth supply chain could take up to 15 years and is contingent on several factors: securing capital investments in processing infrastructure, developing new technologies, acquiring patents held by international companies.

REE Defense Systems Applications:

REEs play a crucial role in several national defense systems including those used by the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps. REEs are critical to the functionality of such systems and can affect calibration, aim, efficiency and speed. REEs are used in a range of military and defence equipment including  F-series fighter jets; helicopters; tanks & other armoured vehicles; ships; missiles; radar systems; countermeasure systems; and satellite systems.
 
REEs in the form of sintered neodymium-iron-boron (NdFeB) are used in tail fin actuator motors of joint direct attack munition (JDAM) bomb conversion kits; miniature air-launched decoys (MALD); joint air-to-ground missiles (JAGM); and javelin missiles. They are also used in permanent magnet motors of close-in-weapon-systems like the Phalanx CIWS anti-ship missile defense system; and navy propulsion motors and drives for the Zumwalt Destroyer.
 
Here are some more applications of REEs in the defense sector as cited in the REE Handbook – the ultimate guide to Rare Earth Elements:

  • Gadolinium-scandium-gallium garnet (GSGG) crystal lasers are used in high-energy laser weapons. 
  • Lanthanum is a key input in the production of fuel for planes, trains, and automobiles. 
  • Lanthanum oxide is used in the making of infrared-absorbing glass used in night vision goggles. 
  • Neodymium yttrium aluminum garnet (Nd:YAG) are the most widely used lasers in commercial and military applications. It is used for cutting, welding, scribing, boring, ranging, and targeting. 
  • Luminous promethium range-marks are used in the targeting sights of shoulder-fired missiles.
  • Samarium-cobalt permanent magnets are used in servo-motors to adjust the fins on missiles.
  • The primary use of europium is in phosphors for pilot display screens to yield reddish-orange colours. 
  • Yttrium gadolinium garnet or yttrium gallium garnets (YGG) are used in the electronic components of communications and radar systems.
  • Dysprosium in Terfenol-D is used in sonar sensors and positioning actuators.
  • Holmium: yttrium aluminum garnet (Ho:YAG) solid state lasers are used in military and space-based laser distance and ranging (LADAR) systems to create three-dimensional images and to  detect objects at great distances.
  • Fighter jet engines use yttria-stabilized zirconia as a thermal barrier to withstand extremely high temperatures.

On a final note, with China having a third of the world’s REE reserves, and only about 3% of the deposits compared to the US where according to the US Geological Survey there are about 13 million metric tons of rare earth deposits in the US…instead of buying from China – if we supply our share for the supply of rare earth materials it would create jobs for Americans…for the endless technological applications, not to mention — we could supply our own materials needed for our national security.