The Pentagon’s recent release (subscription required) of the annual Strategic and Critical Materials report assesses the risk of critical materials shortages for America’s military. The Defense Department (DoD) studied 76 of these materials used by the military and identified 23 at risk for shortfalls. The potential shortfalls identified would occur under a “Base Case” planning scenario that assumes the United States has entered into an armed conflict.
Critical materials are divided in the report between non-rare earths, such as tin and rubber, and rare earths. Rare earths are not really that rare, but China controls 97% of the world market. Less Chinese imports would negatively affect the military because rare earths are used in missiles, motors, ammunition, nuclear weapons, and other advanced weapons systems.
Each rare earth can be targeted with one or more strategy to ensure access to material in case of an emergency or a conflict with China, the world’s top producer of rare earths. Those material-specific mitigation strategies are stockpiling, export reductions, substitutions, and extra U.S. purchases.
DoD estimates that tin shortages can be mitigated mostly by extra U.S. purchases. On the other hand, chromium metal shortfalls cannot be managed by extra U.S. purchases. Substitution – using another material in its place – is the best strategy for chromium metal as well as tantalum.
The report also assesses the relative importance of specific material shortfalls. Experts from government, industry, and academia assessed the military, economic, and political consequences and ranked each material in order of importance. This is important because it sets priorities for addressing critical materials shortfalls.
The ASP fact sheet Rare Earths and U.S. National Security addressed the issue of America’s rare earths problem.
By relying so heavily on China, the U.S. has severely weakened its supply chain in rare earth metals. We need to diversify our sources of rare earths to protect important commercial and military capabilities. This is an issue of national security.
The U.S. is dependent on Chinese imports, but it does not have to be because there is enough supply in North America to satisfy demand. America needs to invest in a long-term strategy for rare earths R&D and stockpiling to address immediate shortages.
We also need to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty, which will greatly help our companies in extracting these critic elements in the oceans and artic region.
Read more about this issue in the below reports:
Rare Earth Metals and US Security by The American Security Project
Law of the Sea – Separating Fact From Fiction by The American Security Project
American Competitiveness- A matter of national security by The American Security Project
Fact Sheet Research and Development as a National Priority Jan 2012 by The American Security Project