Caroline May, The Daily Caller
Though Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in China this week to discuss military relations, the Defense Department remains mum as to whether the secretary will discuss with the Chinese their recent announcement that they are drastically reducing exports of materials integral to the function of many weapons systems that could affect American national security.
The United States is entirely dependent on external sources for their supply of rare earth minerals — 17 elements necessary for such defense tools as missile guidance systems, range finders, lasers, aircraft components, antimissile defense, communication systems (not to mention a number of green energy technologies and personal devices like iPods and cell phones). China currently controls 97 percent of the global supply of these valuable resources.
Cheryl Irwin, a Defense Department spokeswoman, told The Daily Caller that the DOD was not yet ready to draw conclusions on this issue as they are awaiting the final internal release of a rare earth defense impact study.
“We are going to wait and see what our study does….This is a study that was self-initiated a year ago by our director of industrial policy looking at the whole issue of rare earth elements. It is still in what we call coordination, the study is complete but it has not been released,” Irwin said, adding that the hope is the DOD will release some form of an executive summary of the report to the public.
Jeffrey Green, president of J.A. Green and Company LLC and former council to the House Armed Services Committee, told TheDC that the rare earth posturing by the Chinese represents a major concern for American weapons systems.
“The way the Pentagon should look at this is it’s not what systems use rare earth, its what systems don’t, the list is probably shorter,” Green said. “Anytime there is a proven link that shows defense systems are dependent for their ability to operate on certain materials, there is a shortage of those materials, and the country that has those materials has shown a willingness to upset supply of that material – to me that is the perfect combination for cause for concern.”
Green added that there is no guarantee that Gates will address the rare earth issue during his time in China.
In a speech that was included in the Appendix of the Department of Energy’s December Critical Materials Strategy report, Assistant Energy Secretary David Sandlow joined the chorus of Americans encouraging domestic production of rare earth minerals — which is possible, given that the United States was once self-sufficient in these materials until Chinese predatory pricing and environmental liabilities pushed domestic producers out of the market.
“To manage supply risk, we need multiple, distributed sources of strategic materials in the years ahead,” Sandlow said. “This means taking steps to encourage extraction, refining and manufacturing here in the United States, as well as encouraging our trading partners to expedite the environmentally-sound creation of alternative supplies.”
The 111th Congress mandated that the Pentagon further assess the supply and demand of rare earth for defense applications in Defense Authorization Act.