US Military Needs Rare Earth Elements for Future Wars
By: Dean Popps, Former US Army Acquisition Executive
Our national security relies on our industrial, economic, and agricultural strength to win wars. By the end of WWII, the US was producing a bomber an hour, a ship a day, and was feeding half the world. Combined with our unparalleled American warrior ethos, we unconditionally prevailed in a global struggle involving two massive theatres of operation.
When the first atomic bomb was dropped, leading to an almost immediate surrender, our enemies took notice that the US had a weapon that was unimaginable until that moment. Six decades later, when precision munitions and stealth warplanes were unveiled, the world again took notice that the US position is one of striving to have a secret, overwhelming, strategic and tactical advantage in weapons that creates a powerful deterrent.
Over a decade ago, Pentagon planners began to envision the next round of surprise super weapons, which eventually became known as the “Third Offset” policy. Amid fiscal constraints and our 15th year in The Long War, any endeavors for the next round of offset must thread the needle of technological superiority and self-reliance. After 25 years of misguided US globalization policies, our Achilles heel will be our failure to domestically source Rare Earth Elements (REE) for which we are wholly reliant on one of our primary adversaries: China.
Every one of the current and next round of super and unimaginable US weapons relies on REEs, an exotic assortment of 17 metals and elements, that are neither mined nor processed into ores in the US. We remain completely at the mercy of foreign governments and markets for these vital supplies, which are the building blocks for every major piece of military equipment or weapons system.
From the Joint Strike Fighter to the next generation B21 deep strike bomber, from avionics to computers, REEs are irreplaceably pivotal to America’s military superiority. Their unique properties, such as strong magnetic qualities at high temperatures, help precision-guided munitions pinpoint targets, facilitate GPS navigation, and allow fighter pilots to eject safely. Given REE’s undeniable military and commercial value, it is difficult to overstate their importance to our national security.
The last American rare earth mine closed in 2015, leaving the U.S. government without a single domestic supplier of the rare earths and specialty metals it requires. Currently and purposefully, there is only one player in this space: China. China not only controls our nation’s access to REEs, it is one of two competitor nations explicitly mentioned in the Pentagon’s Third Offset strategy as presenting an incredibly dangerous situation for America’s most critical national security programs.
China has already set a precedent for using REEs as geopolitical leverage. Following a dispute with Japan in 2010, the country curtailed its REE exports, spiking prices as much as 600%. To believe China would keep supplying us with the materials needed to defeat them is both irresponsible and naive.
Nevertheless, for nearly two decades defense policymakers have insisted on ignoring this threat in favor of misplaced ideas about globalization. Consequently, our defense industrial base is growing “increasingly brittle” with long-term consequences for military readiness, General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in recent testimony. Despite the criticality of REEs to our nation’s ability to fight and win wars, action on the issue remains stagnant. A 2016 GAO report stated that the Pentagon could not identify the REEs it needs. After three separate Pentagon offices researched the issue, there is no consensus, let alone a clear path to a stable US supply. Meanwhile, the last producing rare earths mine was sold to a Chinese mining firm for $20 million in June.
The Pentagon is foolish to advertise a grand strategy of technological prowess when it doesn’t even have a secure supply of the strategic materials it needs to innovate. President Trump’s recently announced Industrial Base Review could be an opportunity to fix this problem by insisting that the Pentagon support domestic supply lines. Both the House and Senate Armed Services Committee authorization bills included additional funds for development of domestic rare earth capability, though the all-powerful Appropriations Committees have not matched this investment to date. We need to put some money toward fixing this critical supply chain issue before we get caught short and embarrassed when it’s a matter of life and death in defense of the nation.
Though seemingly unimportant things like a $2 rare earth element magnet steering a billion dollar weapons platform may sound inconsequential, when our adversaries cut off our supply leveraging our greatest weakness against us, we won’t have anywhere to turn. With unpredictable international relations, we can no longer ignore our greatest strategic liability. We must act now to establish a coherent rare earth policy and end our dependence on China. When it comes to keeping America safe, we can’t take any chances.