China Controls America’s Military through Rare Earth Metal Supply
The United States has long relied on China for rare earth elements, and though former President Donald Trump and others have argued that China has more to lose than the US in a trade war, Beijing’s control over rare earths threatens to put a stop to our war-making capabilities.
The rare earth elements (REEs) are a group of 17 metallic elements necessary for the production of high-tech devices including electric vehicles (EVs), flat-screen monitors, advanced wind turbines, smartphones, computer hard drives, and most major weapons systems. There are no easy alternatives for rare earth products.
Virtually every advanced weapon used by the US military is reliant on rare earths. The fast-attack submarine in the above photo requires nearly five tons of rare earths; the F-35 stealth fighter requires 920 pounds.
Rare earth products are used to power the guidance systems on cruise missiles and smart bombs, create temperature-resistant alloys for jet engines, produce advanced radar, sonar, and targeting systems, and manufacture night-vision goggles.
The US Government has a small stockpile of raw rare earths but lacks the capability to process them. If the United States were to enter a conflict and run low on military supplies, we would be entirely reliant on Chinese generosity for resupply.
“Rare earths are actually a hegemonic trigger. If the United States gets into a conflict, China is supplying the majority of the upscale weapons,” warns James Kennedy, founder of rare earths consultancy ThREE Consulting. “China can determine the outcome of the conflict, and that could result in a hegemonic shift.”
Since 2011, China has accounted for more than 97% of the global supply of rare earths. The United States, with only a single rare earths mine located in the Mojave Desert, accounts for roughly 16%.
China halted REE exports to Japan and the West briefly in 2010 and threatened to do so again in 2019 when the Trump Administration blacklisted Chinese telecom company Huawei. Though President Xi Jinping has refrained from blocking exports thus far, many fear that rare earths will be the next casualty of the trade war with China.
Writing for Fox News, the former CEO of a rare earth mine warns how vital it is for the US to begin producing its own supply:
“As the then-CEO of the only producing rare earth mine in the US in 2010, I rate the odds of another rare earth crisis in the next five years as 9.5 out of 10,” writes Mark A. Smith. “As was the case [in 2010], neither the US nor our allies are adequately prepared for the economic and military catastrophe that will result.”
Smith currently operates a company called NioCorp that is developing a rare earth minerals processing facility in southeast Nebraska.
“While the US struggles to make more of our own critical minerals, China continues to send not-so-subtle reminders that it can send a hypersonic mineral ‘missile’ with the press of a button,” continues Smith. “Unless and until the US government moves aggressively to help fund and advance American critical minerals mining, Western militaries will drive, fly, and sail by the grace of Chinese rare earths.”
Despite decades of awareness, little progress has been made in the United States to reduce our reliance on Chinese rare earths. Even the single rare earth mine in the United States sells its raw product to China for processing.
As stated in a 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office, the Pentagon has “no comprehensive, department-wide approach to determine which rare earths are critical to national security, and how to deal with potential supply disruptions to ensure continued, reliable access.”
In his op-ed, Smith calls on the Biden Administration to provide funding for “shovel-ready” critical minerals projects so that we can be prepared if China decides to cut us off.
“There is no getting around the fact that bringing mines online in the US takes a long time,” adds Smith. “The company I now lead, NioCorp Developments, has worked for more than a decade to bring our large critical minerals resource to commercial launch once sufficient project financing is obtained to allow the project to proceed…But we are still three years away from production once we are fully financed. Many other critical minerals projects in the US face even longer timelines. Some will never get operational.”
Another concern is the electric vehicle (EV) market. China is already the world’s largest producer of EVs and has made it clear that it intends to dominate the market. By keeping more of its rare earths inside the country, China could easily reduce the West’s capability to produce EVs while it exporting its own products throughout the world.