China controls roughly 90 percent of the rare-earth materials used in high-tech manufacturing, but the United States, Australia and Japan are exploring new sources that could end the Chinese monopoly.
by Russell Parman
The U.S. military is facing a potential crisis at the very bottom of its supply chain. Rare-earth elements have become the new oil, playing a major role in the technological advancements made in the last 50 years. Everything from GPS navigation capability, cellphones, fiber optics, computers, automobiles and missiles relies heavily on rare-earth elements for development and production. (See Figure 1.) For example, according to a 2013 report from the Congressional Research Service, each F-35 Lightning II aircraft requires 920 pounds of rare-earth materials. Rare earths, including yttrium and terbium, are used for laser targeting and weapons in combat vehicles.
The “rare” in rare-earth elements is a historical misnomer; the persistence of the term reflects unfamiliarity with the elements rather than true rarity. The U.S. Geological Survey finds the more abundant rare-earth elements are as common in concentration as other industrial metals such as chromium, nickel, tungsten or lead. Even the two least abundant rare-earth elements (thulium and lutetium) are nearly 200 times more common than gold. Where “rare” comes into play is that, in contrast with ordinary base and precious metals, rare-earth elements have little tendency to become concentrated in exploitable ore deposits. Consequently, most rare earths come from a small number of sources.
What makes rare-earth elements so unique? Among the many beneficial characteristics, rare-earth batteries offer greater energy density, better discharge characteristics and fewer environmental problems upon disposal. High-strength rare-earth magnets have allowed numerous electronic components used in appliances, audio and video equipment, computers, vehicles, communication systems and military gear to be miniaturized. Fiber-optic cables that use erbium can transmit signals over long distances because the erbium amplifies the signal.
As rare-earth elements grow in importance, they have become both carrot and stick for international political trade negotiations. In the past 20 years, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, China has emerged as the biggest player, controlling approximately 90 percent of the world’s rare earth either through territorial control or exclusive mining rights. Additionally, China is less burdened with environmental or labor regulatory requirements that can greatly increase costs incurred in mining and manufacturing rare-earth products.
The rare-earth supply problem will have no easy solutions. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, it would take 15 years to overhaul the defense supply chain, meaning any changes to it need considerable lead time. The American Mineral Security Act, passed in 2015, is meant to evaluate which minerals are critical. Consequently, switching from current suppliers (i.e., China) would cause major disruptions to supply chains.
Rare earths are a critical part of laser- and precision-guided missile technology. Lockheed Martin Corp. is working on a small, high-power laser weapon, heavily reliant on rare earths erbium and neodymium, that the Air Force Research Laboratory wants to test in a tactical fighter aircraft by 2021.
Rare-earth elements are widely used in strong, permanent magnets impervious to temperature extremes. The permanent magnets are used in fin actuators (which control flight patterns in missiles) in missile guidance and control systems; disk drive motors installed in aircraft and tanks; satellite communications; and radar and sonar systems. Samarium-cobalt magnets are more resistant to demagnetization than those made from any other material. This quality—called high coercivity—means that they do not lose magnetic strength when exposed to high temperatures. That makes them the best choice for many military applications, according to U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Justin C. Davey in a 2011 Air War College report. Neodymium-iron-boron magnets are incredibly strong and light. By weight, they are almost 10 times more powerful than traditional ferrite magnets. That makes them ideal for use in the tiny electronic components such as disk drives that have helped make possible decades of computer-driven innovation.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
For most of the 20th century, the United States was largely self-sufficient, with all of its rare-earth needs being produced at the Mountain Pass rare-earth mine in California. This began to shift in the 1990s as a result of several factors.
First, China entered into a number of free trade agreements with the United States and, with its lower labor costs and regulatory requirements, became a less-expensive alternative supplier. Second, China greatly expanded its electronics manufacturing infrastructure to take advantage of its rare-earth resources. Finally, problems with water supply pollution and stricter regulations at Mountain Pass forced the eventual shutdown of the plant. These factors created an opportunity for the Chinese to establish dominance in rare-earth mining and production. (See Figure 2.)
Chinese efforts at monopolizing rare earth do not end with domestic sources. China has aggressively pursued rare-earth mines in Africa, often offering infrastructure development or the sale of excess defense articles in exchange for exclusive mining rights. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, China gained rights to the country’s lithium, cobalt and coltan mines. These minerals are used in electric vehicle batteries and electronics, including smartphones and laptops. In exchange, China agreed to build much-needed projects such as urban roads, highways and hospitals.
Kenya is another Chinese target, as the East African nation has huge mineral potential and its exploration efforts have picked up in the last five years with the awarding of commercial licenses in prospecting for oil, gold, coal, geothermal minerals and rare earths. In April 2019, Kenya secured $666 million from China to build a data center in a tech city (likely comprising data centers designed to facilitate internet and communications) currently under construction in Konza, about an hour from Nairobi. Other African countries in China’s crosshairs include Cameroon, Angola, Tanzania and Zambia. Tanzania is of particular interest due to the presence of several military-critical rare earths, including neodymium and praseodymium, which are critical to precision-guided munition technology.
China has also become a significant new economic actor in Latin America and the Caribbean. China-Latin America trade increased from almost negligible levels in 1990 to $10 billion in 2000 and $270 billion in 2012; the largest portion of this exchange takes place between South America and China. In 2012, an $8.4 billion rare-earth deposit was discovered in Brazil. Over the past few years, China has become Brazil’s undisputed top trade partner.
PARTNERSHIPS TO BREAK THE STALEMATE
Any efforts to boost U.S. access to rare earths require a combination of technological advancement, driven by necessity, and partnerships to reach the regions where these elements are located in abundance. Fortunately, technology is providing plenty of opportunities to enhance our abilities to discover and extract rare-earth elements.
Massive deposits have recently been discovered in Japan’s far Eastern territorial waters, for example, and that discovery will complicate China’s efforts to corner the rare-earth market. Experts say there might be enough yttrium, europium and terbium in this deposit to meet global demand for hundreds of years. The only problem is that the deposits are at the bottom of the ocean. Several companies specialize in underwater mining, but the process is extraordinarily difficult, and more advances must be made to fully benefit from this discovery.
The process for diversifying supply sources for rare earth will likely be expedited by recent events, including the recent U.S.-China trade conflict as well as China’s recent history of cutting rare-earth exports to Japan. In 2010, China restricted rare-earth trade with Japan, a restriction that ended only after mediation by the World Trade Organization in 2014.
In addition to Japan, Australia is a potential partner for the United States that has a common interest in competing with China for rare-earth market share. Australia-based Lynas Corp. is currently the world’s largest producer of rare earths outside of China. Lynas recently announced a joint venture with U.S.-based Blue Line Corp. to develop a rare-earth separation facility in the United States. The company currently uses a processing plant in Malaysia, and in May, Lynas unveiled plans to invest $34 million to ramp up production and allay the regulatory concerns raised by Australian shareholders that Malaysian regulations did not provide adequate environmental protection.
Other international companies could be a factor in developing alternative supply sources as well. The Rainbow Rare Earths mining company is focused on production from, and expansion of, the high-grade Gakara Rare Earth Project in the East African nation of Burundi. Gakara, characterized by exceptionally high quality, is the only rare-earths mine in Africa and just the second outside of China.
Closer to the United States are significant deposits in Kvanefjeld, Greenland. Kvanefjeld’s ore reserves of 108 million tonnes support an initial 37-year mine life, and the project is expected to be one of the largest global producers of neodymium, praseodymium, dysprosium and terbium, along with uranium and zinc byproducts. Currently Greenland Minerals Ltd., in close cooperation with China-based Shenghe Resources, is working toward maximizing the potential of this reserve.
The U.S. military supply chain is highly vulnerable to any Chinese efforts to limit access to rare earth. The Chinese have already used rare-earth minerals as a weapon. The result of the resumption of rare-earth trade was a global collapse in prices, which eliminated the incentive for private industry to perform any additional rare-earth exploration or to establish new plants for processing. The price collapse did not keep the Japanese from seeking out its own domestic supply, however.
The United States is in the process of building a new rare-earth processing plant in Texas with Lynas, which should alleviate some of the pressure provided by any trade restrictions posed by China. Until this happens, DOD will be vulnerable to disruptions to the rare-earth supply chain that affect cost, scheduling and the availability of the necessary resources to modernize the military to maintain its competitive edge.
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RUSSELL PARMAN is a foreign intelligence officer at the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command and a 17-year civilian member of the intelligence community (Marine Corps Intelligence Activity, U.S. Army Contracting Command G-2 and Aviation and Missile Command G-2). He is a National Guard captain, presently serving as an Officer Candidate School platoon trainer. He has authored academic articles, including “The Social Roots of Terrorism” in the 2006 edition of the World of Transformations and “Terrorism in a Unipolar World” in the 2005 McNair Research Journal. His article “Bringing Intel to Contracting” appeared in the Summer 2019 edition of Army AL&T. He has an M.A. in international relations and comparative politics from Vanderbilt University and a B.S. in political science from Middle Tennessee State University.