One of the more important but mainly overlooked resources related to national security are rare earth minerals. A recent discovery by a team of Japanese scientists east and west of Hawaii, and east of Tahiti in French Polynesia has brought them to current media attention, but many individuals, even those deeply ingrained in national security fields know little about them or their uses.
A collection of 17 minerals, rare earth minerals are relatively abundant within the earth’s crust, but are often dispersed and only infrequently gather in deposits meaningful enough to mine.
The national security implications for rare earth minerals are as acute as ever. The United States has shuttered the vast majority its rare earth mines and now imports over 90% of the rare earth material needed for both economic purposes as well as weaponry. The vast majority of market control, 97%, has been ceded to China, a top economic and military competitor of America.
The Chinese are not bashful about using their new-found leverage either. Rare earth exports amounted to 39,000 metric tons in 2010 but have since dropped to 30,258 metric tons. This has resulted in an almost nine-fold increase in the price of the materials, to over $100,000/ ton. Further export reductions could increase costs further or worse, an OPEC style embargo of the minerals to the U.S. could jeopardize national defense and high-tech manufacturing.
Many of the 17 rare minerals are crucial to advanced defense and civilian technologies. Praseodymium and Scandium are used for aircraft engines. Promethium is necessary for guided weapons and Dysprosium is employed in sonar systems. Without Samarium the navigation system for the M12 Abrams tank would not function.
For civilian purposes, these materials are crucial for high-tech items such as computers and televisions as well as green items such as batteries and fluorescent light bulbs.
Recognizing the importance of rare earth minerals, the Financial Times and National Mining Association recently held a forum at the Newseum in Washington, DC titled: “Addressing America’s 21st Century Minerals Needs.” During the afternoon panel, Frank Gaffney, Jr., President of the Center for Security Policy spoke to the national security implications:
“The problem is we’re not dealing with people simply using these minerals as political weapons or as diplomatic leverage, I there at the very least putting themselves in a position to use these as strategic weapons.”
Despite the current Chinese monopoly, solutions do exist. Domestically, the United States possess 13 million metric tons in reserves, and American allies in Eastern Europe and Australia possess around another 25 million metric tons. The recent Japanese discovery in the Pacific Ocean should also be added to this list of alternative sources.
Domestic production in the United States should be expanded through simplifying the permitting process and encouraging the growth of current domestic production, such as at the Mountain Pass, CA mine of Molycorp Minerals. Additionally, production agreements with American allies should be reached to try and reduce Chinese domination of the rare earth minerals market.
Researchers should continue to try and develop alternatives to these materials as well, if possible. Much like America’s foreign energy dependence, an all of the above approach should be taken to ending our foreign rare earth minerals dependence.
To watch the full video of the panel, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ltxsCzJYM0E&feature=youtu.be.