The Pentagon submitted a report on the usage of rare earth elements in manufacturing military and defense equipment, mostly sourced from China, after Chinese officials threatened to cut off the supplies to the US.
“The department continues to work closely with the president, Congress and the industrial base to mitigate US reliance on China for rare earth minerals,” Lt. Col. Mike Andrews, a spokesman for the US Defense Department, told Reuters Wednesday.
If China goes ahead with the move, America's F-35 program is bound to get affected. According to a 2013 report published by US Congressional Research Service, Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) jets require about 920 pounds (418 kg) of rare earth minerals.
China contains a third of the world’s rare earth reserves. However, it accounts for 80% of US imports of the group of 17 minerals used in military equipment and high-tech consumer electronics, Reuters reported citing a US Geological Survey data.
In the defense hardware manufacturing industries, the rare earth metals are used to produce fin actuators in missile guidance and control systems, controlling the direction of the missile; disk drive motors installed in aircraft, tanks, missile systems, command and control centers; lasers for enemy mine detection, interrogators, underwater mines, and countermeasures; satellite communications, radar, and sonar on submarines and surface ships; and optical equipment and speakers.
Other military-related applications are usage of these minerals in jet engines, anti-missile defense systems, satellites, lasers, night vision devices, etc.
Companies such as Raytheon Co, Lockheed Martin Corp, BAE Systems Plc, etc make sophisticated missiles that use rare earths metals in their guidance systems and sensors.
The Pentagon accounts for about 1% of US demand, which in turn accounts for about 9% of global demand for rare earths, according to a 2016 report from the congressional US Government Accountability Office.
SCMP reported that China accounts for 90 percent of the world's rare earths production.
China's dominance in the industry is due to the advanced processing technology of the elements. At least three US-based companies have rare earth processing plants under construction or in the planning stages. One of them located in Mountain Pass mine, California, is expected to open next year while the remaining two are not expected to open until 2022 at the earliest.
Hu Xijin, senior editor of the state-run Global Times, wrote on his Twitter account on Tuesday that China was “seriously considering” restricting its rare earth exports to the US.
"The company in the Mountain Pass mine will become the sole operating rare earth processor in the US. It is set to produce about 5,000 tonnes of two popular types of rare earth annually," according to a source familiar with the matter told Reuters.
Texas Mineral Resources Corp is pushing to develop the Round Top rare earth deposit in a remote corner of the state’s western edge. The project, which will cost more than $300 million to develop, would involve an on-site mine and processing facility that would annually process about 7.3 million tonnes of ore and produce about 3,325 tonnes of rare earths.