U.S. Weapons Systems Dependent on Rare Earth Elements from China
Monday, April 11, 2011
Predator B Drone
Having given up years ago on mining its own rare earth minerals, leaving it vulnerable to Chinese imports, the United States now finds itself in a potentially precarious position of not having the necessary materials for important military weapons.
An analysis by the Congressional Research Service has revealed that the Department of Defense is dependent on two rare-earth minerals, samarium cobalt and neodymium iron boron, for the production of special magnets for precision-guided missiles, smart bombs and aircraft.
Specifically, the magnets are found in:
· Fin actuators in missile guidance and control systems, controlling the direction of
· Disk drive motors installed in aircraft, tanks, missile systems, and command and
· Lasers for enemy mine detection, interrogators, underwater mines, and
· Satellite communications, radar, and sonar on submarines and surface ships
· Optical equipment and speakers.
Rare earth elements are essential for the production of numerous weapons in the U.S. arsenal, including Tomahawk cruise-missiles, smart bombs, Predator drones, electromagnetic railguns, laser weapons, the electric motors in Joint-Strike Fighters, radar, and submarine communications systems.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, the United States was the leading producer of rare earths. However, after that production shifted to China in order to take advantage of cheap labor and weak-to-non-existent environmental regulation. China now controls 97% of the rare earth mineral market. Last October, it slashed its exports 70%, and then trimmed its quotas for 2011 by 35%. These moves left officials in Washington scrambling to determine if a loss of access to rare earth minerals could become a national security problem.
An American mining company, Molycorp Minerals, is seeking to reopen its mine in California’s Mojave Desert, which could alleviate some of the U.S. dependence on China.
-Noel Brinkerhoff, David Wallechinsky
Rare Earth Elements in National Defense: Background, Oversight Issues, and Options for Congress (by Valerie Bailey Grasso, Congressional Research Service) (pdf)
China Cuts Rare Earth Minerals Exports; Mine in California Reopens after 8 Years (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
U.S. Mining Company Hopes to Break Chinese Monopoly of Rare Minerals (by David Wallechinsky and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
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