Western lawmakers push Gates on China’s minerals dominance

Lawmakers are questioning whether the Pentagon is taking seriously enough the national security risks that arise from being dependent on China for a crucial mineral supply.

In a Jan. 28 letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, three lawmakers from western states questioned why the Pentagon has yet to compile a comprehensive list of what rare earth minerals the country is most dependent on China for.

Alaskan Sens. Mark Begich (D) and Lisa Murkowski (R) and Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) charged that the Pentagon “has dismissed the severity of the situation to date,” which they call “a serious vulnerability to our national security.”

Alaska and Colorado are both important states for the mining industry.

China now controls nearly 100 percent of the world’s supply and production of rare earth minerals. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has said the United States imports nearly all of the rare earth minerals it needs.

The minerals are used to manufacture a list of parts that find their way into U.S. combat platforms like unmanned aircraft, radars, night-vision goggles, missiles, jet engine turbines and electronics systems. The rare earths family is composed of 15 lanthanoid elements, as well as scandium and yttrium.

Defense sources say a soon-to-be released Pentagon study will conclude Beijing’s monopoly will soon end. After months of study, the Defense Department study is expected to conclude that steps underway in the U.S. and Australia should be enough to eventually combat China’s current dominance, giving the Pentagon new suppliers and driving down market prices.

"I wouldn't run out and buy a bunch of rare earths," Pentagon industrial affairs chief Brett Lambert said late last year during a conference in New York. The U.S. may experience problems “in the near term,” he said, but over the long haul, "I think we'll be fine."

The lawmakers disagree with Lambert’s assessment, telling Gates that new sources of rare earths expected to come online in the next few years are “light rare earths.”

That could prove problematic because “some of the most critical materials are heavy rare earths,” states the letter. Citing a recent Energy Department critical materials plan, the lawmakers added: “Therefore, the new sources may not alleviate supply shortages faces by DoD.”

The trio urges Gates to “require contractors to provide a detailed accounting of the various rare earth containing components within their weapon systems,” to build a view of DoD’s “element-by-element” demand.

This kind of data package would allow the Pentagon to “identify critical vulnerabilities in our supply chain” and “establish policies to ensure the defense supply chain has access to those materials,” according to the letter.

While officials with the Energy and Defense departments have said there will be no need to build a U.S. rare earths stockpile, the lawmakers urge Gates to consider setting up a “limited stockpile or rare earth alloys that are in danger of supply interruption to ensure security of supply of both metals and magnets.”

DoD is months late with the report on its rare earths dependence.