June 11, 2010 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, China

U.S. Defense Can’t be at China’s Discretion

One of the most under-reported national security stories is the growing angst over our ability to continue to produce some high-tech components for our most advanced defense systems.

The parts in question are composed of “rare earth elements,” which are found in high-value weapons and support platforms like missiles, destroyers, tanks, aircraft, radars and satellites.

Almost all rare earth elements, with out-of-this-world names like ytterbium and thulium, are currently mined and processed in China, a country challenging the United States for top billing on the world stage.

And while China currently sells rare earth materials to us and other consumers (they’re also used in cell phones, computer hard drives, hybrid cars, etc.) that could end abruptly.

The situation is made more worrisome by China’s massive military buildup, particularly amid reports of increasing tensions between the People’s Liberation Army and the Pentagon.

Clearly, the last thing we need is to be dependent on China for these important materials. China is already manipulating the rare earth element market and talking about banning some exports.

So, what can be done?

The good news is you can find rare earth elements elsewhere in places like Australia, Canada, Brazil, Denmark, South Africa and the United States.

In fact, until the late 1980s, we were the dominant producer and innovator in the rare earth field. That changed with the Cold War’s end when the Mountain Pass mine in California slowed and finally ceased operations - and the Chinese made a government decision to fill the production gap, making them today’s market leader.

Rebuilding our rare earth mining and manufacturing capability could take 15 years - not to mention some serious investment to meet military, much less commercial, needs.

Fortunately, Congress is pushing the Pentagon to look at the issue with an eye toward its impact on weapons and the defense industry. While this may not be the most pressing defense issue, it could develop into a huge problem. We shouldn’t wait for a crisis; the time to do something is now.

Peter Brookes is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the Boston Herald