The United States biggest concern on the rare earth issue is based on its reliance on technology, especially for military applications. This text talks about the rare earth elements that are used in defense-related technology.
The pentagon claims that only 5% of world‚Äôs supply of rare earth is consumed by the United States Department of Defense. Yet it should be considered that for producing some of the most powerful weapons, US is completely dependent on China .
Two commercially available permanent magnets of rare earth elements are samarium cobalt (SmCo) magnets, and neodymium iron boron (NdFeB) magnets. SmCo is used for military technologies such as precision-guided missiles, smart bombs, and aircraft, since its magnetic strength is retained at elevated temperatures. NdFeB magnets, known as the world‚Äôs strongest permanent magnets are used for smaller and lighter defense weapon systems .
Rare earths used in missiles and smart bombs can provide directional capabilities. They are also used in detection devices for enemy mine detection, interrogators, underwater mines, and countermeasures. Other critical application of rare earth elements in defensive applications are laser targeting systems, range-finder lasers, radar surveillance, optical equipments and communication systems . Rare earth alloys are also replacing piezoceramic materials in several devices such as Sonar transducers for submarines .
The use of rare earth elements in different of military applications are shown in figures 1-5 :
1- Rare earth elements in missile guidance and control systems for controlling the direction of the missile
2- Rare earth elements in disk drive motors installed in aircraft, tanks and control centers; in defense electronic warfare
3- Rare earth elements in targeting and weapon systems
4- Rare earth elements in electric motors
5- Rare earth elements in electronic and communication for optical equipment and speakers.
The United States was the leader in global production of rare earths from 1960s to 1980s. Since then China has been ruling in rare earth production due to lower costs and environmental standards. In July 2010, China announced cutting rare earth mineral exports by about 72%. This could be very problematic for U.S as the biggest consumer of rare earths by imposing economic and national security risks.
In January 2011, three Members of Congress wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense asking for an immediate action for providing a detailed accounting of supplies of rare earth availability :
‚ÄúClearly, rare earth supply limitations present a serious vulnerability to our national security. Yet early indications are the Department of Defense (DOD) has dismissed the severity of the situation to date‚Ä¶
As the ultimate customer, the Department has the right and responsibility to require their contractors to provide a detailed accounting of the various rare earth containing components within their weapon systems. This information should then be aggregated into an element by element overall demand for DOD. With that knowledge, DOD could compare expected supply and demand of each rare earth element with overall consumption by the Department to identify critical vulnerabilities in our supply chain. This will enable the Department to establish policies to ensure the defense supply chain has access to those materials. For example, one policy may be for the DOD to establish a limited stockpile of rare earth alloys that are in danger of supply interruption to ensure security of supply of both metals and magnets.‚ÄĚ
In the same year another advisor of Department of Defense stated :
‚ÄúThe Pentagon has been incredibly negligent‚Ä¶there are plenty of early warning signs that China will use its leverage over these materials as a weapon.‚ÄĚ
In order to overcome the economic and military dependence of US on China, actions were needed: Stockpiling the rare earths as a short term solution; as it has been already done in South Korea and Japan . Developing new mines was another solution. However it can take over 10 years until a new mine can start running efficiently. Finding materials as substitutes for rare earth metals without loss in performance was another option. Developing new technologies for refining and recycling rare earth elements was another promising alternative.
The investigations and research is still ongoing to determine who will win the rare earth power game!
1-. Ratnam, Gopal. ‚ÄúRare Earth Shortage Would Spur Pentagon to Action‚ÄĚ. Bloomberg News, April 9, 2012.
2- Valerie Bailey Grasso. ‚ÄúRare Earth Elements in National Defense: Background, oversight Issues, and Options for Congress‚ÄĚ Congressional Research Service. December 23, 2013
4- James B. Hedrick. ‚ÄúRare-Earth Industry Overview and Defense Applications‚ÄĚ U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Geological Survey‚ÄĚ. February 18, 2005
5- Emily Coppel ‚ÄúRare Earth Metals and U.S National Security‚ÄĚ American security project. February 1, 2011
6- Hounshell, Blake, ‚ÄúIs China Making a Rare Earth Power Play?‚ÄĚ Foreign Policy, September 23, 2010