Last month in Washington DC, a group of legislative staffers from the House and Senate Armed Services Committees attended a briefing on a topic of grave national security: China's complete dominance of rare earth elements and their fabrication into weapons systems that are sold to the US Defense Department.
Most startling at the briefing was a slideshow showing the top weapons systems used by the US military - all of which are 100 percent dependent on China for essential rare earth components: Lockheed Martin's F-16, Raytheon's ground-to-air missile, Boeing's Ground-Based Midcourse Defense missile, Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk, and General Atomics' MQ-1 Predator. At least 80 of our nation's primary weapon systems wouldn't work at all without Chinese-sourced rare earth materials.
Many Armed Services staffs were outraged to learn the depth of the problem. Many felt that the Department of Defense (DoD) and others had misled them into believing that the problem was mostly rectified. Some staffers promised to take action.
Fortunately, a bipartisan Senate bill that would release China's grip on our defense systems is already on the table: The National Rare Earth Act of 2014, co-sponsored by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia). The act would bring mining and processing of rare earth materials back to the United States in a cooperative with the European Union, Japan, Australia and Canada - essentially cutting our ties and dependency to China and building new relationships with our economic allies.
The plan to get the Senate bill passed was to fold it into the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) as an amendment, a brilliant strategy that would jump-start a fully integrated value chain of rare earth materials and products and bring technology and defense companies back to the United States.
Then, a week after the briefing, Senator Blunt's office sent out a memo that due to "DoD objections" to the National Rare Earth Cooperative Act, his office wouldn't move forward with the bill in the NDAA. This bold inaction essentially guarantees the United States' dependence on China for our national defense - probably forever.
How is it possible that our Department of Defense does not want to have a secure national source for weapons technology? Would the Pentagon really rather depend on China for our national security, a country with which we have dubious relations? Or is the DoD pandering to the demands of the multitrillion-dollar defense industry?
The United States does not need to open new mines, lower environmental standards, allow new mining on state and federal lands, or give tax breaks, loan guarantees or cash-grants. The United States has abundant unused rare earth resources that mining companies are currently treating as mine waste, due to thorium, a companion element that is slightly radioactive. These high-value rare earth ores can be processed into the components we need for our military technology in a multinational, cooperatively owned facility, here in the USA. The thorium would be safely stored in a self-funded centralized facility.
China has already played the rare earth card in geopolitical maneuvers, cutting exports and sending markets into a frenzy, even cutting off Japan completely, freezing its manufacturing of hybrid vehicles. Are we next? Has anyone thought about how this plays out in the context of the "Asian pivot," a Cold War "containment strategy"?
It seems unfathomable that we would put our national defense in the hands of the Chinese. That is, unless we care more about profits for shareholders of defense companies than our country's national security. When advocates for the National Rare Earth bill reached out to major defense contractors over the last two years to support the bill, they got nothing but deafening silence in return. Off the record, a source from one of the largest contractors agreed that the situation was perilous. Still, his company didn't want to be associated with the legislation. The reason? China was their sole supplier of rare earth materials, and one of their largest customers.
They didn't want to make China mad. They didn't want to hurt their bottom line.
So I write to you, Dear CEOs of Raytheon, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, GE, General Atomics and all CEOs of the companies who are contracted to help defend our country,
This matter of national security is in your hands. Sadly, only you have the power to influence Washington to release us from the grip of China. Do it for the good of our national defense. Do it for the good of the future of the United States. Do the right thing for our country, and make sure the National Rare Earth Cooperative Act is an amendment to the 2014 NDAA. Our men and women in uniform and all citizens of the United States will thank you for choosing patriotism and dedication to our country's future over your company's quarterly profits.