U.S. Military Vulnerable to Global Mineral Supply Disruptions
High-tech U.S. military hardware such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has a weakness in its dependency upon global supply chains of irreplaceable minerals. Such minerals go into everything from the radar-reflecting materials of stealth helicopters and drones to the guidance systems for Tomahawk cruise missiles. Now the U.S. military needs to look ahead and use war games to plan for possible disruptions to those mineral supply chains, a new report says.
Most of the rare earth minerals found in U.S. military systems such as smart bombs, night vision goggles and missile defense systems have come from China. The heat-resistant rhenium metal that goes into the jet engines for the F-35 and F-22 Raptor fighter aircraft overwhelmingly comes from Chile and Kazakhstan. The U.S. has already experienced past disruptions in these supply chains due to the local politics of countries such as China and Kazakhstan. [INFOGRAPHIC: Energy-Critical Elements to Watch ]
"The DoD [Department of Defense] needs may only represent five percent of the demand for a mineral, but that doesn't matter if you can't get something at all," said Christine Parthemore, director of the natural security program for the Center for a New American Security.
The U.S. military's enthusiastic use of commercial computers, smartphones and GPS also means that it has less control over the global supply chains behind those technologies. Such supply chains have vulnerabilities to political crises, market conditions or natural disasters, such as the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan this year.
"Dual use of technologies means that DoD needs to care about nondefense economic conditions, because those will impact the supply chains," Parthemore told InnovationNewsDaily.
The resource-hungry world
Parthemore spent the past two years researching the new report, which covers rare earth minerals, rhenium, niobium, tantalum, gallium and lithium. All of those minerals have high-tech uses in both the military and civilian worlds.
The global defense industry isn't the only sector clamoring for such minerals. A global rush for renewable energy technologies may mean even greater reliance upon such minerals, according to the report. Similarly, the new race for space and commercial spaceflight could add to the demand for minerals that can resist extreme conditions.
Growing interest in seabed exploration of the oceans may turn up new critical mineral supplies. But it may also spur territorial conflict among countries seeking new resources, such as in the Arctic Circle.
The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that enough deposits of critical minerals exist to meet long-term demand. But that leaves the possibility for short-term disruptions of existing supply chains, especially in cases where the U.S. relies mostly upon one country for certain minerals.
Sizing up the risks
Countries such as China and Japan have done well in strategizing regarding future mineral needs and sharing supply information between their companies and respective governments, Parthemore said. The U.S. military could do the same to begin getting a better sense of its mineral supply chains.
"Part of the problem is that nobody has enough clear information about supply chains to say what the next greatest risk is," Parthemore explained.
U.S. military war games could help planners become aware of possible disruptions to supply chains, Parthemore said. Preemptive action might mean building up a small national stockpile, or asking suppliers about whether their private stockpiles are ready to meet possible disruptions.
The U.S. government currently stockpiles tantalum and niobium, but not rhenium, gallium, lithium or rare earth minerals.
Tracking minerals to the source
The U.S. Department of Defense has already released an interim review of rare earth minerals in its supply chains, and is expected to report to Congress in the summer of 2011.
But Parthemore also pointed to the Department of Energy's report in December 2010, which identified what it considered to be critical minerals.
"A big step is just being more proactive in examining minerals that are not yet problematic, but may be in the future," Parthemore said.
For now, the U.S. can ease the supply chain risks with tactics that include recycling and researching substitute materials . It could even produce some minerals by itself rather than rely upon foreign suppliers, as in the case of rare earth minerals.
Still, the U.S. cannot practically escape reliance upon global supply chains in all cases.
"The more suppliers you have, the better, but suppliers don't always have to be domestic," Parthemore said.
See the full report here.