Chinese Rare Earths Vital To US Military Equipment : The Two-Way China produces more than 90 percent of the globe's rare earths. Minerals that, it turns out, are vital in huge numbers of US military equipment, and now China is limiting the export of the metals.
NPR logo Chinese Rare Earths Vital To US Military Equipment

Chinese Rare Earths Vital To US Military Equipment

--FILE--A truck transports rare earth to be exported at the Port of Lianyungang in Lianyungang city, east Chinas Jiangsu province, 5 September 2009 Xie zhengyi/ICHPL Imaginechina hide caption

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Xie zhengyi/ICHPL Imaginechina

It's one of those situations where you scratch your head and wonder, what were they thinking?

Rare earths are used to make metals like neodymium and samarium which are used in all sorts of things. Hybrid car engines, speakers, that kind of thing. Oh, and lots and lots of military hardware. From Bloomberg Businessweek.

Military officials are only now conducting an inventory of where and how U.S. suppliers use the obscure but essential substances — including those that silence the whoosh of Boeing Co. helicopter blades, direct Raytheon Co. missiles and target guns in General Dynamics Corp. tanks.

The reason they're reviewing it is that over 90% of all rare earths are exported from China. And China is starting to limit the export of the metals, driving up costs dramatically.

“The Pentagon has been incredibly negligent,” said Peter Leitner, who was a senior strategic trade adviser at the Defense Department from 1986 to 2007. “There are plenty of early warning signs that China will use its leverage over these materials as a weapon.”

Earlier this week China briefly stopped exports to Japan of the metal.

The United States used to have a rare earth industry, we have the second largest deposits in the world, after China. But it was just cheaper to buy it from China, despite the national security implications.

A Chinese supplier makes neodymium magnets for hybrid- electric motors the Navy is developing to cut fuel use of Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, according to the GAO. The agency also says Lockheed Martin Corp.’s SPY-1 radar on Aegis destroyers contains samarium-cobalt magnets that will need to be replaced over 35 years. China is virtually the only supplier of yttrium needed for laser gun sights in the General Dynamics Abrams tank, the U.S. Geological Survey says.

Read the whole thing, fascinating piece.