LISTEN UP

China’s Stranglehold on U.S. Defense Tech

Many in Washington are sounding the alarm about the dangers of cyberattacks affecting new technology. But what if the very materials to make said technology were no longer available?

11.27.15 6:00 AM ET

Last month the Defense Department released guidelines to reduce the chance it buys components susceptible to cyberattacks. While cyberattacks raise the possibility that components will stop functioning the moment they are needed, another fundamental risk facing the military supply line may be even more prominent: acquiring the components at all.

Weapons of today have evolved to a point where they need to be smart, fast, light, and stealthy. These new demands force the military to rely upon more elements on the periodic table than ever before. Properties of specialty metals—a grouping of metals produced in limited quantities in the hundreds or thousands of tons compared to base metals which are produced in the millions of tons—have helped build a new generation of warfighters. Just a sprinkling of a few rare metals helps turn dumb, gravity bombs into intelligent, precision-guided missiles. These elements from rare earths to indium are so critical and often irreplaceable due to each’s unique properties, meaning a lack of them creates enormous vulnerabilities. And they abound in all our cutting-edge weaponry, from our smallest missile to our largest aircraft carrier.

The F-35 is a flying periodic table. Beryllium fasteners hold the plane together because of the metal’s weight and strength; gallium amplifies the radar’s signal; and tantalum sits in the capacitors needed for the plane’s controls. As Maj. General Robert Latiff (Ret.), a Ph.d. in material science, notes, without these materials the military would revert to 1960s or 1970s performance.

The challenge to supply security for rare metals is that they are produced in just a few countries, often just one. And because China dominates the mining and production of more than 40 percent of all critical metals, supply security is a geostrategic concern. What’s more, since rare-metal supply lines take more than a decade to build—due to the challenges of financing, permit acquisition and scientific expertise for extracting the metal from the minerals—we cannot just quickly make more in times of need.

The crux of the challenge in securing supply is that no one truly knows what’s in our weapon systems. In 2014, the Department’s Inspector General stated (PDF), the Defense Department “lacked a comprehensive and reliable process” to adequately evaluate market and environmental risks that could impact supply and demand of one set of rare metals. This failure increased the risk that material shortfalls will adversely affect critical weapons systems and military readiness.

For nearly five years, I traveled the world to understand the flow of rare metals and would be at a loss to say how a metal weaves its way from the mine to missile. These specialty metals are not commodities like oil, traded on open exchanges. They change hands in backroom deals; sometimes smuggled out of countries by either mislabeling the metal on export forms at ports or ferrying out on trucks. And they wind their way through various refiners, processors, component manufacturers until it ends up in a weapon. Because these high-tech systems are so complex, supply lines are sometimes 10 layers deep. Not even tech companies, which rely on the specialty metals, know where they come from.

The computer manufacturer Dell notes in its conflict minerals report that it is “difficult if not impossible to trace the minerals’ origin.” (PDF) If Dell isn’t able to assess its computer supply lines, the military, with its constantly shifting needs and fleets of jets, boats and IT hardware, will never know where all the materials in every turbine, actuator and night vision goggle come from.

And the concern for finding these specialty resources will only become more challenging with military advancement. “The demand for stronger, lighter, greener yet less expensive materials continues to outstrip availability,” the defense contractor Raytheon notes (PDF).

While fear over rare metals may sound abstract, attacking a country’s metal supply line is a well-used tactic used throughout history. During World War II, the U.S. attacked German supply lines, robbing the country of numerous specialty metals including tungsten, which was critical for armor-piercing bullets to tools to make tanks. Today’s supply chains are far more vulnerable because of the number of materials and the exacting metal specifications the military needs means only few sources, sometimes one, can produce the materials and components from them.

So what can the U.S. government do?

Bolstering resource security needs a total government response. The government created a Strategic Materials Protection Board in 2007 to examine resource security but it has not met regularly (PDF); this needs to change.

While the knee-jerk reaction to resource security is stockpiling—it’s often ineffective for the government to do for these metals because of the numerous grades manufacturers require. What’s more, storing metals without the manufacturer to turn it into a component is like stockpiling oil without having a refinery: useless. To create a more robust supply base, we should require military suppliers to carry a buffer stock of certain material and components and create incentives for domestic companies to build them in the U.S., in addition to a limited national stockpile. Researching how to turn minerals into metals more efficiently to create them more efficiently should also be a high priority.

Since supply security is as much a diplomatic issue as a defense one, the State Department would be well served to open a materials division as it had in the 1950s to work with other governments to secure supply chains. We should also create a sister agency to the International Energy Agency, called the International Material Agency, which would analyze and forecast the mineral markets. Increasing transparency over these markets would aid investment and understanding. Just as the U.S. cannot prevent every type of military attack, some supply line risk will always remain.

The military’s decision to shore up its supply line to reduce cyber vulnerability is an important step to increase security of its weapon systems. But we must also not forget that not having the materials and components in a time of crisis is just as perilous.

David S. Abraham is the author of The Elements of Power, and heads the Technology, Rare and Electronic Materials Center.