Rare Earth Metals and F-35 Supply Chain

Rare earth elements (REEs) are a collection of 17 elements composed of cerium, dysprosium, erbium, europium, gadolinium, holmium, lanthanum, lutetium, neodymium, praseodymium, promethium, samarium, scandium, terbium, thulium, ytterbium, and yttrium. These elements are highly valued for their “conductive and magnetic properties” (Chang 2022). REEs are of vital importance to high-tech devices and their ability to function, including computer hard drives, telephones, televisions, and hybrid or electronic vehicles. Furthermore, rare earth metals (REM) are heavily used in the defence industry to integrate electronic displays, sonar, laser, and guiding systems into modern weaponry. Therefore, REM quickly became a strategic component for the defence industry’s supply chains, and, at the same time, embodied a geopolitical challenge to secure countries’ strategic autonomy regarding these precious materials. When looking at the main global suppliers of REEs, China finds itself in the first position, controlling around 80% of REE production (Kelemen & Stonor 2022). The recent tensions in the Taiwan Strait re-introduced the reality of Western REE dependency on China to the agenda. Washington finds itself in a difficult position regarding its industry’s reliance on China’s REEs. Therefore, Beijing’s dominance over such a strategic resource seriously undermines the West’s ability to impose economic sanctions on China. In the scenario of a confrontation between Washington and Beijing, China could decide to cut its REE supply to the US, which as a consequence could exhaust its stocks in “less than 90 days” (Kelemen & Stonor 2022).

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