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Time to address China supremacy of vital minerals

At the close of World War II, the United States revealed one of the secrets to the Allied success. It was the discovery in 1942 of a large tungsten deposit in the hills outside of Yellow Pine, Idaho.

Tungsten is a rare mineral used to harden artillery shells. With those shells, enemy armored vehicles and tanks were blown up.

Tungsten was also used to harden bullets, and its discovery in Yellow Pine was credited with having shortened the war by at least one year and saved the lives of a million American soldiers.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower sent a telegram to the mine owners, thanking them for their help in the war effort.

Today, the United States again finds itself in a wartime situation where minerals are critically important to the outcome. With wars raging in Israel and Ukraine, rare earth minerals turn out to be indispensable in the production of critical weapons, ranging from precision-guided armored shells and smart bombs to aircraft engines, lasers, sonar, nighttime goggles, and bullet-proof vests.

But China, a U.S. adversary, dominates global production of rare earths. China controls 80% of the world supply, and it is using its grip on the mining and processing of rare minerals to gain geopolitical and military leverage.

Likewise, with copper, large quantities of which are used in 155-millimeter, laser-guided artillery shells. Chinese companies have been buying copper mines in Chile, Australia, and other countries.

This dependence on China could have far-reaching consequences were China to cut off shipments of rare earths, copper, and other vital minerals needed not only for arms production but batteries for clean-energy technologies like electric cars.

Because the United States and its allies need weapons to repel aggressors, the risks of mineral dependency on China are far too great and increasing. China recently announced it will require foreign companies to apply for permits to receive shipments of graphite, a critical metal.

The U.S. is 100% dependent on China for graphite.

Earlier, China limited the export of two minerals -- gallium and germanium -- that are used for military technologies, virtually cutting off all access to those supplies. And during tense trade negotiations with the U.S., it threatened to cut off rare earths.

This new reality requires a new way of thinking and talking about how to bolster mineral production in the United States and friendly countries -- recognizing the considerable benefits this would bring to U.S. security.

Jim Constantopoulos is a geology professor at Eastern New Mexico University. Contact him at:

[email protected]