Rare Earth Elements in National Defense
This report discusses rare earth elements used in Department of Defense (DOD) weapon systems, current problematic oversight issues, and options for Congress to consider. Rare earth elements (also referred to as REEs and by the shorthand term “rare earths”) include the lanthanide series of 15 elements on the periodic table, beginning with atomic number 57 (lanthanum) and extending through element number 71 (lutetium). Two other elements, yttrium and scandium, often occur in the same rare earth deposits and possess similar properties.1 These 17 elements are referred to as “rare” because while they are relatively abundant in quantity, they appear in low concentrations in the earth’s crust and economic extraction and processing is both difficult and costly.
The United States is a major consumer of products containing rare earth elements. These elements are incorporated into many sophisticated technologies with both commercial and defense applications. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the United States was the leader in global production of rare earths. Since that time, processing and manufacturing of the world’s supply of rare earths and downstream value-added forms such as metals, alloys, and magnets have shifted almost entirely to China, in part due to lower labor costs and lower environmental standards.
A series of events and ensuing press reports have highlighted the rare earth “crisis,” as some refer to it. One such event occurred in July 2010, when China’s Ministry of Commerce announced that China would cut its exports of rare earth minerals by about 72%. In September 2010, China temporarily cut rare earth exports to Japan, apparently over a maritime dispute. This dispute highlighted the potential for disruption of the world’s supply of rare earth materials.
Some Members of Congress are concerned with the potential for a nearly total U.S. dependence on foreign sources for rare earth elements and the implications of this dependence for national security. Congress has been interested in the rare earth issue largely because:
the world is almost wholly dependent on a single national supplier—China—for rare earths;
the United States has no production of some heavy rare earths (terbium to lutetium and yttrium);
the United States has little production of rare earth metals, powders, and NeFeB magnets;
there may be repercussions if these materials are not available for commercial and defense applications; and
the rare earths supply chain vulnerability question may adversely affect the ability of the United States to plan strategically for its national security needs.
1 Long, Keith R., S. Van Gosen, Bradley, Foley, Nora K., and Cordier, Daniel. The Principal Rare Earth Elements Deposits of the United States—A Summary of Domestic Deposits and a Global Perspective. USGS Scientific Investigations Report, 2010-5220, November 16, 2020, 96 p., at http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2010/5220/. Also see USGS Fact Sheet 087-02, and USGS Mineral Commodity Summaries, January 2011, at http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/ pubs/commodity/rare_earths/mcs-2011-raree.pdf.
2 According to then Andy Davis, Manager of Public Affairs for Molycorp, the company was stockpiling heavy concentrates known as SEG (primarily consisting of samarium, europium, and gadolinium.)
Congressional Research Service