Rare earth elements (REEs) are crucial to the U.S. military, but China holds the key. China possesses 36 percent of the world's known rare earth reserves and controls 70 percent of the world's extractive capacity and an astonishing 90 percent of the processing capacity. This dominance in extraction and processing gives China a commanding position in the global REE market, raising concerns about resource security and international dependency.
REEs are critical to defense technology as modern weapons can't be built, repaired, or maintained without them. Everything from F-35 fighter aircraft to cellphones depends on rare earths, as do critical space technologies, electronics, and semiconductors. Of the 50 minerals designated as critical by the U.S. Geological Survey, 17 are considered rare earths. Although the supply of REEs is sufficient to meet defense needs, extracting a small amount of rare earths requires mining a large quantity of waste materials.
In February 2022, the Biden White House issued a statement acknowledging how critical minerals provide the building blocks for many modern technologies and are essential to U.S. national security and economic prosperity. The statement went on to outline steps that the administration was taking to secure the U.S. supply chain. However, the problem remains unresolved.