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08 Sep 21. Hicks Says DOD to Link Strategy, Capabilities To Meet China Challenge. The Defense Department prioritizes China as its long-term, pacing challenge because of its increased military confidence, willingness to take risks and China’s adoption of a coercive and aggressive approach to the Indo-Pacific region, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen H. Hicks said today.
In a Defense News forum, the deputy secretary said meeting such a challenge means DOD must link its strategy to its capabilities — and leadership is constructing the department’s National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review and fiscal year 23-27 president’s budget request to do so.
“We haven’t been resting,” Hicks said in prepared remarks. “There are many modernization efforts well underway at the department.”
For example, several months ago, Hicks began the Innovation Steering Group, which is empowered to bring analyses, ideas and recommendations forward to drive decision making on issues pertaining to DOD’s approach to science, technology and innovation. “It ensures that we get the right capabilities to our warfighters as quickly as possible,” she said.
In part, it does so by assessing existing innovation space and examining what changes are necessary in how the DOD acquires advanced systems, and it determines how the DOD might improve incorporating new technology into programs of record, Hicks explained. Among the group’s many efforts are:
- Bolstering DOD’s joint experimentation efforts so that its services work more closely together on new technology development and acquisition.
- Developing policies to adequately invest in necessary research, test and lab infrastructure.
- Ensuring the DOD innovation ecosystem — a complex web of more than 200 entities working on everything from research and development to rapid acquisition — is optimized to address the most pressing technical priorities.
“I firmly believe that national objectives should connect to the budget through concepts and capabilities,” Hicks said. “That is why I’ve put an emphasis on expanding joint experimentation to rapidly advance innovative operational concepts. To assist us in this effort, we developed the Rapid Defense Experimentation Reserve.”
Through the RDR initiative, the DOD is galvanizing joint experimentation efforts across the department in areas vital to joint warfighting, including logistics, fires, command and control, and capabilities to drive information advantage, she said.
Components have submitted hundreds of proposals for consideration. The DOD’s fiscal year 23 budget will reflect the most-promising ones for exploration and transition to full adoption, Hicks added.
Further, foundational to DOD’s joint concepts is an approach to leveraging data and artificial intelligence, she said, noting that data is the ammunition of the future and key to maintaining that operational advantage. Consequently, Hicks released a series of data decrees earlier this year that ensures that DOD data is visible, accessible, understandable, linked, trustworthy, interoperable and secure.
Many DOD joint concepts capitalize on both AI and data-driven technologies, and they will be rapidly advanced by the AI and Data Acceleration Initiative, she said.
Hicks said the ADA will produce data and operational capabilities for combatant commanders designed for real-time sensor data fusion, automated command and control tasking and autonomous system integration. The ADA will enable combatant commanders to act faster than our adversaries, she said.
“We will do so by working closely with combatant commands and make incremental advances in process automation and human-machine teaming,” Hicks said, adding that the ADA represents a software engineering approach that seeks continual infrastructure, algorithm and data advances.
In the first phase of ADA, which the DOD calls “discovery,” a team of four to eight people will travel to one of the combatant commands to work closely with commanders to explore their priorities and work to understand systemic issues impacting data-centric and automated workflow operations. That work will provide the foundation to establishing specific operational use cases, milestones and metrics, she explained.
Phases 2 and 3 will include embedding operation data teams, ensuring combatant commands are operating in-line with the DOD’s Data Strategy and the Data Decrees, and make sure the commands work closely with the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center to leverage AI and accelerate “critical workflows . . . and other tools to facilitate decision advantage in competition and conflict,” Hicks said.
“And while we undertake and monitor initiatives such as ADA, we know that a vibrant industrial base will be critical to creating and advancing new capabilities,” the deputy defense secretary said. “We want to harness from the very best of America in sourcing a broad, diverse set of potential partners and suppliers. That especially includes small businesses.”
Small businesses lead the nation in innovation by producing 16.5 times more patents than large patenting firms, and delivering rapid operational concepts, prototypes and demonstrators that allow the DOD to respond with agility and efficiency, Hicks said.
“Over the last decade, DOD has dramatically increased our small business spending in research and development by 83%. In that same time, we’ve expanded spending in small business manufacturing by 28%,” she said, adding that in the past decade, small businesses in the Defense Industrial Base have shrunk by over 40%.
The DOD is subsequently committed to examining the administrative barriers that small businesses face in working with the department, Hicks noted. “And we will take meaningful action to remove barriers where we can. [The DOD is] “also reinvigorating our small business programs to provide streamlined, easier-to-use entry points into the defense marketplace and ensuring better long-term planning for our small business programs.”
The deputy defense secretary also emphasized modernization and innovation are additionally at the heart of the DOD’s approach to climate change.
Spotlight: Tackling the Climate Crisis
“The effects of climate change are a national security issue, potentially impacting the department’s missions and operational plans, readiness, our installations and budget,” she said. “It does this by simultaneously increasing demands on the force while impacting our capacity to respond to those demands.”
The DOD is combating climate change by ensuring that our resilience is enhanced, she said. As an example, the DOD recently released a climate assessment tool and report that highlights installation exposure to climate change and identifies the correct resilience measures.
“Additionally, we are focused on mitigating the effects of climate change,” Hicks said, by making investments in both electric vehicles and charging infrastructure for the DOD’s 170,000 non-tactical vehicles.
“Significantly, our mission objectives and climate goals are in alignment,” the deputy defense secretary said. “We will leverage that alignment to modernize the force, strengthen our supply chains and compete with China for the energy technologies that are essential to our future success.” (Source: US DoD)
08 Sep 21. US Army working to recoup Afghanistan withdrawal costs. The U.S. Army is working to ensure the cost of the withdrawal from Afghanistan does not negatively impact its readiness and how it shapes its future budgets, top service leaders said at the Defense News Conference on Sept. 8.
“We did not envision Operation Allies Welcome when we submitted the [Program Objective Memorandum for fiscal 20]23,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth told Defense News. “That said, we’ve been working closely with [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] and Congress to make sure that our costs are covered.”
Operation Allies Welcome is the all-of-government mission to resettle in the U.S. vulnerable Afghans who aided Americans in operations in their home country.
The Army has already been able to secure $400m in reprogrammed dollars from elsewhere in the defense budget, Wormuth said, and OSD “is in conversation with congressional staff right now looking at another $1 billion in reprogramming.”
While the Army is working diligently to ensure its costs are covered, “as we know from this year, frankly, year-of-execution challenges can be very disruptive,” Wormuth said, noting the example of the U.S. Army National Guard’s response to the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riot, which had “a very big bill attached to that.”
The Pentagon was able to secure supplemental funding from Congress to cover those costs, “but we were concerned about what that could have done for training for the Guard,” Wormuth said.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville added, during the same interview, that he included a $1bn placeholder for unforeseen direct and enduring war costs and homeland contingency operations in his FY22 unfunded requirements list sent to Congress, as wartime funding is no longer separate from base budget funding.
In his wish list, McConville said that the end of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel at the end of FY21 would not result in immediate cost savings and that the Army would need an additional $470.4m to cover potential enduring and direct war costs.
The service would like an additional $570m to support homeland contingency operations, which could not be supported by the Army’s top funding line of $173b in FY22 as well, according to the list.
The whole FY22 Army budget request is a $3.6bn reduction from what was approved by Congress in FY21.
The need for additional wartime and homeland contingency funding is necessary, McConville said, because “we identify some contingency cost requirements for both domestic and global, we’ve seen that every single year … We have wildfires, we have storms, we have National Guard commitments and these are very difficult to anticipate a couple of years ahead and it’s the same thing overseas.”
The 82nd Airborne Division deploying to Kabul to help with the withdrawal is a prime example of that, he added.
“Our troops are going to go where they need to go,” McConville said.
The Army has also been “very careful,” Wormuth said, “to make sure that we manage our ability to maintain our readiness, even as we provide all the support to the safe havens as part of Operation Allies Welcome, so I’m happy to report that we’re not going to see a negative impact on readiness.”
The service is working to ensure that it is rotating troops supporting the different safe havens at various installations around the country, she noted.
“We’re confident we’re going to be able to manage this, even as we, of course, work closely with [the Department of Homeland Security], as the lead federal agency, to make sure that the mission doesn’t continue on for a very long period of time,” Wormuth said. (Source: Defense News)
07 Sep 21. Small Businesses Critical to DOD Mission, Official Says
Small businesses are agile and innovative, and every day they provide value in their contributions as prime and sub-tier suppliers to the defense mission, the director of the Defense Department’s Office of Small Business Programs said.
And there’s no question that the warfighter is benefiting from their capabilities on a daily basis, Farooq A. Mitha said.
“We have a lot of support from the president, the secretary [of defense], and the deputy secretary [of defense] to maximize small-business participation in DOD’s procurements,” he said.
While small businesses still face barriers to entry in doing business with DOD, Mitha said, “One of the things that we’re laser focused on is how we can reduce those barriers. In [an upcoming Federal Register] notice, we’re saying to small businesses, ‘You’re important. We need you.’ Our nation is facing really significant challenges on supply chain resilience in competition. The president has signed out executive orders on these issues, along with advancing racial equity through our procurement process. Businesses are at the center of that.”
Mitha said DOD wants to hear from small businesses on the challenges they face, because the department is tasked with developing a small business strategy and incorporating feedback from industries is critical to that strategy.
Small businesses are DOD’s No. 1 job creators and its No. 1 innovators, and they develop patents at a high rate, he said.
With near-peer competition from Russia and China, there is a risk for DOD to be reliant on foreign or single sources, Mitha said. “If we don’t have small businesses at the table, and at the forefront, we will not be able to rise to the occasion as a nation.”
DOD is trying to make it easier for the small business owner to do business with the department, by offering a plethora of resources, such as the procurement technical assistance centers, the small-business director said, adding that 95 of such centers are around the country, helping small businesses do business with DOD. The department also offers other programs such as its mentor protégé program, which helps pair small businesses with large businesses. Through that program, small businesses can learn from the larger businesses and get mentoring in engineering, technical support, business development assistance, and learn how to do business better with DOD. The department also has a small business innovation research program, and programs within the services that are working with startups.
“We’re looking to streamline the points of entry — one through our website, business.defense.gov,” Mitha pointed out. “We’re also looking to increase the connective tissue between these programs, so that businesses don’t have to go to 10 different places to get 10 different opportunities. We want them to be in one place, and we want to help businesses mature across these programs. We are making investments in a more coordinated way as we’re doing business with these small companies.”
Across the services and DOD components are business offices with more than 750 small business professionals that are working every day to ensure that DOD is developing acquisition strategies. They are also looking at our requirements and small businesses are considered at the earliest stages of developing strategies in how the department is going to solicit for any given requirement, he said.
“I think it’s important for small businesses to know that we have this work force and that they are there to engage and to work with them to do market research and that kind of thing,” he added.
Mitha says he is developing a tool that will help DOD’s acquisition workforce do better market research to help get better market intelligence on small businesses. “Part of the whole ‘workforce’ is we have to be able to support these small business professionals and give them the tools that they need to help bring more small businesses to the table,” he noted. (Source: US DoD)
07 Sep 21. A new tactical aircraft study underway could make certain what has until now been a suspicion: The U.S. Air Force is unlikely to purchase all of the 1,763 F-35A jets in its program of record.
The service is undertaking the study as it readies its fiscal 2023 budget and grapples with reducing the types of fighters it flies from seven to four main platforms by 2030, as prescribed by the service’s chief of staff.
The four platforms could include:
- The sixth-generation Next Generation Air Dominance system, or NGAD, which will supersede the F-22.
- The F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, which will make up the preponderance of the fleet.
- The F-15EX, which will replace much of the existing F-15 inventory.
- And either the F-16 or its replacement.
That last decision is the most significant for the F-35 program. The Air Force’s original plan was to purchase enough F-35s to supersede all of its F-16s. So if the Air Force keeps the F-16 — or develops a separate low-cost replacement for part of the F-16 fleet — does it need to buy as many F-35s?
“That’s the big question,” said Todd Harrison, an aerospace and defense budget expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Quite honestly, I don’t think there is any good news that will come out for the F-35 program for this. It’s only potential downsides. That’s real risk to the program.”
The Air Force has maintained that the F-35 program of record remains unchanged, but the ongoing tactical aircraft study is set to provide alternative models of what its fighter inventory could look like, potentially including proposals with fewer F-35s.
The idea that the Air Force would buy all 1,763 F-35As “has been the greatest work of fiction in defense budgeting for about a decade now,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group. “What we’re really talking about is the real number. It’s not 1,763 [F-35As]. Is it 1,200? Is it 1,400? Is it 1,000? We don’t know.”
Any plans to radically reshape the Air Force’s fighter inventory will come under scrutiny by new civilian leadership, which includes Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Andrew Hunter, who was nominated to become the service’s acquisition chief.
Kendall, who served as the Pentagon’s top acquisition official during the Obama administration, has criticized the F-35 program, calling the early years of its development “acquisition malpractice.” However, he grew more supportive of the aircraft during his tenure, in May calling it “the best tactical aircraft of its type in the world.”
Asked recently whether the Air Force should buy a low-cost fighter to replace some of its F-16s instead of purchasing F-35s, Kendall was noncommittal.
“One of the things I think we need to do is take a little bit of time now to sort through the options carefully and do some of that analysis,” he said during an Aug. 13 interview with Defense News. “Make sure we’ve got the requirements right, make sure we’ve got the concepts right for the future and then move as quickly as we can to field those capabilities.”
Finding the right mix
When the U.S. Air Force fought in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, it operated a fleet of about 4,000 fighters. Fast forward to 2021, and that inventory has shrunk to 2,000 aircraft with an average age of 28 years, said Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mark Kelly in an Aug. 16 interview with Defense News.
To win against a near-peer nation like Russia or China, the U.S. needs “high capability, high capacity and affordability,” he said.
“We have to be able to compete and fight well beyond the permissive counterinsurgency environments we’ve operated in for the last 20 years,” he added. “That takes a range of capabilities.”
The Air Force’s tactical aircraft study is meant to help the service identify the right mix of fighters needed to thwart advanced threats in 2030 and beyond, while at the same time establishing a plan for drawing down the large number of legacy aircraft types that put pressure on operations and maintenance accounts.
The study was first acknowledged by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown in February.
“I don’t know that I’ll come to an answer that here’s the exact mix,” Brown said at a May event. “I want to get us shaped in a direction because right now we have seven fighter fleets. My intent is to get down to about four.”
The service completed the first draft of the study, but Kendall has asked for additional analysis, said Lt. Gen. Clinton Hinote, the deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements.
The Office of the Secretary of Defense, which is performing several evaluations of its own, will also scrutinize the Air Force’s study. And the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office is carrying out a review of the Air Force’s and Navy’s sixth-generation fighter programs, which will evaluate the associated acquisition strategies, costs, technical maturity and schedule risks.
CAPE is also analyzing the Air Force’s “Digital Century Series” business case, a potential NGAD acquisition strategy through which aircraft manufacturers would continuously develop new fighter designs and compete to build small batches of that aircraft. During a July hearing, acting CAPE director Joseph Nogueira told lawmakers that study could be finished as early as August, but a public update on its status was unavailable by press time.
How low can it go?
Reports vary on how low the F-35 program of record could fall.
Internal documents by the Air Force’s future war-fighting cell indicated a plan to curb orders at 1,050 jets, Aviation Week reported in December. Will Roper, the Air Force’s acquisition executive during the Trump administration, called for F-35 purchases to be capped at about 800 units, CNN reported in May.
Any attempt to cut the program of record will face a difficult fight in Congress — particularly from lawmakers whose districts economically benefit from the jet’s production and who have successfully increased F-35 procurement beyond the Defense Department’s budget request since 2015.
That tradition may be in jeopardy as powerful lawmakers like House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., criticize the cost of operating, sustaining and upgrading the jet. But it remains to be seen whether Congress would be amenable to a cut to the overall buy, Harrison said.
“Earlier this year, we started hearing a lot more negative sentiment coming out of Congress about the F-35 program, and quite frankly the Air Force has seemed to soften on the program as well,” he said. “That may be a sign that congressional winds are shifting, that sentiment for the F-35 may have peaked. … But it may be too soon to call it. Negative talk does not necessarily translate into negative appropriations.”
Any changes to the program that result in cost growth could be anathema to lawmakers. F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin has spent more than a decade trying to lower the price of the F-35A to $80m or less, on par with a fourth-generation fighter. It finally accomplished that goal in a 2019 deal for the 13th batch of aircraft, after years of ramping up production and benefiting from economies of scale.
While Lockheed could argue cuts to the F-35 program might result in higher costs, analysts said the company will have to show its work. Unit costs for the aircraft are unlikely to fall much further than the current price of $78m per F-35A, Aboulafia said. To keep unit costs stable while reducing the overall buy, the Air Force could simply sustain its current production rate and cut off procurement early, Harrison explained.
F-35A jets gather at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, in 2020 for an exercise meant to test deployment capabilities. (R. Nial Bradshaw/U.S. Air Force)
Aboulafia added that while the cost of sustaining small aircraft fleets is “ruinous,” there may not be much financial benefit for sustaining 1,763 F-35As compared to a fleet around half that size.
In a statement, Lockheed Martin spokesman Brett Ashworth said the cost of the F-35 shouldn’t be the only criteria for evaluating the aircraft’s value. Instead, the Air Force needs to consider the “cost per effect.”
“The F-35 is the only aircraft in the world with the ability to get to the fight undetected, then gather, synthesize and share information with not only other aircraft, but units on the ground as well,” Ashworth said. “The F-35′s procurement costs include the sensors necessary to accomplish this mission, as well as the modernization and sustainment costs to maintain them. No fourth-generation aircraft can offer a similar capability. And the fight of tomorrow will only be more difficult and dangerous as next-generation threats evolve.”
Not all analysts agree the F-35 should be targeted for cuts. While the Air Force is right to reduce the number of tactical aircraft platforms it flies, it’s undervaluing the capability a stealthy, highly networked fighter like the F-35 would bring to a battle with a sophisticated adversary like China, said Rebecca Grant, an aerospace analyst with IRIS Independent Research.
“Let’s get the most sophisticated war-fighting platform that’s in full production, and let’s buy all of those,” she said. “Put the money into F-35 because you know that platform is useful for your newcomers — your unmanned [aircraft], your [expendable drones], your hypersonic weapons.”
Instead of following Brown’s plan to pare down the fighter fleet to four platforms, Grant contended the Air Force should retire the A-10, cancel the F-15EX program and replace all of its F-16s with F-35s.
“Stop making [a] self-imposed affordability number from 20 years ago their key war-fighting requirement,” she recommended. “Stop designing the future war-fighting force with cost as the dominant variable while throwing out [the requirement for] penetrating enemy airspace.”
To successfully argue the F-35 program should be cut, both Harrison and Aboulafia said the Air Force must shed more light on the “missing variables” of its future fighter proposal. Specifically, it needs to clarify details about plans to replace early block F-16s and field the sixth-generation NGAD family of systems.
“A lot is going to hinge on: Can they show Congress that they have a credible replacement for capabilities?” Harrison said.
So far, the Air Force has kept most information about NGAD under wraps, including what technologies will make up the family of systems, how much it will cost, how many will be purchased and when it will be fielded.
Meanwhile, Brown said new design and manufacturing techniques, such as digital engineering, could allow the service to develop a “four-and-a-half-[generation] or fifth-gen-minus” fighter to replace early block F-16s at a lower cost than the F-35.
However, Harrison is skeptical such an aircraft could be built at a cheaper price tag than the advanced F-16s rolling off Lockheed Martin’s production line in Greenville, South Carolina.
“That just doesn’t seem to hold a lot of water, the idea that we could somehow now make a fourth-gen aircraft cheaper than these existing fourth-gen platforms that are way down the learning curve already, and their development is already a sunk cost,” Harrison said.
The particulars of how many or what types of fighters the Air Force will need are uncertain, but one thing is clear, said Kelly: Going forward, the service will have to walk a tightrope, balancing the capability and number of aircraft it needs with what it can afford.
“I don’t see any of the programs accelerating or expanding into these big exponential increases in a buy, just because of the realities of the budget,” he said. (Source: Defense News)
07 Sep 21. US military primacy in a post-Afghanistan world. Following the United States’ disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan, analysts have questioned the US’ ongoing military primacy and its commitment to traditional allies.
In the era of 24-hour news coverage and a constant flow of videos taken from phone cameras beamed across social media, the US could not hide from their widely publicised and haphazard withdrawal from Afghanistan.
While their military approach to the withdrawal left many analysts questioning the US’ strategic capabilities from the White House down, the far more pressing challenge of global primacy from superpowers such as China left the world wondering whether the US’ military and geo-strategic supremacy had come to an end.
This is the view of Brahma Chellany writing in Project Syndicate and posted in ASPI’s The Strategist last month. Chellany, a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, went as far as to argue that the debacle put a definitive end to the “Pax Americana” and the overall supremacy of the West.
“At a time when its global pre-eminence was already being severely challenged by China, the United States may never recover from the blow this strategic and humanitarian disaster delivers to its international credibility and standing. The message it delivers to US allies is that they count on America’s support when they most need it at their own peril,” Chellany argued.
Indeed, the strategic signals of the chaotic withdrawal led Chellany to question the US’ commitment to its allies.
“The dramatic collapse of the Afghan defences and then the government was directly linked to the US betrayal. Biden admits Trump ‘drew US forces down to a bare minimum of 2,500’. By refusing to retain that small military footprint and by ordering a rapid exit at the onset of the annual fighting season, Biden pulled the rug out from under the Afghan military’s feet, thus facilitating the Taliban’s sweep,” Chellany continued.
More perplexing, however, was the White House’s refusal to take ownership over any mishandling of the crisis. In an address, President Biden rejected the idea of US maladministration throughout the withdrawal, placing the blame squarely at the feet of Afghanistan’s government and the Afghan National Army, sending yet further signals to US allies.
“The truth is: this did unfold more quickly than we anticipated. So, what’s happened? Afghanistan political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military gave up, sometimes without trying to fight,” President Biden said.
Such commentary from the White House raised the ire of many international spectators. Matt Zeller, war veteran and former CIA analyst, not only commended the dedication of many ANA soldiers, but also described how many were left ill-equipped to beat the Taliban.
“The idea that the Afghan military should be blamed for this? Do you know how many casualties the Afghan military took in an average year? More than the United States did in 20. When you’re not getting paid on a regular basis, when you’re not getting fuel, when no one is supply you with ammunition and yet you’re still showing up to the fight, how dare us for having to blame these people for not having the audacity to be able to survive a Taliban onslaught,” Zeller said on MSNBC.
Critically, the failure of the US’ withdrawal strategy including the evacuation of humanitarian visa holders damaged the perception of the West as dependable allies. Chellany believes that such implications will embolden the US’ enemies to leverage emerging fault lines between the US and their traditional allies.
“By contrast, China’s interests will be aided by the Taliban’s defeat of the world’s most powerful military. The exit of a vanquished America creates greater space for China’s coercion and expansionism, including against Taiwan, while underscoring the irreversible decline of US power,” Chellany continues.
To Chellany, US abandonment of allies is not a particularly new phenomenon. He cites the example of the US-Kurdish alliance, where their Kurdish allies were “dumped” before a Turkish offensive in 2019.
Just last week, Australia celebrated the 70th anniversary of the ANZUS treaty. In the face of an increasingly unstable Indo-Pacific, Australia must maintain its commitment to building a sovereign defence industry that is capable of protecting our national resilience, and enhancing our warfighters with cutting-edge equipment to fight tomorrow’s battles. (Source: Defence Connect)
07 Sep 21. U.S. Startups Seek to Claw Back China’s Share of ‘Technology Minerals’ Market. Atop an arid mountain about an hour’s drive from Las Vegas, an excavator scooped up giant boulders mined from a nearby open pit and dumped them into a machine designed to reduce them to pebbles about the size of a marble.
Down in the pit, some 500 feet below, miners were preparing explosive charges that would blast basalt out of the mountain later that afternoon. Inside that rock were rare earth minerals, 17 different elements valued as building blocks for some of today’s most ubiquitous technologies — everything from electric cars to smartphones.
Despite all the activity and the dozens of workers moving tons of material at the site, Michael Rosenthal, chief operating officer of MP Materials, said mining is only about 10 percent of what the company did there.
“The rest is chemistry,” he said.
The Mountain Pass mine has existed for some 60 years and is the only one of its kind currently in operation. It’s renowned for its high concentration of rare earth elements, sometimes called the “technology minerals.”
The elements that occupy 17 spots on the periodic table are categorized as “strategic minerals” by the U.S. government and therefore considered vital for national defense. Along with smartphones, they are used in fiber-optic cables, medical devices and high-performance magnets, which are needed in a host of machines, including jet fighters, wind turbines — and most importantly on the commercial side — electric vehicle engines.
“From an economic security perspective and defense perspective, magnets are very, very important to national security,” Rosenthal said.
The problem is that China has a near monopoly on the complex process of separating 16 of the 17 elements currently used in these technologies from the source material and refining them to a point where they can be made into useful metals and materials.
The Biden administration’s 100-day review, “Building Resilient Supply Chains, Revitalizing American Manufacturing and Fostering Broad-Based Growth,” released in June, devoted an entire section on strategic and critical materials and minerals, including its thoughts on rare earths.
“The United States imports substantially greater quantities of rare earth elements in value-added products. … Implicit in this trade phenomenon is the gradual decline in value-creation, innovation, research and human capital development,” it stated. That imbalance with China will only increase with the expected growth of green energy technology such as electric vehicles and wind turbines, the review added.
“Rare earths” are a misnomer and are not that rare. China does have an abundance of them, but they are also found in concentrations high enough to mine in several U.S. states and other nations throughout the world. They are further divided into two categories, light and heavy, with the heavier ones considered more difficult to refine and thus, more valuable.
MP Materials — along with three other companies interviewed — are seeking to exploit the abundance of rare earths found in the United States and to end China’s monopoly on their refinement and return some of the market share back to the United States.
Separating the elements from the host rock and further refining them to the point where they are separate from each other is a complex process requiring several steps.
Rosenthal explained that the boulders being fed into the grinder may look the same, but they’re not being selected by happenstance. Every day, geologists drill holes in the mine, mark them with GPS coordinates, and use X-ray fluorescence on the samples to determine the rare earth element content — specifically which and how much of the 17 elements are in that part of the mine. The result is a daily “recipe” to determine a blend.
Extracting the most valuable rare earth elements as efficiently and cheaply as possible is the road to profitability, Rosenthal said.
For example, the Mountain Pass mine’s rare earth content is almost 50 percent composed of cesium (Ce), which is used in glass making and polishing. While abundant, it is not where the company sees future profits. Neodymium (Nd), dysprosium (Dy) and samarium (Sm) — three of the four elements that can make high-performance magnets — are now viewed as the biggest money makers. The company that previously ran the mine focused its business on cesium, which Rosenthal considers one of the main reasons it ceased operations after three years.
Rosenthal moved on to a building where the pebbles that emerged from the giant grinder are further crushed into sub-100-micron particles.
Those are fed into towering vats of water and further separated from each other. A chemical process removes the waste while the rare earths float to the top.
Yet, at this point, the rare earths are still not refined enough for them to be used to serve as technology “building blocks.” The final step involves heat — described as a slow-roasting process — that delivers the purity required. That is all done in China.
The raw material resulting from the second step is packed into giant white bags and moved to the foot of the mountain.
MP Materials has aspirations to not only refine these crucial elements at Mountain Pass, but to make high-intensity magnets as well.
Contractors near the mine were at work building the new facility where light rare earth elements will be refined to the point where they can be used in manufacturing.
In December, MP Materials earned a $10m Defense Department grant to help it build a $200m refinement facility for light rare earths. The company broke ground on the building in 2021 and expects it to be operational by 2022.
As is the case for many technologies, the U.S. military market for rare earths is crucial, but would not be large enough to sustain a domestic industry. Magnets are used in every electric system that moves. But the ones needed to spin a radar, for example, are not the everyday magnets found on refrigerators. Neodymium magnets, for example, are prized by the consumer market for their strength and low costs.
The military and its contractors will eventually benefit from the commercial demand for magnets and the other elements needed for other systems by no longer having to depend on China, Rosenthal said.
Meanwhile, flatbed trucks hauled the giant white bags of raw material to the western edge of the facility where they were lined up waiting for shipment. Next stop, the port of Long Beach, California, then China.
Rosenthal acknowledged the irony. But until there is some domestic refinement capability, MP Materials has no choice but to send the raw material to China, he said. The publicly traded company would not be profitable and currently employing 200 workers if it had to wait for the refinement facility to come online. The bags would be sitting ready to go nowhere.
MP Materials spokesman Matt Sloustcher said critics have pointed out that the company has a Chinese investor with an 8 percent stake in the operation. However, this investor doesn’t have a seat on the board of directors and the deal has been reviewed and approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, he said.
There will be space in the facility to process the heavy elements later and studies on how to accomplish that are ongoing, Rosenthal said.
Meanwhile, other companies are entering the rare earth mining business in the United States, with their sights set on the burgeoning high-performance magnet market.
One of them is the Round Top Mine near El Paso, Texas, operated by USA Rare Earth, which also has aspirations to mine, process and then convert the rare earths to magnets, said its CEO and director, Pini Althaus.
A preliminary economic assessment report showed that of the mine’s important elements, one-third was composed of rare earths — including all four that can produce magnets — one-third lithium — needed to make lithium-ion batteries — and one-third gallium, a vital element used to make semiconductor chips used in 5G technology.
“It’s a very strange geological anomaly to have rare earths and lithium sitting side by side,” he said.
Deeper inside the mountain are deposits of beryllium, another strategic mineral used by Defense Department contractors to make alloys.
There are no plans to mine the beryllium now, but the mine could produce 36 tons of the mineral per year, he said.
Despite all these bonus minerals, it’s the magnet-making materials that interests the company the most, he said.
The company has also opened a rare earth critical minerals processing facility at Wheat Ridge, Colorado, which is a mining technology hub in the United States. It is a pilot plant that will eventually be scaled up and moved to Texas. The company hopes to be able to demonstrate refinement by the end of the year or early 2022, with full commercial production taking place in Texas by 2023, Althaus said.
Both Round Top and Mountain Pass executives said they want to be able to take feedstock from other sources and do the refinement there so they don’t have to send it to China.
“Then hopefully that material stays in the U.S. supply chain,” Althaus said.
“One of the processes we’re working on is optimizing the feedstock we are starting to receive from other mines around the world,” he added, including one in Australia.
USA Rare Earth has also purchased a mothballed magnet manufacturing facility in North Carolina from Hitachi Metals America Ltd. and is reconditioning that plant with a goal of producing 2,400 tons of magnets per year. It should be operational by the second half of 2022, he said.
Another possible source of rare earths is the nation’s coal seams. A Department of Energy National Energy Technology Laboratory study found rare earth element concentrations exceeding 300 parts per million in several U.S. coal regions, including Illinois, Northern Appalachia, Central Appalachia, the Rocky Mountain coal basins and the Pennsylvania Anthracite region.
“We found that in certain seams in Kentucky, there is a very high mineral content in the coal itself that may date back to volcanic activity so many years ago,” said David McCarthy, CEO of McCarthy Merchant Capital, which is raising funds for a company, Digital Commodities LLC.
Previous concepts were to separate the rare earths and other minerals from coal ash after it was burned.
“The problem with that is you have to burn the coal to get the ashes,” he said. “That’s not a green alternative.”
McCarthy is raising funds to establish a refinery in Harlan, Kentucky.
Researchers from the University of Kentucky have discovered a patent-pending way to pulverize the coal into a fine dust, then spin the powder and separate the elements in a process McCarthy described as a “tornado in a can.”
This solves two “American problems” — reliance on China for rare earths and the decline of the coal industry, he said.
The coal seams not only contain all the rare earth elements, but other strategic minerals such as lithium — also used in electric vehicles for lithium-ion batteries — and precious metals such as gold and silver, he said.
“We’re finding a new green use for coal in an area of economic hardship,” he said. His fund is selling securities for a rare earth company and a separate offering for the precious metals.
The company is building a processing facility in Harlan that it hopes to have running by the end of the year. It is about 50 percent complete, but not all of the financing is in place.
“The quicker we get funding, the quicker we finish,” McCarthy said.
It also has a laboratory in Charlottesville, Virginia, where it is running experiments that McCarthy said will help them to mine and separate 2,400 tons of raw material per day at the beginning of the operation.
Caldera Holdings, which owns the Pea Ridge iron ore mine in Washington County, Missouri, is seeking funding and Department of Energy grants to create America’s first 100 percent green steel manufacturing plant. It would forgo using hydrocarbons and use nearby nuclear power plants’ energy to manufacture the steel.
The company’s president, James Kennedy, also wants to exploit the rare earths found in the mine’s leavings as byproducts. The problem is that they contain a high concentration of thorium, an element used to make nuclear fuel.
To Kennedy, a watershed moment that helped usher in China’s dominance in the rare earths market was a 1980 U.S. government rule that regulated the handling of thorium. Until then, rare earths were extracted as byproducts at several U.S. mines, especially copper. The regulation forced the mines to put the leavings aside and seal them up, or risk liability, thus cutting off the most economical way of extraction at the dawn of a new technological age.
Kennedy — a public and strident critic of current efforts to revive the U.S rare earths industry — said the only way to compete with the Chinese monopoly is by setting up a cooperative that exploits the inexpensive leavings already extracted, and then putting the thorium in a national stockpile.
“The U.S. could meet 85 percent of the global demand for rare earths if they would just solve the problem they created for themselves in 1980 when they defined rare earths byproducts of nuclear fuel,” he said.
All four executives interviewed made claims of having the most of one element, or the richest veins, and some accused the other mines of lacking one element or another to make magnets. MP’s Rosenthal, USA Rare Earth’s Althaus and McCarthy all said their companies — or proposed companies — could withstand a price war brought on by China.
There are other companies seeking investors and applying for mining permits in Texas, Nebraska and Wyoming — to name a few locations — as well as plans to recycle rare earths from used electric engines or other devices.
“The truth is,” Althaus said, “nobody has everything that is required.” The Round Top Mine at its peak would only account for a small percentage of the rare earths needed for the magnet market. The 2,400 tons of magnets the mothballed plant could produce would be a drop in the bucket with early estimates calling for as much as 20 times that figure as the electric vehicle market ramps up, he said.
The Biden administration’s 100-day review said: “Independent of permitting activities, a reasonable industry benchmark for the development of a mineral-based strategic and critical materials project is not less than 10 years.”
Althaus said: “We need a number of mines in the next five to 10 years, otherwise, we will still be 80 to 90 percent dependent on China.” That includes processing plants, he said.
McCarthy added: “When we put our heads together, we can solve these problems.”
Rare Earth Elements 101
Rare earth elements occupy 17 spots on the periodic table. The U.S. government has designated them as “strategic minerals” and therefore vital for national defense.
“Rare” is somewhat of a misnomer because they are found throughout the world in high enough concentrations for mining. For the most part, the 17 rare earths are found together, but some deposits have higher concentrations of some elements than others. Separating them from their host rock and each other is a complex, multi-step process.
They are divided into two further categories depending on their atomic numbers — “light rare earths” and “heavy rare earths” — with the heavy elements considered the most valuable. There is some debate within scientific circles as to which elements belong in which category.
Their importance as building blocks for modern technology is evolving as researchers continue to find uses for them in such everyday items as smartphones, fiber-optics and medical equipment such as MRIs.
However, the application driving the current rush to mine and refine rare earths are high-performance magnets manufactured with neodymium (Nd), dysprosium (Dy), samarium (Sm) and sometimes (Ho) holmium. These magnets are needed to supply the growing market in electric engines along with computer hard disk drives, precision-guided munitions and wind turbines.
The following is a list of the 17 elements and some of their uses in modern technology.
Found in abundance but low global production levels have limited the development of applications.
Uses: dental lasers; solid oxide fuel cells; aluminum alloys used in baseball bats; bicycle frames; gun cylinders.
Created red color in 1960s TV sets. Also found in lunar rocks collected by Apollo astronauts.
Uses: superconducting material; cancer treatment; lithium-ion batteries; spark plugs; camera lenses.
Applications often overlap with cerium.
Uses: nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries; petroleum refinement; automobile catalytic converters.
The most abundant rare earth.
Uses: decolorizing and polishing glass; arc-lights; making aluminum alloys.
Properties used to give ceramics and glasses yellow/green color.
Uses: combined with nickel to make alloys for aircraft engines; nickel metal hydride batteries; fiber-optic amplifier; magnets.
Neodymium magnets are preferred by industry for their strength and low
Other Uses: welders goggles; tanning booths; color glass for violet, wine-red and gray.
The one “non-commercial” rare earth element. Rare in nature; mostly produced in laboratories.
Uses: atomic batteries found in pacemakers; guided missiles; radios.
One of the elements in demand for high-density magnets.
Uses: samarium-cobalt batteries that can withstand extremely high temperatures.
Named after the continent of Europe.
Uses: color red in TV sets; possible use in quantum computing chips.
An element with few large-scale applications but many niche applications.
Uses: nuclear marine propulsion; nuclear shielding; X-ray machines; fuel cells; to enhance MRI images to detect small tumors.
A malleable yet ductile element.
Uses: fuel cells; alloys; flat-panel speakers; naval sonars.
A silvery luster element also in demand to make high-performance magnets.
Other Uses: neutron-absorbing control rods in nuclear reactors; hard disk drives; lasers.
Has the highest magnetic strength of any element.
Uses: artificially generated magnetic fields; neutron absorption to regulate nuclear reactors (burnable poison); possible use in
A fluorescent, pink-colored element also found in human bones.
Uses: medical lasers; malleable alloys; neutron-absorbing control rods; to boost speed of high-capacity fiber-optic lines.
One of the least abundant rare earths.
Uses: portable X-ray machines; solid-state military and medical lasers.
Found in small quantities and difficult to refine.
Uses: atomic clocks; lasers used in quantum computing; strengthening steel.
Known as the rarest and most expensive rare earth to refine.
Uses: catalyst in petroleum refineries that make jet and diesel fuel; cancer treatments for stomach, pancreas and intestines. (Source: Defense Now/https://nationalinterest.org)
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