The Metallurgical Achilles’ Heel of the United States – by Richard (Rick) Mills (Ahead of the Herd.com – March 2012)

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“The United States has consistently maintained that a strong domestic minerals and metals industry is an essential contributor to the nation’s economic and security interests…The United States has a fundamental interest in maintaining a competitive minerals and metals sector that will continue to contribute significantly to the nation’s economic strength and military security. The industry represents an $87 billion enterprise that employs over 500,000 U.S. workers and provides the material foundation for U.S. manufacturing.” The 1980 National Academy of Sciences executive summary of “Competitiveness of the U.S. Minerals and Metals Industry” 

A concise summary of U.S. mineral vulnerabilities was presented to the Industrial Readiness Panel of the House Armed Services Committee as early as 1980 by General Alton D. Slay, Commander Air Force Systems Command. He pointed out that technological advances have increased the demand for exotic minerals at the same time that legislative and regulatory restrictions have been imposed on the U.S. mining industry. 

The 1981 report  “A Congressional Handbook on U.S. Minerals Dependency/Vulnerability” singled out eight materials “for which the industrial health and defense of the United States is most vulnerable to potential supply disruptions” – chromium, cobalt, manganese, the platinum group of metals, titanium, bauxite/aluminum, columbium, and tantalum – the first five have been called “the metallurgical Achilles’ heel of our civilization.”

In 1984 U.S. Marine Corps Major R.A. Hagerman wrote: “Since World War ll, the United States has become increasingly dependent on foreign sources for almost all non-fuel minerals. The availability of these minerals have an extremely important impact on American industry and, in turn, on U.S. defense capabilities. Without just a few critical minerals, such as cobalt, manganese, chromium and platinum, it would be virtually impossible to produce many defense products such as jet engine, missile components, electronic components, iron, steel, etc. This places the U.S. in a vulnerable position with a direct threat to our defense production capability if the supply of strategic minerals is disrupted by foreign powers.”

In 1985, the secretary of the United States Army testified before Congress that America was more than 50 percent dependent on foreign sources for 23 of 40 critical materials essential to U.S. national security. 

The 1988 article “United States Dependence On Imports Of Four Strategic And Critical Minerals: Implications And Policy Alternatives” by G. Kevin Jones was written in regards to what he thought are the most critical minerals upon which the United States is dependent for foreign sources of supply – chromium, cobalt, manganese and the platinum group metals (PGE).  These metals represent the “metallurgical Achilles’ heel” of United States strategic mineral supply because their role in the economy is pervasive and they are vulnerable to supply interruption.

The May 1989 report “U.S. Strategic and Critical Materials Imports: Dependency and Vulnerability. The Latin American Alternative,” deals with over 90 materials identified in the Defense Material inventories as of September 1987. At least 15 of these minerals are considered “key minerals” because the US is over 50% import reliant. All these minerals are essential to domestic security and the national economy but four are referred to as the “first tier” or “big four” strategic materials because of their widespread role and vulnerability to supply disruptions – chromium, cobalt, manganese and platinum group metals.

“The U.S. depends on southern Africa’s minerals for about the fifty percent of the “big four”. Thus, a long-term cutoff of any or all of these materials has the potential for an economic and strategic crisis of greater proportions than the oil crisis of the 1970s. An embargo of South African minerals to the U.S. would affect millions of American jobs in the steel, aerospace, and petroleum industries, and could in effect shut down those industry groups.” U.S. Strategic and Critical Materials Imports: Dependency and Vulnerability

Chromium, cobalt, manganese, the platinum group, and titanium have been labeled “the metallurgical Achilles’ heel of our civilization” – MII, 1996, Gaston, 2001.

The Five Horsemen

Chromium – is a mineral the United States Geological Survey (USGS) still considers “one of the nation’s most important strategic and critical materials.”

In 2011, the United States was expected to consume about 5% of world chromite ore production in various forms of imported materials, such as chromite ore, chromium chemicals, chromium ferroalloys, chromium metal, and stainless steel.

Import Sources (2007–10): Chromium contained in chromite ore, chromium ferroalloys and metal, and stainless steel mill products and scrap: South Africa, 34%; Kazakhstan, 17%; Russia, 9%; China, 5%; and other, 35%.

For the rest of this article, please go to the AHeadOfTheHeard.com website: http://aheadoftheherd.com/Newsletter/2012/A-Nations-Metallurgical-Achilles-Heel.htm

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