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Space Force Plans Raise the Stakes to Overhaul U.S. Mineral Resource Policy

Last week, the U.S. Government outlined plans to establish a sixth military branch – the United States Space Force.   According to Vice President Mike Pence, who announced the plans during a speech at the Pentagon, the new force would be led by a four-star commander, and funding in the federal budget would begin for fiscal year 2020.  Citing “rapidly growing threats to our space capabilities” stemming largely from “China and Russia, our strategic competitors, which] are explicitly pursuing space warfighting capabilities to neutralize U.S. space capabilities during a time of conflict,” a 15-page report released by the Pentagon outlines the overall framework.

Of course, a new theater of war requires a different class of weaponry — but work on this front started a long time ago.

Writes the Washington Times:

“The notion of space as a battleground, or a staging area for state-of-the-art defense technology, dates back decades. It first came into the public eye with President Reagan’s call for a ‘Star Wars’ missile program. Since then, the U.S. and its global competitors have made dramatic technological strides.”

Laser cannon technology represents one of these “dramatic technological strides.”

As the New York Post reported in December of 2015:

“[W]hile visions of lasers powerful enough to kill people or knock aircraft out of the sky or sink boats have been a staple of sci-fi since ‘Star Wars’ was just a gleam in George Lucas’s eye, laser cannons are only now on the verge of becoming reality.”

The U.S. Defense Department began testing for high-powered silent laser weapons that just need a few short seconds to burn a hole in targets miles away at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, in January of 2016.

Of course — followers of ARPN may have been waiting for the “resource angle” in this post, so here it goes: — said weapon technology relies on Rare Earth Elements (REEs), slabs or strips of which are used as gain medium in bulk lasers.

Meanwhile, as Jeffery Green, president and founder of J. A. Green & Company and member of the ARPN panel of experts recently outlined:

“The nation’s only domestic rare earth producer was forced into bankruptcy in 2015 after China suddenly restricted exports and subsequently flooded the market with rare earth elements. Adding insult to injury, the mine was then sold last summer for $20.5 million to MP Mine Operations LLC, a Chinese-backed consortium that includes Shenghe Resources Holding Co. Now, according to MINE Magazine, this same mine is exporting critical minerals to a processing plant in China—because the United States cannot process or refine these materials at commercial scale. Without a dramatic change in minerals policies, the United States will not be able to minimize the economic damage that will come when China decides to leverage its minerals monopolies against us.”

So while a U.S. Space Force, creation of which will require legislation, is certainly going to be subject to much debate and will have many implications, we’re looking at a peculiar conundrum from a resource perspective:

Staving off our “strategic competitor” China, which is threatening our space capabilities, will require the use of the very mineral resources for which China has a near-total supply monopoly. It would appear the stakes have just been raised to overhaul our mineral resource policies.  Are policy makers paying attention?