(Reuters) – The U.S. Department of Defense is in talks with Australia to host a facility that would process rare earth minerals, part of an effort to reduce reliance on China for the specialized materials used in military equipment, a senior American official said.
The push comes as China threatens to curb exports to the United States of rare earths, a group of 17 minerals found in fighter jets, tanks and high-tech consumer electronics.
China is the world’s largest processor and producer of the minerals. There are no known substitutes.
“We’re concerned about any fragility in the supply chain and especially where an adversary controls the supply,” Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s under secretary of defence for acquisition and sustainment, told reporters at a Washington event on Monday.
Lord said the Pentagon is looking at several options to partner on rare earth processing facilities, adding “one of the highest potential avenues is to work with Australia.”
The Australian embassy to the United States in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Pentagon update came after the United States said earlier this year that it would look to Australia and Canada to develop rare earths reserves around the world to reduce the global reliance on China. The United States has also held talks with rare earths projects across Africa.
Lord said she has held several talks with Australian officials this year about whether such a plant could supply the Pentagon’s needs.
U.S. President Donald Trump last month ordered the Pentagon to find better ways to procure a range of magnets made from rare earths, warning that the nation’s defence would suffer without adequate stockpiles.
Australia’s Lynas Corp is the world’s largest rare earths miner and processor outside of China. It was not immediately clear if the Pentagon would partner with Lynas or another Australian entity.
Rare earth minerals need to be processed after they are extracted from the ground. There is only one operational rare earths mine in the United States, though the country has no processing facilities.
California’s Mountain Pass mine is building a processor and hopes to have it online by next year.
(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder and Bryan Pietsch; editing by Jonathan Oatis)