WASHINGTON — Western militaries may lose access to critical materials needed for weapons and other systems, because of the growing demand for new technologies, questionable supply lines and production in unfriendly or dangerous countries, NATO documents show.
"Key strategic materials are those that are crucial in the manufacture of sophisticated military hardware or components such as airframes, gas turbines, rocket motors, munitions, armor and electronics," according to a newly released NATO request for information. "These materials are becoming increasingly scarce."
Most troubling, the NATO report says, is that "many of these materials and products are not produced within NATO countries." Instead, they come from rival nations, such as China and Russia, or those mired in internal conflicts and civil war, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. That limits NATO's access to the metals and minerals that make up key parts of important weapons and aircraft.
Competition for these resources is also coming from a variety of developing technologies, such as alternative energy and semiconductors, which also need the same materials. For example, the metal gallium, which is used in military electronics, is also used in the burgeoning solar energy and computer fields as part of solar panels and semiconductors.
NATO says it and its partner governments have been working since 2008 to find a way to maintain access to these critical materials. Its new report cited a 2010 study outlining 41 critical materials that are at risk, including 14 with a combination of high economic importance and a high supply risk. They include:
- Cobalt. Primarily mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), cobalt is used in alloys with other metals to make gas turbines and jet engines. The DRC has been troubled by civil war and rebellion since it gained independence from Belgium in the early 1960s. At least 5.4 million people have died there since 1998, many because of preventable diseases, according to a report by the International Rescue Committee.
- Tantalum. A rare, hard, blue-gray metal that is used in jet engines, nuclear weapons and missile parts. Its non-military uses include electronics as well as medical equipment and implants. The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the world's largest sources of tantalum.
- Tungsten. The hard metal is often used in missiles and ammunition, while its non-military uses include fluorescent lighting and electronics. The world's main tungsten producers include China, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Russia.
NATO says its Collaboration Support Office wants to enlist industry officials and academic experts to create a new list of rare materials, document problems with the materials and their supply chains, analyze the risks surrounding the materials and then recommend steps to fix the supply risks.
The organization warns that the importance of the various critical materials in military technology limits the potential to redesign equipment to use other materials