Titanium is the next cold war battle — and the US is already losing it
Special to Stars and Stripes May 4, 2023
The coronavirus pandemic served many difficult lessons on the fragility of global supply chains. Everything from face masks and hand sanitizer to electronics and furniture became scarce almost overnight as chokepoints along the chain fell like dominoes across the globe.
But more than a year after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, displacing more than 14 million people and throwing global markets into chaos once again, the United States is no closer today to patching the dangerous fissures in defense-critical global supply chains the two crises exposed.
Unlike the COVID-19 disruption that left retail shelves empty for months, Russia's brutal war revealed a critical minerals dependence far more damaging to the fate of the United States. The world didn't end when we couldn't buy toilet paper, but an inability to source titanium — a lightweight metal used in everything from missiles, spacecraft, naval vessels, automotive parts and robotics — would catastrophically break America's national security and economy.
After decades of diminishing domestic production capacity, the U.S. withdrew from titanium sponge production by 2020 and now relies entirely on foreign sources. At the same time the U.S. was retreating from the market, China's titanium sponge production capacity grew by 1,050%, according to the Department of Commerce. Russia, which had long dominated the sector, increased its output by 66%. Together, China and Russia now own 70% of the global titanium market.
While it's true that the U.S. doesn't purchase significant amounts of its titanium from either country (Japan supplies upwards of 92% of U.S. titanium sponge imports), their dominance has effectively squashed emerging international rivals by dumping or through intentional supply chain disruptions. This reliance on Japanese titanium isn't without geopolitical risks, as hostilities between Beijing and Tokyo remain high, and the country's facilities are already operating at capacity. And because there's no room to scale, U.S. consumption has no room to grow even as its needs will almost certainly expand by a factor in the next decade.
Understand: This isn't some trivial matter. By withdrawing from the titanium production market and failing to support more diverse supply chains, the U.S. has handed the keys to its national security and economy to its two greatest power competitors and geopolitical threats.
There are 16 critical infrastructure sectors — things like communications, financial services and agriculture — whose assets have been deemed so essential by the federal government that any blackout would have a debilitating effect on the country. Titanium supports 15 of these 16 sectors, according to a report by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security.
Titanium is twice as strong as aluminum and 45% lighter than steel while just as strong. Its durability, temperature and corrosion resistance, and flexibility have made it the preferred metal for aircraft and satellites, batteries and fuel cells, and robotics and drones.
But manufacturing finished titanium metal is complicated. Only a few countries have the requisite technical experience in addition to significant reserves of titanium feedstocks, the raw minerals that undergo intense chemical processes to produce titanium sponge. The United States and Ukraine are both on that select list. Ukraine, in particular, has amassed enormous titanium mining and manufacturing experience over the last century and is at the forefront of next-generation processes to produce this critical metal quicker and greener than anyone else.
The great power competitions of the next century are being waged and won on supply chain resilience. That’s why it’s essential the U.S. declare its titanium independence before it’s too late.
By forging and supporting new lines of commerce between Ukraine and the U.S., the U.S. will nullify the dangerous leverage that China and Russia can exert over it and its allies by squeezing the global supply chain. The U.S. must insulate itself from future supply chain disruptions or even intentional economic weaponization by unlocking new sources of titanium. Anything less isn't just irresponsible, it's downright subversive.
Andriy Brodsky is a critical minerals expert who serves as chief executive of Ukrainian titanium feedstock producer Velta. Velta is in the early stages of opening a U.S. titanium manufacturing facility.