A new war has begun in which you won’t hear any gunfire and, so far at least, there won’t be any body bags, but the long term consequences pose an existential threat to the life most of us are currently leading.

We kid ourselves that in the 21st century we are so sophisticated. We’ve moved on from the industrial age to the information age to the digital world. AI and virtual reality can take us anywhere our imagination would like – if we believe the hype. But there’s an ugly, dirty truth underlying the wealthiest generation ever to walk the earth. Most of what we do and have still relies on digging stuff out of the ground. And, as we have formed ourselves into groupings based on political ideology or displays of military strength, we’ve been careless in securing the supplies of some of the rarest and most critical minerals of all.

As well as weaponizing the dollar and the Swift payment system, Joe Biden has escaped from the care facility long enough to restrict exports of the most powerful semiconductors needed to drive emerging AI applications. Unsurprisingly, China has responded in kind with export restrictions on two rare metals, gallium and germanium. Gallium is used for integrated circuits and optical devices like LEDs while germanium is used for fibre optics and night vision applications. How dependent is America on China for these two metals? Oh, just one hundred per cent. Totally, utterly dependent on the whims of Chairman Xi. What could possibly go wrong?

They are by no means unique. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s 2023 Minerals Commodity Summaries report, the U.S. has now reached a record high for mineral imports and an all-time low for supply chain stability. According to the report, the United States is now more than 50 percent reliant on imports of 51 minerals, up from 47 the year prior. The U.S. is also 100 percent reliant on imports for 15 of those 51 minerals, 12 of which are deemed “critical”.  Just two examples – scandium is used in used for alloys, ceramics, and fuel cells and 100% of it comes from the People’s Republic. Graphite, used for lubricants, batteries, and fuel cells, all comes to Uncle Sam from China.

This dependence is a challenge on at least two levels, maintaining America’s advanced military arsenal and mining enough of these resources to enable the energy transition in the overly ambitious timescales still being quoted by politicians. We’re all sick to death of hearing about the energy transition, but much less is being said about the impact on America’s huge military industrial complex. Supplies of some weapons are already at uncomfortably low levels due to the number that have been shipped to Ukraine.

Developing advanced weaponry will require new critical minerals and the supply chains that deliver them. Advanced semiconductors are crucial components of missile guidance systems, cyberwarfare, and artificial intelligence capabilities. These semiconductors require materials, including gallium, arsenic, and neon—much of which are located and produced in Russia, China, and Ukraine. As we’ve already mentioned, America imports all its gallium while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has halved the world’s supply of semiconductor-grade neon.

The military need titanium for aerospace components, high temperature superalloys for turbines and hypersonic missiles, ceramic matrix composites, and hypersonic thermal protection systems. Lanthanum is used for night vision goggles while beryllium is used for targeting and surveillance systems as well as for fighter jets. Neodymium and samarium are used for powerful magnets that can withstand high temperatures. Germanium is used for infrared devices and in solar panels on military satellites. Niobium is used in the superalloys that jet engines are made from, and holmium is needed for solid state lasers. So in summary the West’s only military superpower is increasingly dependent on rare metals that are mainly available from its biggest potential enemies!

Now let’s turn our attention to the green energy transition. As you know, I’m no big fan of those heavyweight electric vehicles wearing out our roads when they are not in the garage being repaired for the umpteenth time. But, if we are all good boys and girls and do what our leaders tell us, we are going to need staggering volumes of these metals and minerals to achieve the switch to carbon neutrality. According to Benchmark Mineral Intelligence we will need 330 new mines in the next decade. That includes fifty-nine new lithium mines, more than three times the number in the world at the present time.  Within seventeen years we will need seven million tonnes of lithium every year, a mere seventeen times more than we are producing at the moment. And there’s more. EVs also need lots of nickel – 80 million tonnes by 2040 which is more than has ever been mined in the history of the world and requires us to bring to the surface 80% of all known reserves anywhere on the planet.

I’m an optimist about mankind’s ingenuity but does some of this start to sound a bit far-fetched? These volumes assume a perfect world in which everyone is co-operating to maximise production. They ignore the rapidly emerging new Iron Curtain as the world bifurcates between the Old West and the New BRICS.

There are other sources of these rare minerals, but the process of mining them is capital intensive and slow. It can take a decade to get a mine up and running productively. Across the board, current production for almost all minerals won’t meet the expected demand. Yet, governments have procrastinated on encouraging new mines because of slow planning processes and protests from NIMBYs. China is the main source of 30 of the 50 critical minerals that America relies on including the provision of more than half of her net imports of 26 mineral commodities, a higher dependency than any other country in the world. America’s dependence on China is not only risky, but it’s also unnecessary.

America is lucky enough to be rich in mineral resources – more than $6 trillion worth is thought to be sitting under American soil. Yet, despite the clamour for reshoring there’s been little rush to invest in new mines back home. Far better to out-source the dirty stuff so that we in the West can continue virtue signalling at COP28 or wherever. As Western demand for solar panels sky-rockets, China is meeting that demand by powering its factories with a form of energy you might remember if you are of a certain age – Old King Coal. New coal mines are opening and new coal fired power stations are being built while we look the other way.  Meanwhile, the Biden administration has blocked mineral exploration in the rich lands of Minnesota which are believed to contain large deposits of nickel, cobalt, copper and platinum.

And it’s not just the military and the energy transition that are at risk, it’s basic trade and commerce. As well as restricting gallium and germanium, China is slowing down exports of graphite to Sweden in a deliberate attempt to hit Northvolt, a major competitor to Chinese battery manufacturers. According to the aggressive rhetoric of Chinese trade advisers, these are just the first blows in what could become a serious playground fist fight. China has form when it comes to restricting trade during times of political turmoil. It doesn’t matter where you sit on the political spectrum, the fact is that the West is extremely dependent on BRICS countries for basic resources like oil and almost every kind of unobtanium known to man. This has to be seen as a threat to national security and one that warrants immediate, co-ordinated action.

That silence you can hear is me holding my breath waiting for something to happen.  If I can paraphrase the guy from the Royle Family – 2030? My arse…