Early in September, the Pentagon suspended the delivery of F-35 fighter jets following the discovery that a part had been manufactured with raw material from China.

Lockheed Martin, which manufactures the aircraft, revealed that a magnet used in the turbo machinery pumps, which are built by Honeywell, was made from a cobalt-samarium alloy produced in China.

Although the component would not damage the integrity of the aircraft and has no capacity to transmit any information, the Ministry of Defense prohibits the use of unapproved Chinese parts in this type of project.

Days ago, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Maintenance William LaPlante allowed the resumption of deliveries after signing a waiver, citing that the component does not pose a security risk and stressing the vital interest in the continued delivery of the 126 already-built fighter jets involved.

This is not the first time Chinese components have been found on U.S. military aircraft. In 2012 and 2013, the Pentagon made an exception to the rules to continue the F-35 program moving forward. A year later, Chinese elements were found on Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets and the Boeing B-1B bomber.

To produce the F-35, Lockheed Martin relies on 1,700 suppliers to make the 300,000 parts that make up the aircraft. A supplier from a hostile country would pose a threat to national security.

The company has committed to finding an alternative to obtaining the raw material to manufacture the magnet. This is proving to be a difficult task, since China has a virtual monopoly in the production of alloys with these rare earth minerals. This casts doubt on whether the U.S. can escape dependence on Chinese products, and the Chinese regime knows it.

Between arrogance and threats

In a report Global Times, manager of a state-owned rare earth company in Ganzhou, Jiang Province, China, surname Yang said, “China is the only country in the world that has developed the ability to extract rare earth metals from samarium and cobalt, which means that the samarium oxide in the average product is almost 100 percent manufactured in Chinese factories. We also account for more than 70 percent of the samarium-cobalt rare earth magnet in the final product. How can Washington get Chinese rare earth products off its planes in such a scenario?” 

Yang said that China manufactures other types of magnets derived from rare earths that are widely used in electronic products and electrical machinery, accounting for 85 percent of its global production. This is yet another sign of China’s dominance in this market.

Wei Dongxu, a Beijing-based military expert, stated that China should think about applying stricter export controls on rare earth products, which are strategic resources because the U.S. uses them for military purposes that could undermine China’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and development.

Following this policy line, in February China sanctioned Lockheed Martin and Raytheon for selling $100 million worth of Patriot surface-to-air missile system engineering and maintenance equipment to Taiwan.

The idea of using the export of rare earths as a tool for geopolitical extortion was already used by the Chinese regime in the conflict with Japan.

In 2010, China played this card following the dispute over control of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, refusing to sell rare earth metals to Japanese users.

According to a report in Forbes magazine, escaping the monopoly exercised by China in the extraction and processing of rare earth elements may be possible. These elements exist in many parts of the world. The reason that China is responsible for almost all the world’s production is because the process of refining these minerals is very aggressive on the environment, so rich countries prefer not to face this risk and leave it in the hands of a country with more “lenient” environmental policies.

If China continues to threaten to cut off this supply, other nations will look for alternatives and consider distancing themselves from the regime, so China will lose its monopoly and the confidence of the world market.

On July 18 in Seoul, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said she wants to end undue reliance on rare earths, solar panels, and other key products from China to prevent the Chinese Communist Party from cutting off supplies as it has done to other countries. 

She said, “Resilient supply chains mean a diversity of supply sources and eliminating, to the extent possible, the possibility that geopolitical rivals can manipulate us and threaten our security.”

Yellen said, “They have used coercion to pressure a number of countries whose behavior they disapprove of.” She added, “We know that’s one reason we don’t want to rely on China.”

The significance of this mishap involving the F35 fighter jet is compelling because of what this project represents for the United States.

The Lockheed F-35 is the world’s most advanced military jet aircraft. It is a fifth-generation multirole fighter whose agility and speed make it stand out in the military aviation market. Cutting-edge technologies make it a winged computer. It also has state-of-the-art stealth capabilities. Nicknamed “Fat Amy,” it made its first flight in December 2006 and is now in service with the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps and Navy. Allied countries including the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea, Israel, and Taiwan have already incorporated the fighter into their armed forces. The production cost is enormous, estimated to reach $1.7 trillion, making it the most expensive weapons program in U.S. history.

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