It is when we all play safe that we create a world of utmost insecurity– Dag Hammarskjöld, UN Secretary General
By Dr Amit Tripathi and Lt General Rameshwar Roy
Globally private enterprise is the driver of defence industries and materials. Nowhere it is more apparent than that of USA and its NATO allies. NATO has successfully leveraged private enterprise to create diversified supply chains of critical defence materials. On the other hand, India has traditionally closed its doors on private participation in critical metals and nuclear supply chains. It may have been relevant when we got our freedom from ‘British Raj’, when it was believed that private sector did not have enough resources as also for the reasons of national security, we did not want to involve the private players at that time. However, we have come a long way.
The recent announcement by PM Modi comes as a fragrance of fresh breeze in a decaying, unmotivated and stagnant environment of public sector dominance of critical metals and nuclear mineral supply chain in our country. PM Modi has invited the private sector into defence and strategic industries as also nuclear technology, in his speech at CII webinar, June 2020. This must now translate itself into policies and plans for effective and quick implementation of his vision on ground in this fast paced world.
The pathbreaking reforms announced by the PM in his speech has far reaching ramifications in the field of strategic industries and nuclear technology research for private sector. One of the most critical area that needs to be addressed in a time bound manner is, the field of “Rare Earth Elements (REEs)”, which are extremely critical to defence manufacturing facilities including missiles, rockets, fighter planes, guidance systems, visual displays and each and every facet of electronic warfare systems. Samarium-cobalt and neodymium-iron-boron magnets are critical for many defense systems including aircraft engines, radar, sonar, and guidance systems. Tungsten is widely used in defense applications, including armor and armor-piercing munitions. It is significant that such strategic vulnerabilities will always be exploited by our adversaries. At present India is dependent on China for all these critical metals.
if China were to stop selling any of the 18 out of 23 metals the U.S. deems critical to their economy or defense, the U.S. economy would be in serious trouble– National Mining Association (USA)
Private industry had been involved in mining and processing of beach sands, that contain the REEs, from 1998 to 2012. However, presence of nuclear material in the vast beach sands of India has been used as an excuse to shut down all these private industries. Our government organizations and PSUs have their own structural constraints and have proved themselves inept in meeting the supply needs. This has had the unintended consequence of exposing a major strategic flank to Chinese control. Chinese dominance in the critical REE metals have given them a strategic upper hand and may have emboldened the Chinese army to pursue their forward policy, creeping land grab with frequent standoffs. In case of a long drawn confrontation, the Chinese restriction on supplies of some of these critical metals could cause serious disruptions in our Indian defence industries. China has demonstrated its willingness to weaponize REE supplies when it curtailed supplies to Japan during the Senkaku island standoff in 2011. US, Japan and EU confronted China in the WTO over this action and have started a sustained program to diversify REE supply chain.
The Prime Minister’s policy direction, if implemented in its letter and spirit will be a quantum leap for our strategic critical metals security. It would create self sufficiency in these sectors within a short span of two to three years. Mineral Exploration Academy has immediately explored such possibilities and our associates in friendly countries have expressed interest and willingness to immediately start mining – refining – and metallurgy operations to achieve self-sufficiency in critical REE sector at the earliest possible. In fact, if the approvals are accorded in a time bound manner; we could be very soon be having the capacity to export these critical metals to friendly countries that are actively looking to diversify supply chains away from Chinese influence. At the moment, India is the only country having sufficient REE resources to rapidly scale up such an industry. The pace required to affect this growth can be handled by private industry. With capacity and intent demonstration India can rapidly position itself as a major global hub for electric vehicle manufacturing and pitch the REE capability as a USP.
History will judge us by our response at this juncture. The resolute political leadership is now showing the way and the private industry is ready and waiting. Will the government take up the challenge and be an engine of growth for the critical national security at the right time? Or be stuck in the historical maze of procedure-centric governance and relegate India to a Chinese dominance, only time will tell !!
Samarium-cobalt and neodymium-iron-boron magnets are critical for many defense systems including aircraft engines, radar, sonar, and guidance systems. Additionally, tungsten is widely used in defense applications, including armor and armor-piercing munitions. That the U.S. ever came to be reliant upon non-allied countries for the supply of such sensitive components is almost inconceivable, and it’s created significant strategic vulnerabilities that our adversaries surely will exploit when the time comes.Dean G Popps – Real Clear Defense, May 2019