Critical minerals have become a fervent topic of discussion in the context of the green energy transition.

From lithium to graphite, beryllium to cobalt, these minerals are all critical for electric car batteries, solar panels, wind turbines and other clean energy technologies.

But it often goes under the radar that these same minerals are also pivotal for weapons production, whether it be silver for Apache helicopters, copper and nickel for body armour, or molybdenum for missiles.

Amid global supply chain risks and China’s growing control over critical mineral refinement and production, the US Department of Defense (DoD) is fast making these minerals a priority.

The Pentagon has unveiled plans to develop a new AI-driven program, known as the ‘Open Price Exploration for National Security’ (OPEN) project, to estimate prices and availability of critical minerals.

By pre-empting the market effect of disruptive factors such as labour strikes or foreign sanctions, OPEN aims to minimise the risk posed to critical mineral supply chains, and, by proxy, US national security.

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The Pentagon’s latest AI exploit

Overseen by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), OPEN has certain benefits for US military security, but defence markets will be hesitant to depend on it, according to GlobalData defence analyst Tristan Sauer.

“Successful implementation of the OPEN modelling solution could produce efficiencies by providing both Pentagon planners and commercial partners with a more consistent pricing metrics”, Sauer said. “However, lingering questions regarding the potential for discrepancies with existing mineral pricing services will need to be addressed before players in the US defence market will be confident enough to rely on those models for major transactions.”

DARPA sources have confirmed that OPEN does not intend to set an official US government metals price or replace the London Metal Exchange futures market, Reuters reported.

OPEN is one of several Pentagon-run AI programmes which intend to streamline budgeting and procurement processes within the US defence supply chain.

Announced in August, Task Force Lima aims to leverage generative AI capabilities across the DoD and gauge the wider implementation of AI across global defence systems.

Sauer also pointed to the DoD’s Defense Tactical Information Center’s collaboration with OpenAI to “enable models to leverage the DoD’s vast amounts of data” for various purposes.

Under Chinese control

The Pentagon’s OPEN system is also an attempt to control the commodity price swings which impede the US’ ability to build new mines on home soil – a factor China does not have to contend with.

Regardless, concerns remain among US politicians and military figures over the later stages in critical mineral supply chains.

While the world’s critical mineral supplies are spread far and wide from Latin America to Central Africa, refining and production capacity is far more monopolised.

In anticipation of the energy transition and potential conflict, China has taken steps to bring critical mineral supply chains further under its control.

Beijing oversees more than 60% of the world’s critical mineral refinement and production, according to White House estimations.

Last August, China issued restrictions on the export sales of gallium and germanium “in order to safeguard national security and interests”, China’s Ministry of Commerce and General Administration of Customs (GAC) said in a joint statement.

Rare earth minerals are used to ‘dope’ gallium nitride (GaN), which is commonly used in the manufacturing of radars such as the US Navy’s AN/SPY-6 radar and the US Marine Corps’ AN/TPS-80 G/ATOR radar.

GaN is lauded by defence companies for its impressive benefits. RTX has said the mineral can extend a radar’s range by 50% and increase its search volume five-fold.

Other applications include titanium for aerospace components, lanthanum for night vision goggles, and beryllium for fighter jets and surveillance systems.

As sanctions stick and geopolitical tensions continue to rise, OPEN exemplifies the US’ concerns over how China intends to wield its critical minerals bargaining chip.