LETTER: ...we need our own supply pipeline with unrestricted access to all critical materials and metals

Dear Editor:
Fifty-nine years ago, Francis Gary Powers was piloting a U-2 spy plane over Russia and taking pictures of something the CIA found interesting. Until that day, the U-2 had a stellar record of never being intercepted or shot down. That was about to change.
The Russian bear had built a new surface to air missile that could go high enough and fast enough to overtake the U-2 and knock it out of the sky- and that’s just what happened. The cold war was raging and the Bear was making hay over the spying incident to his advantage. Eventually, the two countries swapped spies and life went on, but the US had its nose bloodied, been embarrassed and needed to improve their odds of surviving in the skies over Russia.
In 1964 president Lyndon Johnson ordered the CIA to build a new spy plane that was untouchable and after a year of making choices and changes, the contractor of choice was Lockheed and the general manager of the project was Clearance “Kelly” Johnson. In eighteen months, Johnson and the Lockheed “Skunk Works” rolled out their astonishing beautiful product, the SR-71 Blackbird. It was long and sleek, a Mach 3.5 rating, a low frontal radar signature and could fly at the edge of the atmosphere. It was constructed with exotic materials and metals that were the forerunner of today’s stealth platforms. None of the construction was easy and here’s where the story takes a crazy twist.
Ninety percent of the SR-71 is made of titanium [Ti]. The performance specs for the SR-71 were so removed from other military aircraft that there were no former projects that could be used as a reference- everything in its manufacture was new and untested.
The new metals were impossible to shape and cut and they needed sophisticated machines that were purpose-built to manufacture the high volume of titanium needed to achieve the final results; a plane that could never be caught, shot or blown out of the sky. The only thing missing: titanium- lots of it.
Looking back, what happened next is almost comical. Lockheed needed huge amounts of titanium but the US didn’t have easy access to titanium nor did our close friends- at least not enough. The Skunk Works at Lockheed needed to be ghostly with the purchase of titanium since cold war secrecy was the standing order of the day.
Lockheed needed to find an organization that could secretly purchase enough titanium to meet Lockheed’s needs and make the buy without raising any eyebrows; a clandestine gang that could work like today’s drug cartels and take legality to the brink. Someone comfortable making deals in dark alleys.
Enter the CIA. The CIA, who actually owned the SR-71, jumped in with logistical assistance. The CIA scoured sources for titanium and found only one logical supplier with enough “Ti” to satisfy the needs of Lockheed and it was, who else, but the Russians.
Okay, it’s a small problem, but the CIA is a clever gang. The CIA had phantom companies all over the world. It was through these phantom storefronts that the CIA purchased the titanium they needed from the Russian bear.
And if you haven’t already figured it out: Russia, through phantom CIA companies, unwittingly supplied all the titanium Lockheed needed to build a new spy plane that could fly over Russia and safely spy on Russia with impunity.
Today, the SR-71 is a museum piece and its history of success is itself, an amazing story. I spent the better part of an hour talking to an SR-71 pilot at the Pima Air Museum in Tucson, Arizona and even sixty years later, much about the Blackbird and its mission work is classified.
But things change and today nearly all of our spying is done with satellites and everybody has them; China, Russia, Israel, India, all of Europe, all of the Middle East, heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if Alabama has a spy satellite parked over LSU. They’re everywhere.
Fast-forward and things have changed dramatically in the manufacture of ultra-high tech equipment, and not just in the spy business. Every endeavor we undertake, the need for strategic elements and metals can no longer be treated with an attitude that “somebody else will supply what we need.” That’s a dangerous and reckless assumption.
Ask yourself this: If we were forced to do a similar dance to get what we need, could we still pull-off the sneaky CIA stunt to acquire a Rare Earth Element.
No way: We’re pretty sure that the Russians punted our last election with high-tech mischief; do you honestly think the Russians aren’t capable of noticing inconsistent purchasing practices for REE’s?
What happened in the 1960s is ancient history, but today, we no longer have the luxury of thinking we can get whatever we need from whomever we want. Those days are over.
The use of REE’s and strategic metals is everywhere. The entire Department of Defense is immersed in high-tech equipment. The medical industry, the auto industry, commercial aircraft, power generation including wind and solar, agriculture, home building and general construction, civil engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, environmental engineering, mining engineering, educational institutions at every level, sales and marketing, water treatment, sewage treatment, all are totally dependent on high tech equipment that cannot be manufactured without an unrestricted flow of every element on the Periodic Table of the Elements and as a country, this is where we are screwed.
Much has been made over the last few months about the need for these elements- all of them. And when you look at the Periodic Table of the Elements, it’s the new kids on the block, all seventeen of the REE’s and the two REM’s along with numerous lesser known elements like the titanium used in the SR-71 Blackbird that are mostly non-existent in our country. We are 100% dependent on their instant availability from trustworthy sources and that alone presents a huge problem.
China owns the REE and REM global supply market except for one, niobium- that would be Brazil’s domain. Niobium is critical in the enhancement of high carbon steel. If Gustave Eiffel had access to steel alloyed with niobium, he could have erected the Eiffel Tower with just two-thousand tons of steel instead of seven-thousand tons of steel.
If the HMS Titanic was built with niobium alloyed steel it would still be in service.
China cannot be considered a long-term and trusted supplier of critical raw materials. The same is true for Russia, the P.R. of Congo, South Africa and the Middle East or sub-Sahara Africa.
Somehow, some way, we need our own supply pipeline with unrestricted access to all critical materials and metals. From where I sit, two things are keeping our country from achieving that goal, excessive government regulations and an anti-mining environmental mindset that is slowly choking the base industries of this country to death.
As a nation, we need to format a program of long-term acquisition of raw materials and not wait for a cataclysmic event (no one on the planet went to sleep on September 10, 2001 that knew what would happen in the morning of 9/11) that will leave us no time to respond with the very best and most sophisticated equipment that our country can produce.
We can overcome this strategic weakness, but sadly the unknowing and uncaring populace has yet to see the truth for what it is- we are living in horribly dangerous times.
Bob Colombo