December 22, 2017

News Briefs – December 22, 2017

Interior Dept. says U.S. relies on China for critical minerals

The United States is reliant on China and other nations for the overwhelming majority of critical minerals used by the military and for manufacturing everything from smartphones to wind turbines and cars, a new federal report says.

The report released Dec. 19 by the U.S. Geological Survey says the U.S. relies on foreign sources for a majority of all but two of the 23 minerals identified as critical. The minerals are produced in China, Russia, South Africa, Brazil and other countries.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called the report troubling and said the reliance of imported minerals, especially by the military, poses a “very real national security risk.”

A former Navy SEAL, Zinke said the U.S. should become a world leader in production of minerals such as platinum, manganese and rare-earth elements.

“America first includes critical minerals,” Zinke said, referring to a national security strategy adopted by President Donald Trump that he says puts “America First.”

The USGS report updates a widely used report from 1973. The previous report was published when many of the commodities covered in the new volume were only of minor importance, officials said. Advanced technologies have increased the demand for and production of mineral commodities for nearly all elements in the periodic table, the report said.

Rare-earth elements are integral to nearly all high-end electronics and are produced almost entirely in China. The U.S. has reserves of rare-earth elements in California and other Western states, but has been “undercut” by low-production costs in China, the report said.

Lawrence Meinert, deputy associate director of the Geological Survey, said the U.S. has “deposits of every element in the periodic table” but faces economic and regulatory hurdles to production.

While the U.S. produces platinum group elements at a mine in Montana, the mine “is not large enough to supply the nation’s demand,” the report said. Similarly, a former California rare-earth mine has been idled amid financial difficulties and bankruptcy.

Zinke did not make any policy pronouncements. But he and other officials called for increased U.S. production of platinum, manganese and other critical minerals, especially on federal lands. AP

Russia negotiating more arm sales to Balkan ally Serbia

Serbia is negotiating the purchase of military helicopters from Russia, part of an arms delivery that has the potential to heighten tensions in the Balkans and increase Moscow’s influence in the region.

Serbia’s Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin told Serbia’s state TV Dec. 21 that the “high level of military cooperation” between the two countries was agreed between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic during his visit to Moscow this week.

Vulin said Serbia wants to buy six MI-17 helicopters as well as form an overhaul base for the Russian choppers, which in effect would give Russian military personnel a presence in the region.

He said that close military and other ties with Russia have “significantly changed and strengthened” Serbia’s position internationally.

In October, the Serbian air force received six MiG-29 fighter jets from Russia which has also promised the delivery of 30 battle tanks and 30 armored vehicles to Serbia, which was at war with neighbors Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s during the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

Apart from that, Serbia and Russia are discussing supplies of Buk-M1 and Buk-M2 missile systems. Also, Serbia is negotiating the delivery of six additional MiG-29s and possibly S-300 air defense systems from Belarus.

Serbia has been on the path to join the European Union. But under pressure from Moscow, Belgrade has steadily slid toward the Kremlin and its goal of keeping the countries in the region out of NATO and other Western bodies.

Serbia, which claims military neutrality, is a member of NATO’s outreach Partnership for Peace program and has held military exercises with both the Russians and the Western military alliance. AP

Air Force to study impact of bringing new jets to Tucson

The Air Force plans to issue an environmental impact study on basing F-35 Joint Strike Fighters at the base in Tucson, Ariz., citing the location as a “reasonable alternative.”

The Arizona Daily Star reports the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base was passed over for the advance fighters as the Air Force announced earlier this year that the reserve base in Fort Worth, Texas, was the preferred location.

Some Tucson residents have voiced opposition to the idea of basing the fighters locally, citing noise, health and safety concerns.

Business and civic leaders have been pushing for new missions at the base, claiming that losing any major missions could make the base vulnerable to closure.
An environmental impact study is required under the National Environmental Policy Act. AP

Ukraine worried about Russia’s pullout from monitoring team

Ukraine on Dec. 20 criticized Russia’s decision to withdraw its military observers from a joint group monitoring the truce in eastern Ukraine, saying it could fuel hostilities.

Russia announced the move earlier this week, saying that Ukraine was putting up obstacles and restrictions obstructing Russian officers’ work and recently introduced new demands that made their further involvement in the group impossible.

The development is the latest sign of heightened tensions in the area, where fighting has spiked in recent days. Observers from a special monitoring mission for eastern Ukraine at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe voiced concern Tuesday about the fresh violence, saying that the number of cease-fire violations increased by 35 percent in the past week compared with a week earlier.

Darka Olifer, a spokeswoman for Ukraine’s ex-President Leonid Kuchma who represents the country in talks with Russia and separatists in eastern Ukraine, said in a statement posted Wednesday on Facebook that the Russian withdrawal of military observers violated Moscow’s obligations and raised the risks of a military escalation.

Olifer’s statement followed a meeting of a contact group involving representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the rebels in the Belarusian capital, Minsk. Olifer said after the talks that the parties declared an intention to maintain a cease-fire for the holiday season starting Dec. 23 and speed up efforts to exchange prisoners.
Numerous previous cease-fires quickly failed and attempts to negotiate the exchange of prisoners have stalled in the past.

Fighting between Russia-backed separatists and government troops in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 10,000 since 2014. Peace accords brokered by France and Germany in 2015 helped decrease the scale of fighting but failed to stop it altogether. Political settlement stipulated by the accords has not been implemented either.

A spokesman for Germany’s Foreign Ministry voiced concern about Russia’s move to withdraw its military officers from the monitoring group, warning that it could have “significant consequences for the civilian population in conflict areas of eastern Ukraine.”

Rainer Breul told reporters in Berlin that the Joint Center on Control and Coordination plays an important role in facilitating and monitoring local cease-fires, allowing for mine clearance and maintenance on vital infrastructure.

Berlin urged both sides to find a solution to ensure the monitoring group can operate. It also called on all sides to strengthen the fragile cease-fire and “reduce human suffering.” AP

Alabama Space Authority begins charting course to stars

The new Alabama Space Authority took its first steps this week as members met around Wernher von Braun’s conference table in Huntsville, Ala., to push for more aerospace activity and jobs in a state where the industry is surging.

Glenn Rizner, chief of staff of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Office, briefed authority members on the two general types of federal space licenses available to states and localities: launch sites and vehicle operations.

Authority organizers say don’t expect a drive for that yet — beyond what is already underway — but there could be a push later. If that seems a stretch, remember that one Alabama city is already working to land a private spaceship at its airport, Airbus is growing rapidly in Mobile, and other aerospace announcements have come in a steady stream.

With that background, the new Alabama Space Authority held its inaugural meeting Dec. 19 at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center around a table used by von Braun’s team when building America’s first rockets and the Saturn V.

State Sen. Gerald Dial (R-Lineville), who sponsored legislation to create the authority, was elected its chairman. Companion legislation was also introduced in the House by state Rep. Howard Sanderford (R-Huntsville).

Sanderford was nominated as vice chair, but nominated U.S. Space & Rocket Center Deborah Barnhart, who served on the Florida Space Authority. Barnhart was approved by acclamation.

“When you look at how much space activity we have in the state now with the expansion of Dynetics and ULA (United Launch Alliance), it’s such a critical mass,” Barnhart said Dec. 20. “We just want to optimize that to not leave anybody on the sidelines.”

Barnhart said the authority will also work in areas including education and workforce development. “We can show young people there are plenty of great jobs here in Alabama that they and their parents and teachers just don’t know about,” she said.

Barnhart said trying to build a spaceport in Alabama might be something the state will consider. “There are already ongoing efforts in that direction for landing sites, and some are further ahead than others,” she said.

Huntsville is already seeking an FAA license to land Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser spaceship at the Huntsville International Airport when it begins supplying the International Space Station and returning science data from the orbiting laboratory.

United Launch Alliance and Bezos’ Blue Origin company have both announced plans to build rocket engine plants in Huntsville, and Dynetics recently broke ground in Decatur on a three-building complex to test and develop next-generation large rocket parts. AP

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