Hypersonic Hegemony: Niobium and the Western Hemisphere’s Role in the U.S.-China Power Struggle


In the evolving landscape of global defense, the arms race has metamorphosed from a contest of nuclear might to one of unparalleled speed. Hypersonic weapons (capable of exceeding five times the speed of sound), promise to revolutionize modern warfare.

China's strides in the hypersonic field are a manifestation of its broader strategic intentions and underscore its drive toward technological and military preeminence. This journey toward mastering hypersonic technology is not merely for show; it is about redefining the global balance of military power.

A successful deployment of these weapons would enable China to redefine the term “first-strike advantage.” Such a capability is not merely about striking first; it is about striking in a manner that leaves the opponent minimal time or capacity to react, effectively nullifying their defensive postures. This introduces a dangerous paradigm wherein the traditional cushion of time provided by early warning systems is drastically reduced. For the United States, this might mean that even with the world's most advanced detection systems, the window to act could be so minimal that it might be rendered ineffective. As the United States and China jostle for dominance in this arena, the strategic significance of an elemental material, niobium, emerges as a pivotal concern, and with it, China’s rising dominance in the Western Hemisphere’s mining sector.

Niobium: The Aerospace Marvel

Vacuum-grade niobium’s role in aerospace is not a newfound revelation. Its unparalleled resilience against extreme thermal stresses, withstanding temperatures over 2,400 degrees Celsius, renders it indispensable for critical components in hypersonic vehicles. Beyond its inherent properties, niobium’s pivotal role lies in its use for crafting heat-resistant superalloys essential for hypersonic missiles and the broader aerospace sector. Its low density compared to other refractory metals contributes to a high strength-to-weight ratio, which is essential for reducing the weight of aerospace components. This reduction in weight directly impacts fuel efficiency and payload capacity, two critical factors in aerospace design. For example, companies like SpaceX and Hermeus depend on niobium C103 for their spacecrafts, which require extremely high temperatures that surpass that of other superalloys.

For decades, niobium has played a pivotal role in the U.S. aerospace industry, with its notable use in the innovative designs of the iconic Gemini and Apollo programs of the 1960s and 70s. However, despite its significance, the United States depends entirely on niobium imports, with no substantial domestic mining since 1959. This reliance introduces a severe risk to its supply chain. Of the estimated 8,800 metric tons imported annually in 2022, a significant majority comes from Brazil (66 percent) and Canada (25 percent). This heavy reliance on just two primary sources—both neighbors of the United States in the Western Hemisphere—exposes the United States to considerable national security and economic vulnerabilities. The situation becomes even more precarious considering China’s dominant position in the niobium sector and its growing footprint in the hemisphere.

China’s Stake in Brazil’s Mineral Monopoly

Brazil dominated global niobium production in 2020, accounting for over 91 percent of production. With reserves estimated at 842 million metric tons, Brazil produces roughly 120,000 metric tons annually. Brazil’s high production comes from large mines such as Araxá and Catalão, with Companhia Brasileira de Metalurgia e Mineração (CBMM) controlling 75 percent of Brazil’s output.

China has recognized the potential of niobium for over a decade. In 2011, a consortium of five Chinese companies acquired a 15 percent stake in CBMM. This engagement intensified in 2016 when China Molybdenum Co. Ltd. (now known only as CMOC) secured ownership of the Chapadão and Boa Vista mines, further strengthening China's position in the niobium market.

The importance of niobium was further highlighted in the Brazilian political arena in 2018. Then presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro emphasized niobium's role in Brazil's “economic independence.” Despite Bolsonaro's campaign rhetoric focusing on safeguarding this critical commodity from foreign control and advocating for its national governance, Chinese influence in the Brazilian niobium sector continued to grow. By 2020, Chinese entities controlled approximately 26 percent of Brazil's niobium production. This control not only ensures China's preferential access and influence over pricing dynamics in the niobium supply chain, but also positions it advantageously in a global context.

China managed to maintain and even strengthen its position at the subnational level under Bolsonaro. CMOC for instance provided $1.2 million in Covid-19 aid to the city of Catalão, demonstrating China's strategic engagement beyond mere commercial interests.

China’s influence over Brazil’s niobium production conforms to a pattern of growing ownership and sway over the regional mining industry, a trend with substantial environmental, political, and security implications. Such tactics could force nations into making diplomatic compromises, ceding trade advantages, or grappling with economic dilemmas, thereby solidifying China's geopolitical standing. The United States is not immune to this exposure; in 2022 the U.S. Geological Survey identified niobium as the second most critical of 50 minerals, falling behind only gallium in its criticality to U.S. national security and economic growth.

Defense Implications

China's hypersonic resolve has been remarkable. By 2018, it had conducted over 20 times as many tests as the United States. According to the Pentagon, the United States is still lagging. This hypersonic prowess, combined with China's stranglehold on niobium, places the United States in a perilous position.

The strategic importance of niobium in next-generation defense systems cannot be overstated. As the U.S. military and its defense contractors increasingly rely on niobium-based superalloys to produce a wide range of equipment, from aircraft components to hypersonic missile systems, any disruption in the niobium supply chain could have significant repercussions.

Overall, China's growing influence and control over critical mineral supply chains poses a distinct challenge. Under the Biden administration, the United States and the European Union placed export controls and restrictions on strategic and critical minerals to curb China’s dominance in artificial intelligence and semiconductors. In retaliation, China imposed their own limitations on gallium, germanium, and graphite throughout 2023. A recent analysis by CSIS highlighted that China controls 90 percent of global gallium supplies, 90 percent of graphite, and 60 percent of germanium, all critical to the production of chips and electric vehicle batteries. The critical mineral supply chain has arrived at the forefront of strategic competition between the West and the People’s Republic of China.

China’s grip on the production, distribution, and pricing of niobium presents another layer of complexity: manipulating niobium’s availability to other nations. For the United States, already grappling with the challenges of overdependence on external sources for critical minerals, such a disruption could translate into significant production delays. The consequences could be serious: slower production of critical defense equipment, increased costs due to the potential need for alternative materials, and a cascading effect on existing machinery's maintenance and upgrade cycles. In this highly complex environment where timely responses to emerging threats are vital, these delays could hinder the United States' ability to promptly deploy or develop necessary defense systems.

U.S. Countermeasures

Facing such formidable challenges, the United States cannot afford to remain a passive observer. Safeguarding its strategic interests and maintaining its global position demands a comprehensive and multifaceted critical mineral strategy, particularly in securing niobium supplies.

Including Brazil in the MSP

Incorporating Brazil into the 13-nation Mineral Security Partnership (MSP) could significantly fortify the global niobium supply chain. The MSP represents a concerted multinational endeavor to develop environmental, social, and governance (ESG) standards and bolster investments in critical mineral supply chains, an initiative that aligns well with the strategic interests of both Brazil and the broader international community. Brazil’s inclusion would make it the first Latin American country to enter the partnership, signaling its regional leadership and increase in international stature. The integration of Brazil into this partnership is particularly strategic, considering its substantial niobium reserves, in addition to its other critical mineral deposits. This move would add a robust layer of security against potential supply disruptions.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's administration, with its strong emphasis on ESG standards, is likely to find the MSP's principles congruent with its policy priorities. The MSP’s emphasis on elevating global standards in these areas could resonate with Lula’s progressive agenda, potentially making Brazil’s participation both beneficial and attractive.

Furthermore, Brazil's inclusion in the MSP would facilitate its adherence to a framework that advocates for the diversification and stabilization of mineral supply chains. This alignment could be instrumental in mitigating China’s dominant influence in the niobium market. By joining the MSP, Brazil would not only assert its role in the global mineral economy but also contribute to a more balanced and less vulnerable critical mineral supply landscape, including niobium.

Diversification of Niobium Sources

Diversifying niobium sources is a critical strategic concern. The current overreliance on a limited number of suppliers presents a significant vulnerability in the supply chain. This is not merely a matter of economic convenience but a pressing national security issue. The Elk Creek project in Nebraska represents a commendable step toward addressing this vulnerability domestically. This initiative exemplifies how investment in local resources can contribute to a more resilient supply chain. Placing more emphasis on domestic production, the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act calls for domestic manufacturing of critical minerals, and “encourages DOD to review the need to utilize Defense Production Act authorities to establish domestic processing capacity of niobium, tantalum, and scandium.”

However, to comprehensively mitigate the risks associated with niobium supply, the United States should extend its strategy beyond domestic projects. Engaging in international partnerships, especially with Canadian, African, and European nations that have niobium reserves, is crucial.

Canada’s significant niobium reserves stands as an ideal partner to strengthen North American supply security. The geographical proximity of Canada to the United States offers logistical advantages, reducing transportation costs and environmental impact. Additionally, the strong political and economic ties between the United States and Canada could facilitate smoother bilateral agreements and joint ventures in niobium exploration and development.

Africa’s rich mineral resources, and Europe’s advanced mining technologies and regulatory frameworks, offer promising avenues for collaboration. These partnerships could lead to the exploration and development of new niobium sources, thus diversifying the global supply chain.

Stockpiling and Strategic Reserves

The practice of stockpiling and maintaining strategic reserves of strategic minerals serves as a crucial safeguard during times of geopolitical unrest or supply chain interruptions. Experts suggest that with its existing reserves of critical minerals, the United States may face challenges in sustaining a protracted conflict with China. The National Defense Stockpile (NDS), designed to support the nation's needs for up to four years, is perceived by some as insufficient for the United States to execute its strategic military objectives effectively. Proactive measures to accumulate substantial reserves of niobium and other strategic minerals are imperative. While in fiscal years 2022 and 2023 Congress appropriated $218.5 million for total NDS acquisitions, it remains at an unsatisfactory level to support the nation’s needs. Congress should place more effort in supporting the NDS in the future. Strategic stockpiling must be revitalized to Cold War-era levels so that the United States maintains its capability to meet both economic and defense production demands, even under challenging global scenarios.


In the grand chessboard of defense geopolitics, niobium has emerged as a piece of paramount importance. The intertwining of mineral control and technological advancements underscores the multifaceted nature of modern security threats. For the United States, addressing this dual challenge is not just about catching up in the hypersonic race or diversifying niobium sources, but about reimagining its strategic approach in a complex global landscape—one where the Western Hemisphere takes center stage. Recognizing and mitigating these vulnerabilities will be crucial in ensuring U.S. national security in the face of strategic competition. The stakes are high, and the game is evolving; proactive measures today will dictate the balance of power tomorrow.

Guido L. Torres is Chief Operating Officer at the Irregular Warfare Initiative and a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council. Laura Delgado López is a visiting fellow with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Ryan C. Berg is director of the CSIS Americas Program and head of the Future of Venezuela Initiative. Henry Ziemer is a research associate with the CSIS Americas Program.

Guido L. Torres

Chief Operating Officer, Irregular Warfare Initiative