WASHINGTON — When Ukrainian fighters in May surrendered Mauripol’s sprawling steel plant to Russian forces after a months-long siege, the consequences were widespread.
Russia not only notched a victory over the 500 Ukrainians fighting to maintain control, but it also knocked out a plant central to Ukraine’s position as a powerhouse in global neon gas exports. Those exports are key to manufacturing the very weapons the United States is sending to Kyiv to defend against Moscow’s invasion.
Steel plants like the one in Mauripol are crucial to capturing neon gas from the air and separating it from other elements in a liquid form. This is then a component in semiconductor chips, the electrical components used to manufacture everything from computers to cars to the Javelin anti-tank missile the Ukranians have successfully used to defend against Russian forces. The United States has sent at least 5,500 Javelins to Ukraine so far, and each individual missile contains more than 200 semiconductors.
Ukraine accounted for approximately half the world’s neon exports before Russia’s invasion, allowing manufacturers in Taiwan, South Korea and China to annually produce billions of semiconductors. The United States, which imports the lion’s share of its semiconductors from Asia, and its defense industrial base rely heavily on these microelectronics.
Indeed, Taiwan produces 92% of the world’s most advanced semiconductors while the United States produces zero.
Chinese “President Xi [Jinping] has made no secret of his desire to unify Taiwan with the mainland, saying he wants to be ready to do that by 2027,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in remarks on Capitol Hill last week. “It’s a major national security vulnerability,”
“How would we manufacture Javelin missiles that are used in Ukraine?” Cornyn asked. “We couldn’t because they all run on semiconductors. The Stinger that’s been used so effectively by the Ukrainians to go after Russian tanks, the joint strike fighter — the F-35 — our most advanced fifth-generation stealth aircraft, is chock-full of semiconductors that would be unavailable if our access was cut off.”
China itself exports a significant quantity of semiconductors to the United States as well as critical minerals used to make U.S. weapons systems.
Increasingly worried by the extreme foreign dependence of defense industrial supply chains, Congress is teeing up legislation to address semiconductors and critical mineral vulnerabilities. The Senate this week is expected to pass bipartisan legislation meant to revive the dying U.S. semiconductor sector while Congress is moving to include in the annual defense authorization bill provisions intended to reduce China’s monopoly on critical mineral supply chains.
“If we don’t pass this, we’re going to wake up, other countries are going to have these investments, and we’re going to say, why didn’t we do it?” Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, speaking about the semiconductor legislation, told lawmakers earlier this month. “You’re really out of time and you need to figure [this] out.”
‘The New Oil’
Cornyn, who has likened semiconductors to “the new oil, because it’s so essential to our way of life,” first introduced the CHIPS Act in 2020. The current legislation contains $52 billion through 2026 in subsidies and tax incentives meant to sway American and Asian semiconductor manufacturers to produce the microelectronics within the United States.
Congress previously folded the CHIPS Act in a broader bipartisan legislative package aimed at bolstering U.S. competitiveness against China. But lawmakers are voting on the semiconductor subsidies as stand-alone legislation after Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., withdrew support from the China competition legislation to protest Democrats moving forward with an unrelated party-line reconciliation bill that addresses healthcare.
The Senate passed the CHIPS Act 64-33 on Wednesday, and the House is expected to vote on the subsidies within the next two weeks.
The United States supplies 12% of the global share of microprocessor chips — a 37% decline from 30 years ago. U.S. consumers acutely felt the impact of a semiconductor shortage during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the lack of available microchips resulted in a spike in automobile prices.
Domestic production declined as Asian producers, especially Taiwan, heavily incentivized manufacturers to produce semiconductors.
“Taiwan’s technology ecosystem and the incentives that the Taiwanese government created around access to power, land and tax incentives all created an environment that was conducive toward capital flowing toward this emerging industry,” Rupert Hammond-Chambers, the president of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council, told Defense News.
According to a June report from the council, “China continues to focus on semiconductors as part of its overarching industrial policy, offering numerous tax and other incentives to its domestic chip companies and providing substantial amounts of funding in an attempt to produce up to 70% of the chips it needs by 2025.”
Hammond-Chambers noted U.S. semiconductor manufacturers have not invested as much in research and development as their Taiwanese counterparts.
“These companies do invest in R&D for sure, but it’s been drawn off in other areas, for example, stock share buybacks,” said Hammond-Chambers. “Capital gets drawn off.”
Semiconductor manufacturers and defense industry groups alike have joined the Biden administration in lobbying Congress to pass the CHIPS Act before lawmakers leave Washington for the month-long August recess. After that, midterm election season will kick into high gear, making it virtually impossible to pass major legislation.
Domestic semiconductor manufacturers have expressed interest in creating factories to produce chips in Ohio, Arizona, Texas and New Mexico, but many have suggested they won’t unless Congress passes the CHIPS Act. The semiconductors they produce are used in everything from PCs to smartphones to medical devices.
Microprocessor producer Intel announced plans in January to build a $20 billion microchip manufacturing plant in Ohio, but CEO Pat Gelsinger said in June the company may delay the project if Congress does not pass the $52 billion in subsidies and tax incentives.
Last month, Gelsinger and more than 100 tech CEOs signed onto a letter from the Semiconductor Industry Association urging lawmakers to pass the legislation.
“Semiconductors power every aspect of our lives and memory technology is at the heart of every commercial, industrial and defense system on the planet,” Manish Bhatia, executive vice president of global operations at Micron, whose CEO signed the letter, told Defense News. Micron produces memory and storage chips.
“Micron is ready to invest now and support secure domestic supply chains, innovation and competitiveness for the long term, but that hinges on Congress getting CHIPS and investment tax credits over the finish line,” Bhatia added.
Taiwanese companies are also looking to set up semiconductor factories in the United States, but have not publicly tied their investments to the CHIPS subsidies.
TSMC — a major Taiwanese microelectronics producer — purchased land in Arizona in 2020 for a factory to produce semiconductors, which is expected to become operational in 2024. GlobalWafers, another Taiwanese company, announced last month it plans to begin construction on a $5 billion semiconductor facility in Texas by the end of the year — news welcomed by the Biden administration.
The chief executives of six major defense firms — Lockheed Martin, Raytheon Technologies, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, BAE Systems and Leidos — also urged House and Senate leaders to pass the CHIPS Act in a May letter.
“Microelectronics are key to producing and sustaining state-of-the-art U.S. and allied warfighting capabilities for 21st century deterrence,” the CEOs wrote.
All complex weapons rely on increasingly advanced semiconductors, whether that’s Lockheed’s RQ-170 Sentinel drone, Raytheon’s Patriot missile system or Boeing’s Apache attack helicopter.
Still, even with semiconductors subsidies, the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council report notes the American microelectronics manufacturing sector will continue to lag behind in the crucial years ahead of 2027 — the date Xi wants the Chinese military to be ready should he decide to invade Taiwan.
“Despite current private and public sector efforts in the U.S. to advance domestic semiconductor manufacturing capabilities, American defense and commercial critical infrastructure dependencies on Taiwan are unlikely to significantly decrease in the short term,” the report finds. “The immense cost of maintaining and advancing state-of-the-art [factories] is a key reason for this.”
Even so, Congress, the Biden administration, business groups and defense manufacturers hope the subsidies will set the stage for long-term investments to shore up the domestic semiconductor supply chain.
IBM senior vice president and director of research Dario Gil likened it to “a very important down payment” at an event hosted by Punchbowl News this week.
China’s mineral monopoly
Semiconductors themselves rely on a complex web of supply chains. And even if the United States manages to significantly bolster its domestic production of semiconductors, it will still be heavily dependent on multiple other countries for the components to manufacture them — including critical metals from China.
While Ukraine dominated the neon gas market for semiconductors, the United States imports most of its tantalum — another critical element in semiconductor production — from China. The United States has other sources of tantalum from friendly countries like Japan and Mexico, but China holds a tight grip on other minerals of crucial importance to the defense industrial base.
Beijing controls the market for materials like titanium needed to build airframes, tungsten to make military turbine engines and antimony, an essential element to produce basic bullets and more advanced ammunition.
“The Chinese communist party is actively, as a matter of strategy, seeking to create global dependencies, whether that’s on food supplies, trade routes or most notably on rare earth minerals that are the basic elements that go into computer chips,” Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., the ranking member on the House Armed Services readiness panel, told Defense News last week before a meeting with the Taiwanese envoy to the United States.
Rare earth metals are used in a wide array of technological applications, including semiconductor manufacturing. But the United States imported about 80% of its rare earth compounds from China in 2019.
Waltz is one of several lawmakers working to shore up the U.S. strategic mineral reserve, known as the National Defense Stockpile. The Defense Logistics Agency manages the fund, which stockpiles minerals needed to make everything from basic ammunition to night vision goggles to nuclear weapons.
The Defense Department and Congress view the National Defense Stockpile as vital to ensuring continuous access to these strategic minerals, many of which are imported from China.
But lawmakers fear the fund will become insolvent by fiscal 2025, absent congressional action, and are prioritizing shoring up the fund in this year’s defense appropriations and authorization cycle. The National Defense Stockpile is currently valued at $888 million, down from $42 billion in today’s dollars at its peak during the beginning of the Cold War in 1952.
“We need our own stockpile of these critical rare earth elements, and we have to bring these supply chains back home,” said Waltz. “If the [Chinese Communist Party] is threatening to shut them down as a matter of course to our allies like Japan, Australia — or even the United States — imagine what they will do if they know these elements are being used to reinforce and support our ally in Taiwan, so it’s absolutely critical we bring those supply chains back home.”
The Senate defense authorization would more than double the National Defense Stockpile by allocating $1 billion for FY23. The House defense authorization would allocate $253.5 million for FY23. Both bills provide the National Defense Stockpile manager more flexibility in overseeing the strategic mineral reserve.
Furthermore, the House bill sets up a pilot program for the National Defense Stockpile to acquire critical minerals that are a priority in manufacturing semiconductors. It also requires the creation of an interagency semiconductor supply chain working group to develop a plan for future disruptions.
That bill would call for a whole range of briefings, including one from Raimondo and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on U.S. access to scandium, a rare earth element that can be used in semiconductors and aerospace technology, another from Austin on establishing titanium processing facilities in the United States or partner countries; and one from Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Bill LaPlante on niobium, used in jet and rocket engines.
Congress already appropriated $600 million in funds for the Defense Production Act when it passed its $40 billion Ukraine aid bill in May. Some of those funds will be used to obtain critical minerals as prescribed by President Joe Biden’s executive order in March.
The White House said the funding would increase production of minerals that “have been disrupted by [Russian President Vladimir Putin’s] war in Ukraine and that are necessary to make everything from defense systems to automobiles.”
The State Department also announced last month the creation of the Minerals Security Partnership with 10 other allies and security partners in Europe, Asia and the Pacific to shore up access to vital minerals among those countries.
“It’s a whole range of parts of the supply chain that, clearly, we have issues,” Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves said at the Punchbowl News event. “Congress is leading an effort … to get ahead of industry, get ahead of where we’re going to have real problems going forward — whether it’s semiconductors, critical minerals or what have you.”
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.