A Worsening Crisis in Congo

And the Threat It Poses to U.S. National Security

Congolese opposition supporters chant slogans during a march to pressure Congolese President Joseph Kabila to step down, September 19, 2016. Kenny Katombe / Reuters

For the last two decades, fighting has plagued the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, resulting in 5.4 million deaths, rampant corruption, and one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world. The instability has already spread beyond the east as a constitutional and electoral crisis propels the fragile situation toward a larger conflict, and it is now threatening to destabilize a mineral-rich area known as Katanga. 

Katanga is home to 50 to 60 percent of the world’s reserves of cobalt, representing the largest global supply of the mineral, as well as significant quantities of copper, and a conflict there would seriously affect U.S., as well as European, national security. The Pentagon has identified cobalt and copper as “strategic and critical minerals” for the production of military planes, missile guidance systems, and other hardware. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, cobalt is a critical material because it used as a superalloy in military and commercial jet engines, and it is very difficult to substitute because of its very high heat resistance. As of 2014, 16 percent of the world’s cobalt was used in superalloys, five percent was used in magnets, and 42 percent was used in batteries, all of which are essential in military hardware as well as in hybrid and electric cars, commercial planes, and consumer electronics. The global commercial demand for cobalt is also increasing significantly, particularly for building batteries in hybrid and electric cars as well as an array of electronics products. Similarly, copper, which the National Mining Association says is the second most used mineral by the Department of Defense by weight, is also mined in Congo. It can be found in naval vessels, Coast Guard ships, and Air Force planes as well in military and commercial engines and motors of all sizes. 

Should Katanga be destabilized, U.S. and European defense industries would be cut off from accessing these critical materials, the majority of which are trucked out of Katanga on one main

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