Trade War Deepens: US Probes Titanium Imports In Possible Tariff Case

The Trump administration on Monday launched a national security inquiry into titanium sponge imports, a critical material used in military and aerospace applications.

The titanium sponge probe under Section 232 follows a 2017 investigation by the Commerce Department at the request of Titanium Metals Corp., an American manufacturer of titanium-based products.

Following the 2017 probe, the U.S. International Trade Commission voted to end the investigation into the imports, indicating there was no immediate threat to the domestic producer.

The Commerce Department said the Pentagon and U.S. defense companies are in full support of the new national security probe.

"Titanium sponge has uses in a wide range of defense applications, from helicopter blades and tank armor to fighter jet airframes and engines," said Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

Titanium sponge is the brittle form of titanium resulting from the first stage of processing the mineral for industrial applications. 

Titanium can also be used in infrastructure and commercial products including commercial aircraft, industrial plants, oil production plants, electric power and desalination plants, building structures, automobiles and components, and biomedical devices, the Commerce Department said.

Boeing and Lockheed both use titanium for airframe structures in their fifth-generation jet fighters.

Alcoa has become the top titanium supplier for airframe structures for all three variants of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.

The Trump administration has strategically used tariffs and trade war threats to bring concessions from trading partners and as a last-ditch effort to defend crumbling U.S. manufacturing industries.

Ross noted that titanium has a wide range of defense applications, adding that the Commerce Department would “conduct a thorough, fair, and transparent investigation before we make a recommendation to the president.”

US manufacturers imported $778 million in titanium last year, with $210 million from Japan, $184 million Russia and $53 million from China, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Government statistics show imports account for 60% of US consumption of titanium sponge and there is only one facility in the U.S. that can handle the raw material, the Commerce Department said.

The Trump administration launched probes on steel and aluminum imports have led to tariffs on the metals, prompting a tit-for-tat trade war with trading partners including Canada, Mexico, and the European Union.

The Commerce Department just completed a Section 232 probe into automotive imports that could lead to tariffs on European cars. That is depending on the probe's conclusion, which is still not public yet. EU's top trade officials will meet with US trade representatives on Wednesday.

If no resolution, the Trump administration is likely to slap EU auto manufactures with steep tariffs. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said they will respond in a tit-for-tat effort.

As to why the Trump administration is focusing on titanium, well, we have some unfortunate news. The metal, being a critical component in America's defense weapons, is primarily mined outside of the US. The Pentagon and the Trump administration are preparing and securing supply chains of basic materials, for, in the event of a significant conflict, manufacturers can still produce weapons without supply chain disruptions.