Could the Soviet Union retaliate against President Carter's new export controls or the American longshoremen's boycott of its shipping by withholding essential raw materials it sells to the United States?
The short answer, Carter administration analysts say, is that such Soviet action alone probably would not worsen existing US shortages. But the possibility of such pressure underscores the larger, unsolved problem of growing American dependence on foreign sources for nonfuel minerals that are critical for defense needs and for the economy generally.
President Carter suspended existing licenses for high-technology exports -- such as electronics, computers, and machine tools -- to the USSR for four to six weeks Jan. 9 while US trade controls are reviewed. A week earlier, at the same time he banned US grain sales to the Soviet Union, the President halted the issuing of all new licenses.
Titanium, chromium, cobalt, the platinum family of metals (especially palladium), and manganese are especially crucial US imports, either from the USSR or from third- world areas where the Soviets could, by encouraging local conflicts or revolutions, interfere with supply.
Reports from US industry indicate frantic competitive bidding for available foreign supplies of titanium, a light, strong metal essential in building jet engines and airframes, and in other aerospace and missile applications.
However, concern over the supply of chromium, which is needed for precision industiral tools, could ease. The US will be able to obtain Rhodesian chromite directly since the lifting of trade sanctions following the recent peace accord there. (US economic intelligence experts suspect the Soviets of having purchased large amounts of Rhodesian chrome during the Western trade embargo for resale as Soviet chrome at a huge profit).
A new study by Amos A. Jordan and Robert A. Kilmarx for Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies shows that US dependency on foreign sources for several critical nonfuel minerals will grow steadily between now and the year 2000.
Although the US is a major minerals consumer, the study says, it has -- as a percentage of world reserves -- substantial reserves of its own only in copper ( 18.4 percent) and tungsten (6.1 percent), among nine key minerals.
The Soviet Union, South Africa, and Rhodesia control more than two-thirds of five minerals that are critical to US needs: 96.5 percent of chromium; 90.5 percent of manganese (without which the US steel industry would be forced out of business); 99.7 percent of platinum; 74.6 percent of tungsten; 69.4 percent of nickel, and 69 percent of cobalt.
The Soviet- and Cuban-backed 1978 rebellion in Zaire, US Defense Department analysts say, halted fully one-half the world's cobalt supplies for a month. (Cobalt is essential for the hardening of steel and in some nuclear programs.)
Platinum ingots, which have become a major trading metal, like gold, virtually disappeared from the Soviet export picture last year. Platinum is an essential catalyst in the chemical and petroleum refining and petrochemical industries. Its close cousin, palladium, which comes mainly from the USSR, is needed for the catalytic converters of US automobiles.
A shortage of Soviet titanium, according to US economic intelligence experts, may be due in part to production of the new "alpha" submarine, a swift, deep-diving craft with a titanium hull that some US Navy sources believe may outperform heavier American submarines.
Titanium metal extrusions are in especially short supply. Martin-Marietta Corporation, the big aerospace firm, is the largest US producer. It buys its supplies of titanium in "sponge," or raw material form, abroad and now is negotiating with Japan for its 1980 supplies, with asked prices at about $7 a pound.
Soviet titanium sponge, when not withheld from the market to fetch higher prices, now commands prices as high as $20 a pound, according to an official of the Kolon Trading Company, the American representative of the USSR's state trading company, Techanabexport.