In July 2023, China put the world on notice when its Ministry of Commerce announced new licensing requirements for exports of the critical minerals gallium and germanium. The restrictions were widely seen as part of Beijing’s response to U.S.-led efforts to restrict China’s access to advanced semiconductors and chipmaking equipment. While the urgency of this announcement has retreated from the forefront of the news, any change in policy presents a threat to the RF and microwave industry.

China is the world’s leading supplier of both minerals, but its control over gallium is especially notable. In 2022, it produced a staggering 98 percent of the world’s supply of raw gallium.1 For the growing set of industries that rely on gallium material, China’s moves should raise eyebrows. Chinese customs data shows that the country’s gallium exports dropped to zero in August, 20232 demonstrating the potential extent of its restrictions.

While gallium is not especially rare, its production has become increasingly concentrated in China. This is due to years of government-supported production that forced most global producers out of business over the past decade. As a result, there are currently few alternatives to Chinese suppliers in the short term.

Figure 1

Figure 1 Global primary gallium production. Source: “Gallium Statistics and Information,” National Minerals Information Center, USGS,

Gallium’s critical role in modern electronics supply chains, particularly in advanced defense equipment like next-generation missile defense, radar, electronic warfare and communications systems, makes China’s stranglehold over its supply a critical vulnerability for the U.S. and its partners. While severe disruptions have yet to materialize, this episode should serve as a call to action for public and private stakeholders in the U.S. and allied countries to coordinate on clear steps to de-risk their critical mineral supply chains. Figure 1 shows how quickly China’s dominance in primary gallium production has grown compared to production from the rest of the world.


China’s decision to target gallium with export restrictions was likely motivated by the metal’s importance to the defense sector. Gallium is an essential input into compounds like gallium arsenide (GaAs) and gallium nitride (GaN), which are used to fabricate direct and wide bandgap semiconductors found in RF devices, power electronics and optoelectronics. The performance of these chips at higher voltages, temperatures and frequencies makes them especially well-suited for military applications.

For decades, advanced military systems, from radars and missile defense to satellites and electronic warfare systems, have used GaAs MMICs in transmit/receive applications due to their performance, efficiency and resilience to heat and radiation. In recent years, GaN has emerged as an even more capable alternative to GaAs in RF power applications and the falling fabrication costs of GaN substrates3 are spurring widespread adoption.

GaN is revolutionizing modern radar, allowing new radar modules to track smaller, faster and more numerous threats from nearly double the distance. Many of these cutting-edge radar systems are powered by several thousand gallium-enabled chips. U.S. and allied armed forces are swiftly incorporating GaN-enhanced radars into their most important platforms. In 2019 Raytheon was awarded a $383 million contract to build the first six GaN-enabled active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars for the U.S. Army’s Lower-Tier Air and Missile Defense Sensor (LTAMDS), which are being integrated into Patriot missile defense units and other systems.4 In June 2023, Poland secured the first foreign sale of the LTAMDS radar system and other key U.S. allies are likely to follow.5 In addition to Poland, the U.S. military is also helping key international partners like South Korea and Saudi Arabia to integrate GaN-enhanced devices into their radar systems.

Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman is developing the AN/APG-85, an advanced GaN-based AESA radar for the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter and the U.S. Marine Corps has deployed Northrop’s AN/TPS-80 ground-based radar system since 2019. In 2022, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) awarded Raytheon a $3.2 billion contract to equip up to 31 vessels with GaN-powered AN/SPY-6 system radars, including the navy’s new Arleigh Burke-class Flight III destroyers, aircraft carriers and amphibious ships.6 These upgrades are poised to bring about a sea change in the ability of U.S. and allied forces to defend against emerging threats like hypersonic missiles, next-generation stealth aircraft and unmanned systems.

Beyond direct defense needs, gallium is increasingly essential for a broad set of commercial products. These products are found in applications like 5G base stations, smartphones, solar panels and electric vehicles. Some industry experts even see gallium compounds as a potential way to move beyond silicon-based chips as advanced chipmaking begins to push the limits of Moore’s law.7 Figure 2 shows some of the advantages and uses of gallium-based devices in a variety of applications.

Figure 2

Figure 2 Applications and uses for gallium-based devices. Created by CSIS. Reprinted with permission. Source: Authors’ research and analysis based on multiple sources.

The growing need for gallium as a raw material in both defense and critical industries has ensured that supply interruptions would be costly. Precise economic impacts are difficult to quantify, but experts from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimate that a 30 percent supply disruption of gallium could cause a $602 billion decline in U.S. economic output or 2.1 percent of gross domestic product.8 The cascading impacts on industrial production could cause major setbacks to the manufacturing of key defense systems, particularly those that rely on GaN chips.

China does not yet appear to be pursuing a full export embargo of gallium, leaving room for Beijing to escalate further. The Commerce Ministry announced the restrictions a full month before they went into effect, giving many firms some time to stockpile much of their short-term needs. Starting in September, it appeared to be approving gallium export permits even for U.S.-based firms. Still, without coordinated steps to diversify their supply, the U.S. and its allies will remain vulnerable if China chooses to further tighten restrictions in the future.


China’s near monopoly over gallium production is closely tied to the rise of its aluminum industry. Gallium differs from some other key minerals, such as lithium, nickel and cobalt, in that it is normally not recovered directly from the earth. Instead, roughly 90 percent of the world’s gallium supplies are derived as a byproduct of processing bauxite, the primary ore for aluminum. Much of the remainder is extracted from zinc or coal tailings. Raw gallium is then refined into higher purities before it can be used for most applications, a process that has also gradually shifted from the U.S. and other advanced economies toward China. An overview of the gallium production cycle, from mining to recycling, is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3

Figure 3 Gallium production process. Created by CSIS. Reprinted with permission. Source: Authors’ research and analysis based on multiple sources.