Global powers are now shifting their attention to acquire strategic technology for future warfare. The quantum technologies that are critical to securing strategic dominance are opening a new era of the arms race. In particular, experiments in the field of quantum entanglement, which were esoteric to theoretical physicists in the past, have increasingly, opened new possibilities for gaining an edge in military power and intelligence gathering. These developments are drawing serious attention from policy-makers, who bet on issues of life and death to achieve military predominance. Other technologies, such as quantum tunneling and quantum superposition, are also being applied in high-stakes competitions to create new types of computation, sensing and cryptography for military applications. The mastery of these technologies is likely to tip the scales of ongoing day-to-day cyberwarfare as well as state-on-state combat in the future. As the first movers take advantage in a giant industry for decades to come, global powers are throwing their hat into the ring for quantum supremacy.
Technological Leap Forward
In 2016, China’s world-first quantum satellite, Micius, made a breakthrough in the field of ultra-long-distance quantum communication. The prospect of hack-proof quantum teleportation based on quantum entanglement is a ground-breaking competitor among traditional encryption methods, such as the use of fiber-optics communication. The fiber optic communications and wireless airwaves that are commonly used to pass digital information with encryption have made revolutionary strides in the transmission of massive amounts of data. However, these modes are still vulnerable to attempts by eavesdroppers to decrypt the traffic. In theory and practice, the systems require the maintenance of a high level of mathematical complexity to prevent unauthorized access to decrypt the content. The traditional communication methods enabled the construction of a global network system, yet failed to provide reliable methods for detecting eavesdroppers.
The quantum technologies, however, have two advantages that traditional communication channeling lacks. First, quantum communication is safe, as any interference is detectable. This form of communication works on the basis of quantum entanglement, where pairs of particles, such as pairs of photons, work like quantum twins that share their quantum properties, such as spin, position, and momentum, in a particular way. If one of the measured halves of a pair goes up, the other one goes down—that is, each photon of a pair works according to the principle of opposites. Until quite recently, however, the distance and the magnitude to maintain entanglement between two particles remained one of the major obstacles to commercialize from the theory.
China’s experimental satellite, Micius, proved that entangled photon pairs can be securely sent and received over the long distance between the satellite and ground observatories. The satellite, which orbits at nearly 8km/sec, cruising between 500 to 2,000 kilometers above the earth, succeeded in beaming entangled pairs of photons to two ground stations, Delingha in Qinghai and Gaomeigu Observatory in Lijiang, which are about 1,200 kilometers apart. These telescopes are emplaced on high mountains to reduce the atmospheric disturbance that photons need to traverse. This quantum experiment became a major milestone of intercontinental quantum communication between the satellite and the ground observatories to demonstrate that pairs of photons are not fragile. In theory, this enables perfect security in communications, since by observing the photons, any changes made by an intruder or manipulator will be detectable.
Second, this satellite-to-ground quantum communication enhances the quantum cryptography with quantum computers. In the past, the loss of photons delivered by optical fibers was high due to the light absorption, with the result that, generally, photons cannot be delivered over distances greater than 200 kilometers. With Micius, quantum cryptography proved that the loss of photons is far less, going beyond the border between the two parties sharing the key to encode and decode the message. The video conference between the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna validated the quantum privacy guaranteed with a one-time pad. The possibility for global-scale communication opens the promise of a future global quantum network both for commercial and military purposes that attracts many to consider making the heavy investment necessary for quantum research.
In addition to communication, quantum metrology technology appears to establish advanced radar technology for military purposes. This technique enables the immediate changes of a targeted object at the atomic scale. For instance, the effect of gravity on subatomic particles and other key changes in other characteristics of the object is immediately noticeable. It opens the possibility of improved radar capability against electromagnetic stealth techniques, in which the U.S. has invested nearly 1 trillion USD. If the new form of quantum radar incorporates the quantum mechanics, it is nearly impossible to evade detection. The development of quantum metrology can further enhance the key application of autonomous vehicles or submarines freed from the GPS system or other external navigation settings that are vulnerable to jamming and detection.
The scope of quantum technologies for both commercial and military applications appears to be almost limitless, stimulating a race among nations to achieve quantum supremacy. Currently, two giants are leading the trend. Last year, China, which established itself as the first mover to launch a quantum satellite, announced the plan to invest 10 billion USD in building a new quantum research center in Hefei by 2020. China set two principal goals for this national laboratory: developing quantum metrology and developing a quantum computer as part of the national defense plan. With quantum metrology research, China appears to intend to pioneer various military platforms for vehicles to improve communication systems to be un-hackable as well as jam-proof. In the field of quantum computing, China was a latecomer, however, Beijing is making a proactive investment to get ahead of its competitors. The prototype of quantum computing is known 100 million times faster than the current computers using microwaves and quantum particles.
China’s move has alarmed many in Washington to step up in the race. As part of maintaining U.S. military supremacy, the U.S. government re-prioritized the strategic planning with innovative technologies, reinforcing the joint cooperation among academia, national laboratories and the private sector into a national security innovation base. Quantum computing and its linkage with artificial intelligence appear to be the priority as part of the catching-up strategy. The U.S. appears to have spent 200 million dollars on quantum research on average since the mid-2000s. In 2016, the Obama administration set up an inter-agency working group for quantum research, while many still believe that it is not enough to compete with China for capturing quantum supremacy. The recent National Quantum Initiative Act passed by Congress incorporates a ten-year development program through inter-agency coordination on quantum research to spur a competitive edge. A quantum industry coalition, including Intel, Google, Lockheed Martin, OxBranch, and so on has been initiated to mobilize the quantum science research across the government.
Some discussions are also ongoing about China’s quantum radar and imaging development plans that aim at reducing the U.S. advantage in stealth technology. The F-35 stealth fighter, a single-engine, multirole stealth combat aircraft, is one of the main weapon systems of the U.S. air force. In 2016, China already had developed a single-photon quantum radar that effectively works up to one hundred kilometers distance from its targets.
In Europe, the European Commission (EC) is the leading agency to invest in quantum research and has announced the creation of a 1.1 billion U.S. dollar initiative as the institution’s quantum technology flagship. However, the industrial partners seem to be less enthusiastic for such an EC-led coordination, which has induced many countries, including Germany, Austria and Hungary, to launch independent quantum technology programs. Furthermore, in the wake of Brexit, the possibility of including Britain in such projects has become politically complex. As Britain was one of the few countries promoting an inter-agency research program, worth some 450 million USD under the National Quantum Technologies Program, the political hurdles have slowed the joint research apart from the initial ambitious agenda.
India also is joining the race. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and Raman Research Institute launched joint quantum technology research to secure satellite communications. In 2017, the Space Applications Center under ISRO funded the Quantum Information and Computing laboratory at Raman Research Institute, which took the first step toward quantum communications. Japan and Singapore also conduct quantum-communication experiments through micro- and nanosatellites, respectively. However, both countries’ experiments have yet to involve quantum entanglement, or quantum teleportation.
More to go
The door has just been opened to visualize quantum physics. However, a number of issues remain to be solved before technological obstacles can be overcome. At present, the quantum satellite needs to fly directly over the receiver. To improve the tracking accuracy, the receiver needs to be placed high on a mountain to receive the data. The limitation on the bandwidth determines the effective coverage of the satellite communications. Also, the cost and size of the device matters. In coming years, perhaps a decade or so, the quantum technologies will improve by leaps and bounds, which is sure to truly open a new type of arms race among the global powers.
Ji Yeon-jung is a Lecturer at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Seoul.