NATO has identified quantum as a key emerging technology whose potential applications might enable Allies to extend their warfighting capabilities. The implications of quantum technologies for defence are extensive and include important applications in the fields of computing, communication, and sensing. These three sub-fields contain additional subcatagories, each possessing potential applications and capabilities that will influence all domains of warfare.
Governments and private industry, including Amazon, IBM, Google, and Microsoft, Baidu and Huawei have recognized the prospects of a new technological revolution and have committed hundreds of millions of dollars to research and development. Adversarial governments are also standing up quantum research programs, spending billions of dollars to gain an edge. In 2016, China launched the first quantum science satellite, which has since demonstrated intercontinental relay communications.
Companies worldwide are racing to harness quantum computing which promises tremendous data power, volume, speed, and security with the ultimate goal of building a quantum internet. Quantum computer power will have huge implications for complex systems simulations, pharmaceutical development, finance, logistics, machine learning, and decryption.
The “first generation” quantum technology is already all around us, found in semiconductors, microprocessors and high-speed switches in computers and communication infrastructure. But quantum is an emerging field which depends on the exploitation of physical phenomena at sub-atomic scale.
Quantum technology’s next generation is already making its way into toolkits and will someday soon be ubiquitous. In the case of quantum sensing, the ability to measure tiny differences in temperature, acceleration, gravity, and time are all likely to be greatly improved by quantum research. Quantum sensing technology will advance underground mapping, give autonomous systems the ability to “see” around corners, and help scan brain activity. Many of these tools are already in use by private industry and government.
NATO is developing quantum sensing for the detection of submarines. Quantum-enabled inertial navigation systems could do the work of GPS without satellite signals. Soon the NATO enterprise and Allies will need to upgrade and secure digital infrastructure using quantum-resistant cryptography.
Quantum technology itself promises very secure data communication. Data security is very difficult to manage in a contested environment so quantum would be a game-changer on the battlefield. In the near future quantum technology could be used to easily break standard encryptions, while information encoded in a quantum particle, when attacked by hackers, would collapse, making interpretation impossible.
Despite the vast potential of this field it is important to reflect that quantum technology is not a “silver bullet” for capability and defense concerns. It is important to appreciate that within the quantum field there is no consolidated view, and some experts remain skeptical, describing it as nothing more than quantum hype. All these factors add impetus to ensure NATO has robust methods to track quantum market trends and technological initiatives that will inform capability development and investment decisions.
Forward-leaning work in this field will only grow in importance as Allies seek to capitalize on quantum technologies. Using Allied testing and validation infrastructure including test centres and access to end-user military operators, NATO can continue to be a leader in this field.