On October 21st, 2021, the Congressional Research Service published its Emerging Military Technology Report to the United States Congress. The purpose of this report was to illuminate to Congress, the six primary fields of novel warfare applications that will facilitate the Third Offset Strategy (TOS). Those fields are; artificial intelligence, lethal autonomous weapons, hypersonic weapons, directed energy weapons, biotechnology, and quantum technology.
For the uninitiated, the Rand Corporation defines the TOS as:
“…less of a military strategy for offsetting Russian and Chinese military advances and more a mechanism for intellectual change within DoD at a time when changes in thinking about future warfare where needed.”
In Marine speak: the TOS is the overall strategy of transforming the United States Department of Defense from a traditional “bean counting” measurement of power against Russia and China to an asymmetric approach that avoids near-peer strengths and creates exquisite gaps in adversary defenses. While the TOS has been a monumental undertaking, birthed in the secret circles of defense acquisition in the 1990s, many hardliners still hold sway in the highest levels of the American military and government who would rather see large, multi-billion dollar aircraft carriers than mobile quantum computers powered by portable nuclear reactors.
For the purpose of this article, we will look at, in the author’s opinion, the most promising military application of the six aforementioned: Quantum.
Before we get into the military applications, let’s level the playing field on the underlying science behind Quantum. Quantum Physics, at its core, is the analysis of the different behavioral laws of bodies at an atomic level vs. the macroscopic or even microscopic. There are several phenomena at the atomic level that define “Quantum” such as superposition, wave-particle duality, uncertainty principle, and entanglement. I highly suggest the reader go on Kahn Academy for a crash course on these, I am not a physics professor.
The report covers down on three major military applications that, upon manipulating the characteristics of quantum physics, would immensely improve warfighting capability. These are Quantum Computing, Sensing, and Communications.
At its core, Quantum Computing is more efficient because it uses qubits instead of bits. Classic Computers use bits that can only exist as a 1 or 0, but qubits, utilizing the quantum phenomenon of superposition, can exist as a 1 and 0, basically allowing for more combinations to be presented, faster than a classic computer. So what does this mean for military applications? It means more powerful computers, which in turn, makes a more efficient AEGIS or BASTION which can close the kill chain faster than the enemy can engage. According to the Defense Science Board Task Force on Applications of Quantum Technologies assessment:
“…quantum computers could “potentially give DOD substantial computation power” for decryption, signals processing, and target acquisition and engagement…”
However, at this time, Quantum Computers are power hungry, they require established infrastructure which allows for supercooling, something an expeditionary military would not be able to rely on. The technology itself is also still maturing, in fact, it is in such an infant stage that the U.S. government, in the NDAA 2020 authorized each DOD branch to create a Quantum Information Science (QIS) Research Center in order to approach commercial vendors from a grassroots level to see what military applications could be translated and when.
The Chinese government has embraced Quantum and has claimed that their two most capable quantum computers are “one million times faster” than Google’s Sycamore Computer which, according to google solved a complex problem in 200 seconds that classic computers would have taken 10,000 years. While that claim has not been substantiated, if true, would represent China as the leading world power in Quantum computing. Russia on the other hand is about 10 years behind the Sycamore but has announced plans in December 2019 to invest $790 million in quantum research over the next five years and adopted a five-year Russian Quantum Technologies Roadmap
Current anti-submarine warfare relies upon exquisite stationery and mobile sensors to detect the electromagnetic emissions of a submarine or the noises it makes while traveling through the water. They rely on the propagation of those disturbances through aquatic thermal layers that stand out against the significant background noise of the ocean. However, organizations like the United States Army Research Laboratory and the Office of Naval Research are confident that Quantum sensors, both ground and space-based would be able to effectively make the oceans “transparent”. Once again the underlying theories of superposition and entanglement fuel the research and development of sensors that can detect the disturbance of subatomic particles as a submarine moves through the water. Not only the physical displacement of those particles but also the small magnetic and electric fields that submarines create due to their composition and movement through the water.
Enter the SQUID, or Superconducting Quantum Interference Device. SQUIDs leverage quantum technology to offer an ultra-sensitive magnetometer. Too sensitive, in fact, as SQUIDs have picked up background noise from stuff as distant as solar flares. No Western navies, however, have been documented as developing or fielding SQUIDs.
But on June 21, 2017, a Chinese periodical announced that Professor XIamong Xie of the Shanghai Institute of Microsystems and Information Technology had developed cryogenic liquid-nitrogen-cooled SQUID which reduced the noise problem—and in field tests, had proven capable of detecting ferrous objects deep underground even when mounted on a helicopter. If true, this would make China a leading competitor in the realm of Quantum Sensing.
Finally, we have the third military application of Quantum: communications, which arguably is the most mature of the three. Quantum communications rely on the concept of superposition which enables Quantum Key Distribution (QKD). QKD involves sending encrypted data as classical bits over networks, while the keys to decrypt the information are encoded and transmitted in a quantum state using qubits. However, the fragile state of these qubits ensures that if a third party were to attempt to “observe” them in transit, their characteristics would be altered so that the receiver can tell they were observed. This is not a theory of application, this is already being used by major institutions worldwide.
According to Technology Review: “We’re already starting to see more QKD networks emerge. The longest is in China, which boasts a 2,032-kilometer (1,263-mile) ground link between Beijing and Shanghai. Banks and other financial companies are already using it to transmit data. In the US, a startup called Quantum Xchange has struck a deal giving it access to 500 miles (805 kilometers) of fiber-optic cable running along the East Coast to create a QKD network. The initial leg will link Manhattan with New Jersey, where many banks have large data centers.”
And of course, China has already implemented this technology to serve its military. In 2016, China was the first nation to launch a quantum satellite that enabled the first quantum encrypted intercontinental video telephone conference.
It is clear that the military implications for quantum technologies present epic challenges and opportunities to operations as we know them today. I encourage the reader to take a look at the Congressional Research Service Report and become familiar with the six fields of up-and-coming technological breakthroughs.