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Military applications of quantum physics

Countries plan strategy to dominate exploitation of Quantum technology into defence and security

The quest for quantum computing supremacy is a geopolitical priority for Europe, China, Canada, Australia and the United States. Advantage gained by acquiring the first computer that renders all other computers obsolete would be enormous and bestow economic, military and public health advantages to the winner. Quantum technologies will lead to major advances in precision timing, sensors and computation, destined to have a major impact on the finance, defence, aerospace, energy, infrastructure and telecommunications sectors. By 2024, the estimated global market for quantum technologies will reach $10.7 billion, which explains why nations, corporates and startups alike are all jockeying for first position.


The field comprises four domains: Quantum Communication, where individual or entangled photons are used to transmit data in a provably secure way; Quantum Simulation, where well-controlled quantum systems are used to reproduce the behavior of other, less accessible quantum systems; Quantum Computation, which employs quantum effects to dramatically speed up certain calculations, such as number factoring; and Quantum Sensing & Metrology, where the high sensitivity of coherent quantum systems to external perturbations is exploited to enhance the performance of measurements of physical quantities.


If future quantum computers threaten the security of today’s encryption methods, another side of the quantum coin – quantum cryptography – can permit unbreakable encryption. In fact, quantum cryptography could offer complete security based on physics, invulnerable to computing power.


China  has unveiled the world’s first quantum communication landline connecting Beijing with Shanghai like no two other cities in history. The first quantum encrypted Skype call was also made, that same day, by the Chinese. It was only possible because of the world’s first quantum satellite, known as Micius. Beijing is striving to become a world leader in quantum technology through large-scale state-guided investments, which may total tens of billions of dollars in the years to come. Under its 13th five-year plan, introduced in 2016, China has launched a “megaproject” for quantum communications and computing, which aims to achieve major breakthroughs in these technologies by 2030, including the expansion of China’s national quantum communications infrastructure, the development of a general quantum computer prototype, and the construction of a practical quantum simulator. China is also building the National Laboratory for Quantum Information Sciences, which, with over $1 billion in initial funding, could emerge as a key center of gravity for future research and development.


The Chinese military and China’s defense industry have also taken a keen interest in quantum technology.   People’s Liberation Army (PLA) may hope to use advances in quantum radar and sensing to offset the U.S. military’s superiority in stealth technology, which could be vulnerable to this new type of detection. In November 2018, China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), China’s biggest defense electronics company, unveiled a prototype radar that it claims can detect stealth aircraft in flight.


Chinese scientists  recently tested quantum radar technology  on board warships.The PLA Navy is looking to develop a quantum compass for its submarines that would enable them to navigate without the help of BeiDou (China’s counterpart to GPS), enabling independence from space systems that could be compromised in a conflict scenario. And quantum cryptography could give China an edge in securing military communications.


CETC’s work is part of a long-term effort by China to turn itself into a world leader in quantum technology. The country is providing generous funding for new quantum research centers at universities and building a national research center for quantum science that’s slated to open in 2020. It’s already leaped ahead of the US in registering patents in quantum communications and cryptography.


Military Applications of Quantum Science

Metrology – Sensing Sensibility’ is particularly interesting. QP will boost the capabilities of all sorts of sensory devices, such as gravimeters, which are used to measure the strength of a gravitational field.


Firstly, accurate gravity sensing will enable attacking forces to detect underground and undersea movements, which will be a boon to detecting submarine movements from afar. Of course, this could mean the deterrent effect of the UK’s submarines and torpedoes could disappear, unless of course a counter-measure of some sort is discovered.


This is a somewhat simplified statement of the Principle of Equivalence; yet its essence is clearly a boon to companies developing driverless vehicles, for which accurately sensing movements in their external environment and effective collision-avoidance will be a ‘make or break’. The same applies to LAWS, not just for collision avoidance – important as that is in a potentially chaotic battlefield – but also to make crucial assessments on the status of enemy forces.


In some situations, the speed and acceleration of enemy movement towards you is one indicator (and may be a compelling one) in determining the likelihood of ‘hostile intent’. The faster the enemy is approaching and accelerating towards you, the more likely you will be attacked; the slower the movement and, especially, if that movement is decelerating, the less likely an attack may take place; retreat, or movement away from a LAWS unit, may even be taken as a sign of surrender, possibly requiring an autonomous system to be programmed to hold fire. Of course, gravity sensors will not be the only, or even necessarily the primary means of measuring external movement. Existing technologies that may help to confirm and enhance these data include Doppler radar, which uses the Doppler effect to generate its own velocity data on the movement of external objects.


In the military sphere, this has obvious applications for collateral damage estimation (CDE). Currently, data-intensive CDE methodology is both sophisticated and accurate, but only in relation to what it can detect. Namely, by sensing the number and size of buildings, the likely material components of those buildings, and other objects and explosives around an intended strike site, and by applying this to the blast radius of the intended munition, CDE methodology can determine both a collateral effects radius and the severity of damage within that radius. From there, the system detects and includes (or is fed data estimates on) the number of people within the radius to produce a relatively accurate final assessment of collateral damage (including incidental injury to civilians).


However, in cases where chemicals, explosives and other collateral effects-inducing objects are concealed or otherwise not taken into account, the CDE methodology will underestimate the true level of collateral damage that actually occurs from an attack. Gravity sensors will go some way to addressing this information gap, enabling those who are planning an attack to take into account underground objects, which may include heavy metallic items or even pipes liable to release dangerous forces, such as gas. It should be noted that the current situation of imperfect knowledge does not affect the legal assessment of proportionality, which hinges on the ‘expected’ and not the actual collateral damage caused. Nonetheless, being better-informed about underground objects that may increase the CDE assessments will undoubtedly improve the decision-making of commanders, and it gives them the opportunity to avoid PR disasters from heavy civilian casualties.


Aside from gravity-sensing, QP has a whole host of other military applications, from communications and encryption to guard against cyber-attacks; to quantum computing and its effects on machine learning (the difference between quantum computers and today’s supercomputers apparently being like the difference between human intelligence and that of a ‘jellyfish’).



One more fascinating application of QP that is worth briefly mentioning is ‘ghost imaging’ . Put simply, this combines pictures of a target object (along with all the heat- and smoke-based distortions generated by military action) with light beams reflected directly from the target. Correlating those measurements derives an artificially-generated, but vastly improved holographic image of an object that might be two or so miles away on a smoky battlefield. Essentially, the system is computing the paths that light takes to the target and back to the sensors, and it corrects for distortions on the actual image. Undoubtedly, this will allow machines to more accurately classify persons as either combatants or civilians (as well as objects as being of a civilian or military nature) on a battlefield, thereby enabling it to fulfil the distinction task more effectively (all else being equal)[5].



UK DSTL’s “Quantum Technology Landscape 2014”

In 2013, Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Porton Down, released a report: “UK Quantum Technology Landscape 2014” as a contribution, to the national effort to realise the benefits of quantum technologies as seen through the lens of defence and security.


“Our vision is that quantum technologies will become game changing differentiators for UK defence and security over a 5-30 year time scale, and that their development will become a multi-billion pound industry that will benefit the UK economy over the same period.”
We see principal areas of opportunity for the defence and security community in the short and medium term as being timing and clocks, sensors and navigation, and enabling technologies such as quantum optics.


There are many commercial applications of these technologies so many of our priorities are shared with the civil sector. Molecular and solid state advances in quantum technology, such as power generation and recovery, and ultra-efficient lighting, could provide immense economic benefit throughout the economy and has the potential to penetrate almost every aspect of our lives in future decades.

It recommended following priority areas for applied quantum technology development:

a. Quantum clocks and associated communication networks (big ticket)
b. Ubiquitous, affordable chip scale clocks (large markets)
c. Integrated quantum optics for wide applications e.g. handheld QKD, sensors etc. including plasmonics (small ticket / extensive commercial markets)
d. Gravity and inertial sensors and “imagers” (big ticket), principally using matter waves
e. Quantum sensors such as matter wave EM field sensors, chip scale Rydberg sensors for millimetre wave and THz radiation, etc.; molecular scale sensors for medical applications
f. (Commercial) photovoltaics, thermoelectrics, ultra-efficient lighting etc
g. Special purpose quantum computers e.g. for simulation or optimisation (big ticket)
h. Alongside near term exploitation, continued efforts towards practical and scalable quantum computing technologies


Quantum computing and quantum information processing is expected to have lesser impact in the short and medium term but immense impact in the longer term, including much that is not yet foreseen. Quantum computers will be able to perform tasks too hard for even the most powerful conventional supercomputer and have a host of specific applications, from code-breaking and cyber security to medical diagnostics, big data analysis and logistics.


Quantum computers could accelerate the discovery of new materials, chemicals and drugs. They could dramatically reduce the current high costs and long lead times involved in developing new drugs. “Black Swans” such as room temperature superconductors or designer materials could produce immense disruption and so technology watch is essential.


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