Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster film “Oppenheimer” tells the story of the Manhattan Project director who raced to develop the world’s first atomic bomb before Nazi Germany could.
J. Robert Oppenheimer successfully exploited the revolutionary discovery of quantum physics to provide decisive technological superiority to the United States. In an echo of the past, the U.S. is now in a race with China to unlock the full potential of quantum technology.
Viewers of “Oppenheimer” will recognize parallels in the current contest over a critical technology with serious military ramifications.
Writing for The Diplomat, national security analyst Sam Howell asserted, “The first country to operationalize quantum technologies will possess a toolkit of capabilities that can overwhelm unprepared adversaries.”
China likewise recognizes the potential of quantum technology. “Since China is already invested heavily in quantum technologies with a long-term outlook,” Navy Commander Doug Quinn and two colleagues wrote for Joint Force Quarterly, “[the Defense Department] should assume that [quantum computing] poses a long-term threat to homeland defense.”
The field of quantum technology covers a range of systems that interact with matter at the subatomic level. At such small scales, the behavior of matter and energy is strangely paradoxical.
A quantum computer exploits those unique properties to perform calculations more efficiently than classical computers, allowing it to solve problems that are otherwise impossibly difficult for ordinary machines.
The development of quantum technology has significant military applications. According to quantum physicist Michal Krelina, “Quantum technology does not bring fundamentally new weapons or stand-alone military systems, but rather significantly enhances measurement capability, sensing, precision and computation power, and efficiency of the current and future military technology.”
The most pressing threat posed by hostile quantum power is to U.S. cybersecurity.
A sufficiently large quantum computer will be able to crack the encryption algorithms that practically all computers currently use. Quantum computers could be weaponized to gain access to sensitive classified information, private industry systems, and critical infrastructure. Analysts speculate that our adversaries may have already begun collecting and storing sensitive encrypted data to decrypt once the necessary technology is developed.
Quantum computers are also expected to accelerate the development of machine learning and artificial intelligence for military purposes. Military applications for quantum computing range from logistics optimization to powering autonomous weapons systems. The unique capabilities of quantum computers could also catalyze research in materials science, medicine, and other defense-related fields.
Beyond computing, quantum technology promises to offer a host of futuristic capabilities to the armed forces. Extremely sensitive and precise quantum sensors would revolutionize intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities.
In fact, China claims to have already developed a sensor array that can detect magnetic field signatures from a submarine 5 kilometers away. China leads in the development of quantum communication technology, which leverages the laws of quantum physics to transfer data via signals that are impossible to eavesdrop on.
The race for quantum supremacy is a struggle between private free enterprise and state-directed communism. America has about 180 private firms pursuing quantum computing, mostly on their own dime. Federal funding on quantum science amounted to just over $700 million in 2021, spread out over a host of programs.
On the other hand, the Chinese quantum sector is concentrated in large-scale government-funded laboratories, with subsidies adding up to more than $15 billion. Analysts estimate that this is at least four times as much as the U.S. quantum industry spends domestically per year.
It’s a national security imperative that the U.S. reach supremacy in quantum computing and other technologies before China, just as Oppenheimer did in his day with Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.
The most recent Pentagon budget request of $75 million to accelerate quantum technology is a step in the right direction, but that does not bring the U.S. even close to parity with its strategic rival in terms of investment. The U.S. should also streamline the acquisition authority for quantum tech to incentivize private innovation.
In the meantime, government agencies and regulatory bodies should act now to protect our nation’s sensitive information and critical infrastructure from quantum-powered cybersecurity attacks in the future.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology should hasten to standardize new “post-quantum cryptography” techniques that would resist quantum-powered code-breakers.
The military will need to develop strategies that take full advantage of quantum technology to maintain superiority over our adversaries. Krelina writes, “Quantum warfare will require an update, modification or creation of new military doctrines, military scenarios and plans to develop and acquire new techniques and weapons for the quantum age.”
To have a fighting chance in any future conflict, we must have this technology in hand before China does.
In the past, the U.S. military has stayed ahead of our adversaries by partnering with academia and private industry to advance science and technology, and we can do so again. Now is not the time to relinquish our leadership in innovation.
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