By: Christopher Lochridge
Estimated Read Time: 12 minutes
The term “quantum” has been thrown around in the past few years to mean anything from extremely fast internet to the next wave in computing. The truth is “quantum” can be applied to a variety of technologies; but is all based off the theories of quantum mechanics, or how sub-atomic particles interact and behave. Like Schrödinger’s Cat, this abstract is quantum-based, it both exists and doesn’t exist, until you read it just now.
Over the past few years the word quantum has proliferated through our vernacular to describe everything from learning styles to “crazy fast” internet speeds. In reference to emerging technology, especially through military circles, quantum seems to be the set of technological capabilities that will turn the world as we know it on its head. This brass ring will be able to instantly decrypt any message, speak seamlessly across the globe, and spot an incoming attack before the enemy’s weapons will be within range. The last statement is obvious hyperbole, but many within military circles speak of quantum without a solid understanding of “what quantum means” and more importantly, what it doesn’t. Decision-makers risk falling victim to “the sky is falling” paranoia for quantum-based threats without this fundamental knowledge.
This article aims to define key terms that are common throughout various quantum technologies, discuss what those emerging technologies are, how those technologies will affect our way of life, and most importantly, how that technological race is playing out through great power competition with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Quantum doesn’t mean a complete disintegration of our computer networks. Quantum is not a “thing” that will destroy all cryptography, but quantum will force users to reprioritize effectiveness of efficiency in the future. This article is not a deep-dive into the technical fundamentals of quantum technology and it is not an all-encompassing definitive list of technology. Not being a scientist or an engineer, I was curious and wanted to simply find the potential impacts of this emerging technology on the future security environment that the United States (US) will face. The current disparate efforts between the Department of Defense, academia, and industry is costing the US some efficiency in the push to advance quantum technology. There are periods in our nation’s history that saw an alignment of those three pillars of knowledge behind a single goal, now might be the next point for another alignment.
“Quantum” in this article is referring to quantum mechanics and how sub-atomic particles, typically photons, behave and the emerging technologies based on those behaviors. Forgoing detailed scientific data, a fundamental principle has to do with photon behavior and how quantum differs from our traditional binary, 1 or 0, behavior we have come to know in technology. A bit in a quantum state, known as a qubit, has the unique ability to maintain both 1 and 0 simultaneously. Only when measured does that qubit leave a quantum state and become either a 1 or a 0. A great example of this is Schrödinger’s Cat, where in the thought experiment a cat is placed in a box and due to some actions can be thought of as both alive and dead. Only upon opening the box is it confirmed one or the other. This ability to occupy both the state of 1 and 0 is known as superposition. Another critical element to quantum mechanics is known as entanglement, this is where two particles in superposition share the same quantum state while being unmeasured. For instance, say Bob and Jane have two sub-atomic particles that are in superposition (unmeasured) and entangled. If Jane were to observe her particle, causing it to become a 1 or a 0, then Bob’s particle, regardless if he measured or not, would match that state of Jane’s particle. Interference, both constructive and destructive interference, refers to the amplitudes that add or cancel each other out. For instance, noise cancelling headphones operate on the destructive interference principle with sound, cancelling out wavelengths. Conversely, constructive would be able to enhance the amplitudes to increase the “output.”
The world’s technology base stands to significantly benefit from the concepts of superposition and entanglement of particles, their impacts to the Confidentiality, Integrity, and Availability of data (otherwise known as the “CIA triad”), and how those particles can offer new methods for Precision, Navigation, and Timing. Current development projects include: quantum communications as an “unhackable” communications link, quantum radars, and quantum compasses for navigation in a GPS-denied environment.
Quantum technology is becoming more widely-known amongst the general population, spurred on by current events, news, and educational videos, such as this one explaining quantum mechanics to five levels of general proficiency. For simplicity, quantum computing is computation performed using a computing device based on the strange, counter-intuitive physical properties of matter at very small scales. These quantum computers purportedly are able to do things that traditional computers are unable to do, such as modeling nature. However, all atmospheric interference, or noise, must be minimized in order to control the essential qubits. This is typically done through dropping the environmental temperature of the quantum computer’s room by as much as 10 milliKelvin (-1000 F), close to absolute zero. Quantum computing is a new way to approach problems that classic computers have difficulty doing. Quantum computers are probabilistic, though, versus deterministic like we think of with traditional computing. Assume that a quantum computer can return multiple answers based on the probability of one being correct. The noise in the environment directly influences that probability. This noise can become problematic when we are looking for the one right answer; but science and technology are advancing to in an effort to reduce the error rate in quantum computing down to a manageable level. This error rate is directly related to “quantum supremacy,” or the point in which a quantum computer surpasses traditional computing power. This point hasn’t yet been reached in the bridge between science and manufacturing as of the publishing of this article.
Closely related to quantum computing is quantum cryptography. For the sake of foregoing higher-level math explanations, suffice to say the ability for a quantum machine to conduct the sophisticated algorithms necessary to break encryption data is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Symmetric and asymmetric encryption have different survivability rates. Symmetric is encryption where the same encryption key is distributed to all parties and a centrally managed entity controls that distribution. AES-256, or Advanced
Encryption Standard 256, is a commonly acceptable encryption method certified for use by the National Security Agency. Theoretically this 256-bit encryption will be reduced to the effectiveness of a 128-bit encryption standard by a quantum computer running the correct algorithm, which is still considered secure by NSA standards. Asymmetric encryption is different because it uses Public Key Infrastructure, where an individual has a private key and uses a public key, available to anyone, to encrypt and decrypt information. This is the encryption method is used in emails, digital signatures, and e-commerce. Since part of the key is publicly available, quantum computers can use existing algorithms with the public key to determine a user’s private key and decrypt any traffic using asymmetric encryption.
Closely related, quantum communications uses many of the same concepts. Central to this is Quantum Key Distribution, or QKD. The crux of QKD is using two entangled qubits to create a one-time pad allowing two end-points to speak securely. Due to superposition and entanglement, when an eavesdropper tries to listen into the conversation it causes the qubits to come out of superposition and become either a 1 or 0. This destroys the secure link and data along with it, as well as notifies the two communicating that someone tried to listen into their conversation. QKD is a method to secure traditional communications. This form of quantum communication is essentially using symmetric encryption with a quantum keymat. The transmission path follows traditional terrestrial or satellite communications routes.
There is a proposal to implement this method across Europe as a means of securing communications. The Chinese have also purportedly conducted a quantum link between China and Vienna through their Micius Satellite, which distributed a key to two ground stations allowing for a secure video teleconference. Another quantum communications theory proposes teleportation as a capability. This theory uses two entangled photons, altering one photon with data and expecting the resulting entangled photon to change to match. This, in theory, causes instantaneous transfer of data between two end points.
Quantum radar is one technologic advancement that has the potential to threaten the US low observable aircraft able to penetrate an enemy’s integrated air defense system (IADS) to strike critical targets. Traditional radar is dependent on the reflection of electromagnetic waves bouncing off the surface of an object and returning to the radar. The ability to deflect or disrupt that reflection has been key to the US’s use of the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS). However, quantum radar is not dependent on the reflection of a particle; it uses entanglement to detect objects. A quantum radar fires one photon out of an entangled pair of photons. Only a few photons from this radar will be reflected back, and the radar can distinguish between the returning photons and ambient environmental noise by comparing the returned photons to the retained entangled photons in the radar.
Quantum compass is an attempt to deliver more accurate and foolproof navigation tools to the military. In the event of a GPS-denied or spoofed environment, quantum compasses would be able to provide positioning based on microscopic synthetic diamonds with atomic flaws known as nitrogen-vacancy (NV) centers. The NV centers emit light at an intensity that varies according to the surrounding magnetic field. The changes in the NV center’s emissions are compared to existing detailed maps of the Earth’s magnetic field. This comparison yields a precise location for an aircraft or vessel. This may sound farfetched, but major US defense contractors such as Lockheed Martin are working on precision navigation when space becomes a contested environment. A quantum compass adds another layer of redundancy for synchronization of combat operations in a denied or degraded space environment. The technology lends itself to survivability through most levels of high-intensity conflict, and can offer another method to validate nefarious actions, such as spoofing, on friendly systems.
What Quantum Can’t Do
Quantum technology is not a magic bullet that will instantly compromise any information system. Quantum does have the potential to open greater possibilities for computational uses, such as enhancing the use of artificial intelligence or machine learning. The technology is still close to infancy compared to those claims, however.
The encryption used to secure, store, and transmit classified information will not face any greater threat from exposure than is present today. Network users must remain vigilant guarding who has access to cryptographic keys and practice standard cyber hygiene to ensure unauthorized users are denied access. Symmetric cryptography, currently employed by the US Government, will remain relatively secure and there are likely some very smart cryptographers at work to increase the complexity of our current keymat. Asymmetric cryptography, such as the encryption types used in modern electronic banking would be at risk if quantum computers could perform at its theoretical peak today. Governments and financial institutions are working to mitigate this threat by using less efficient but more effective means of encryption, like lattice encryption, that employ higher-level mathematics to secure information. With the limited number of quantum computers available today and the complexity of algorithms needed for such cyber-crime, it is not likely that nation-states, academic institutions, and major technology corporations would lease time on their highly sophisticated machines to steal financial data short of an all-out war. Some firms are pleading for the public to change encryption methods now to avoid ‘instant decryption’ of private data by a quantum computer. However, these claims may be seen as crying that ‘the sky is falling’ for an unproven technology; especially as many of these firms also hold some financial benefit in data storage companies and other related fields.
Similar to problems that experienced in the birth of classical computing, problems plague quantum radar, communication, and key distribution. The theory is sound, but the practicality of the engineering required hasn’t caught up to the theory yet. Researchers haven’t been able to generate highly reliable streams of entangled protons nor build sufficiently sensitive detectors. China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, CETC, has claimed since 2016 that they possess quantum radars capable of detecting objects up to 100 km away, but they are keeping their prototype a secret. However, in the absence of hard evidence, critics like Seth Lloyd an MIT professor who developed the theory of quantum radar, remain skeptical of Chinese claims.
It may not be possible to “hack in” to quantum communications networks with today’s methods, but the network is far from impenetrable. The risk of unauthorized network access lies where the system is the weakest not the strongest. The transfer nodes that decrypt, transfer, and re-encrypt outgoing messages can be subject to compromise. The disruption of satellite-distributed keys or denial of space access to an adversary altogether is not a foreign concept. There remain ways to affect the CIA triad.
Lastly, quantum computing has made some extremely successful leaps and bounds in the past few years with manufacturing processes and algorithm developments. However, we are likely decades away from a quantum computer being desktop-sized, though even the experts can’t agree on the timeline. The problems facing quantum computing, and by extrapolation the other technologies mentioned, are the ones traditional computing faced in its early stages. Moore’s Law, combined with more precise manufacturing and an increasing capability to reduce system faults, will contribute to quantum’s proliferation. However, those claiming the quantum sky is falling could have other motivating factors behind their actions. Financial gains, increased research and development, or even strategic messaging to Great Power Competitors all drive the threat perception that quantum computing presents to the US.
Though quantum technology will not necessarily be a magic bullet, it does have its role to play in Great Power Competition. It has long been known that controlling the narrative is critical to a nation’s Information Power and the quantum race seems to be another manifestation of the struggle between the US and PRC. This is evident by the number of patents filed by the PRC versus those filed by the US, and by the claims made from the PRC that have not been replicable by any of the other nations in the quantum research fields. That is not to say the claims are false, but it is suspiciously like the technological race between the US and the former USSR during the Cold War. However, this doesn’t mean the US should halt pursuit of quantum technologies. Allowing China to gain the first foothold could have cascading effects in the future. A recently published letter by six retired 3-star and 4-star leaders discussed the dangers of allowing China to gain the upper hand in technology and corner the market in manufacturing of hardware. One such threat is China’s 2017 “Intelligence Law” stating that “any organization or citizen shall support, assist, and cooperate with ‘the security services of China’s One-Party State.” Meaning, if China can gain the technological and manufacturing upper-hand, that could compromise any ability to surmount them in the future. This potential opportunity allows the US and allies the ability to capitalize on the brain-drain that repressive, authoritarian regimes are experiencing around the globe and help counter the waning number of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) graduates the US is facing.
Additionally, the interplay between quantum technology and other emerging technology, such as 5G, will play a big part in the data collection, processing, and dissemination that is crucial in future wars. The PRC is approaching emerging technologies from a holistic standpoint, looking at how one can enable to other; whereas in the US emerging and quantum technologies are separate segments of two distinct markets. Newly developed 5G technology is a relevant example because the dependence on cryptography and transmission are two critical factors for Command, Control, Computers, Communication, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR). The winner in the next major conflict will be the one able to securely move large amounts of data, extremely fast. China has recognized that fact, but the US has not caught up that 5G and quantum cryptography are more linked than just beating China to market with new mobile phone technology.
The US is standing at a fork in the road; one path is easy and involves small incremental changes to ‘things’ without changing our thought processes. The other path is much more uncomfortable and may sacrifice a few sacred cows in order to work towards what is perceived as science fiction, as well as relying on those who may not want to work as closely with the Department of Defense. This fork presents an opportunity to bring academia, scientific research, and the military together again. Nearly 60 years ago those three elements aligned because the President said our objective was to put a man on the moon. Those galvanizing words brought together the full weight of US scientific, manufacturing, and military prowess and was effective against our greatest competitor of the day. Why couldn’t that happen today?
Major Christopher Lochridge is a student at the School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth. He was previously a student at Air Command and Staff College in the Multi-domain operational strategist program. He is a cyberspace operations officer with extensive operations with extensive experience in tactical C4ISR networks with multiple deployments across the US Central Command and European Theaters. You can email Major Lochridge at Christoper.Lochridge6@gmail.com
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government.