Historically, the military sector has served as a testbed for various emerging technologies. Fledgling technology breakthroughs have been fostered through government agency frameworks and funding, before going on to transform the world as we know it. A prime example is the internet itself – the earliest iteration of which was a communication experiment sending a message from a single computer to another by the US government’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) in 1969.

It is no surprise, then, that the global defence industry is exploring the potential effects of quantum technologies. In March 2022, Nato’s Cyber Security Centre – responsible for protecting Nato’s communication networks – successfully tested secure communication flows in a post-quantum scenario using a virtual private network provided by UK deep-tech start-up PostQuantum.

The collaboration between Nato and PostQuantum demonstrates a trend for collaborative development between quantum technology companies and military end-users. Despite research being conducted by various military organisations, and their historical leadership in the field of emerging technology, the Nato/PostQuantum collaboration also demonstrates how the majority of current research and development (R&D) in quantum warfare technology is largely expected to come from private sector organisations, according to GlobalData thematic research. Quantum R&D investment by leading tech companies including IBM and Microsoft has increased in recent years compared with government defence budgets, making major developments more likely to come from the civil field.

Andersen Cheng, PostQuantum co-founder and CEO, agrees that the private sector is driving innovation in quantum technology within the defence industry. Typically, large defence contractors move very slowly, says Cheng, who credits PostQuantum’s agility as one of its prime strengths in terms of innovation. Cheng says that currently the easiest dialogues are to be had with the defence world, with agencies such as Nato, for example, because they will be early adopters of quantum technology.

In July 2022, the US House of Representatives passed the Quantum Computing Cybersecurity Preparedness Act which addresses the migration of executive agencies’ information technology systems to post-quantum cryptography. The act was also received by the Senate in July and has been referred to the US Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Enshrining quantum technology development into law is a clear signal that the world’s biggest superpower regards this emerging technology as a critical issue. Indeed, Cheng attributes the action by lawmakers as the impetus for a current acceleration of quantum technology development within the defence sector. “The whole world has taken note of post-quantum cryptography, whereas people questioned what we were doing back when we started PostQuantum in 2009,” he says.

The vulnerability of classified communication against post-quantum attacks is now considered a clear and present danger within defence industry circles: the harvesting of today’s data for future decryption by quantum computers is top of mind for defence sector investment in quantum technologies.

How will quantum technology change the defence industry?

According to GlobalData thematic research, “quantum capabilities are less likely to introduce new capabilities than enhance existing ones”. What are these capabilities and how will they change the defence industry?

A US Department of Defense board of scientific advisors has concluded that quantum sensing, quantum computers and quantum communications are applications that hold the most promise. Indeed, advances in sensor technology using quantum technology make it the key short-term application for the defence industry, according to GlobalData research manager Daniel Jones. “Navigation is the most mature element of quantum tech in defence,” he says. “In fact, technically, atomic clocks are quantum technology and have been in use for many years.” An atomic clock measures time by monitoring the resonant frequency of atoms.

Quantum sensors have the potential to maintain fully functioning military operations involving positioning, navigation and timing in situations where GPS is unavailable. Quantum sensors also hold great potential for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance purposes. For example, a ground-breaking application would be the ability to detect submarines and stealth aircraft, says Jones.

Finding useful applications for quantum technology will be key and will require collaboration between public and private sector stakeholders. “As with any nascent technology area, collaboration will be crucial, not only between market players but also with universities,” says Jones. An example of this type of collaboration includes a partnership announced in 2021 between the University of Birmingham-led UK Quantum Technology Hub and UK defence company BAE Systems to develop and integrate quantum sensing technologies.

What will quantum computing mean for military communication?

GlobalData thematic research predicts that quantum communication will be “a major focus for defence organisations in coming years and a source of significant investment”. Quantum key distribution (a secure communication method implementing cryptography based on quantum mechanics) is the most developed area of quantum communications. Quantum supremacy – the point at which a quantum computer surpasses classical computing – will render all current encryption useless and will in turn have a profound effect on government and military secure communication.

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Quantum technology has the potential for ultimate protection from adversaries while intercepting opponents’ unsecured communications. GlobalData thematic research predicts that quantum decryption of communication networks is not imminent, although the first signs will likely come around 2030. More significant is the ability to increasingly encrypt information through quantum key distribution in a way that cannot be accessed by foreign adversaries.

Quantum computing presents opportunities as well as threats for the defence sector, namely processing complex problems within a fraction of the time it would take a classical computer. US aerospace giant Airbus is exploring quantum computing for optimising flight routes, including weather factors, and for simulating new aircraft and wing designs. The company has not purchased quantum technology itself but is instead accessing quantum hardware through the cloud, a typical route for even the biggest of corporations.

Although most defence companies will explore quantum computing through quantum-computing-as-a-service over the cloud, exceptions to this trend include US defence giant Lockheed Martin. The company has invested in physical quantum technology, with a commitment to quantum research that extends to a joint scientific research centre with the University of Southern California, established in 2011.

Geopolitics and quantum warfare

Leading the defence sector development of quantum technology are companies including Honeywell, Northrop Grumman, CETC, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. As the number of defence companies developing quantum technology increases, they will struggle to find an adequate skills base, according to GlobalData thematic research.

A dearth of quantum technology skills and the promise of first-mover advantage have prompted governments to increase investment in the field. In the US, up to $3bn (€3.07bn) of federal quantum projects are either in operation or planned, including a $1.2bn National Quantum Computing Initiative. According to GlobalData thematic research, the US is almost certainly bundling secret quantum development projects into existing programmes at its main government labs, Darpa and the National Security Agency.

Meanwhile, China is leading in secure quantum communications through its Micius quantum satellite project but is some way behind the US tech giants in quantum computing. Chinese policymakers are committing more than $15bn (107.56bn yuan) in quantum computing over the next five years, but unofficially a lot more, according to GlobalData thematic research. Other Chinese advances in quantum technology include a $10bn National Quantum Lab at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei. Tech giant Alibaba is pioneering Chinese quantum research with its $15bn investment in the Academy for Discovery, Adventure, Momentum and Outlook.

The advent of quantum technology converges with the US-China race for global tech supremacy as well as a period of turbulent geopolitics. If either China or Russia were first to build a working quantum computer, the military balance of power in the world has the potential to change significantly. As China gains ground in quantum satellite communications, the China-US tech war has seen the US restricting visas to quantum technology students as well as increased scrutiny of US-China academic collaboration. The battle for quantum supremacy is already under way and is set to change the defence sector as the technology edges slowly towards maturation.