On February 23, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) made an announcement that went a bit under the radar but can have huge ramifications in the future for developing military technologies. The official statement given by the DRDO stated that a joint team of DRDO and IIT-Delhi successfully demonstrated a Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) link for the very first time in the country between the cities of Prayagraj and Vindhyachal in the state of Uttar Pradesh. An interesting thing to note is that these cities are located at a distance of 100 kilometres from each other. This marks the beginning of the Indian military complex utilising an emerging technology like quantum to enhance domestic defensive capabilities.

The Potential Warfare Applications

The second quantum revolution witnessed in the past decade threw open many possibilities of developing credible commercial applications using quantum technology. It also led to the possibility of using quantum technology in the security and military domain. While military applications using quantum tech are still in the process of development, it is imperative to recognise the ability of this kind of technology to gain an upper hand when it comes to the security aspect.

From a communications perspective, there is a high chance of using state-of-the-art quantum computers to subvert encrypted systems and conduct unlawful surveillance. China’s quantum satellites have been touted as potential devices that be used to gain unauthorised access to crucial information. Even modern-day security systems seem to be vulnerable to the emergence of such technologies. Hence, there have been efforts to build secure systems using new technologies like quantum to ensure encryption and privacy remain uncompromised. Such new mechanisms include quantum cryptographic systems and quantum key distribution (QKD) systems. The recent announcement of the DRDO also shows that the Indian military is now looking at developing indigenous technology of secure key transfer for bootstrapping military-grade communication security.

There is now the issue of using sensors, based on quantum technology in the detection of both underwater submarines and aerial military vehicles. The increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the military domain has also led to quantum sensing playing a major role in optimising drone movements. Precision guidance and geo-positioning remain critical applications that require the use of these quantum-based sensors. Based on the working principle of entangled photons, a pattern is created showcasing the presence or absence of a target object. The advantage of this sensing technology remains high accuracy regardless of the amount of noise in the system.

States Crossing The Quantum Barrier

This begs the question of the potential role played by quantum-based military technology in future wars and conflicts. With leaps made by China in the quantum domain, there is a fear of the Chinese military developing both offensive and neutralising capabilities using this kind of technology. Reports on the development of quantum radar have been heard from China which can have devastating consequences on current stealth technology. A detection system such as quantum radar is capable of not only determining the type of incoming enemy aircraft but also the type of weapons being carried in the vehicle itself.

The development of a quantum submarine detector (made up of extremely sensitive quantum sensors), named SQUIDS (Superconducting Quantum Interference Devices) has been reported by the Chinese National Academy of Science. This technology is capable of detecting underwater submarines from long distances giving a huge advantage in the maritime domain also. If the reports hold true, then we might have to be prepared for the Chinese military gaining an immense advantage with future warfare capabilities.

Considering the current situation in Ukraine, it is also possible that Russia has been investing in developing high-trade military technology. The comments made by President Vladimir Putin and the deputy Prime Minister in charge of the military-industrial complex, Yuri Borisov, have reiterated Russia’s commitments to building state-of-the-art weapons systems utilising the ‘principles of new areas of physics’. This was meant to highlight the country’s advancements and expertise in areas like plasma and quantum physics to make improved weaponry systems. Recent Department of Defence (DOD) reports by the United States government have also indicated how the Russian military has been focusing on electro-warfare capabilities using dedicated quantum technology.

Other quantum powers such as Australia have also been actively trying to make a mark in the field. Researchers and scientists in the country working on developing quantum technologies have been trying to find applications related to the military itself. There have already been deployments of quantum tech in areas like the cryogenic sapphire oscillator, also called the Sapphire Clock, for improving radar efficiency. The advantages offered across terrains and other conditions have made the country’s military scientists look at quantum technology as an alternative solution to military-grade GPS currently in use. The ‘Army Quantum Technology Roadmap’ by the Australian Army explores the potential solutions across sensing, communications, and computing that quantum tech can offer to the military in the long run.

Finally, even the United States government and armed forces have gotten into the sector. The Defence Science Board (DSB) of the US military and an independent board within the Department of Defence (DOD) have made quantum tech research an important area of focus. The DSB, made of the country’s top scientific advisors helps give direction to the military on scientific research of new weapons and technology. The 2019 National Defence Authorization Act (NDAA) directs the Secretary of Defence to set up a quantum technology research and development program to work with the private sector and other government groups. The 2020 NDAA also mentions the need for the DOD to develop certain ethical guidelines for using quantum technology in military applications. This shows how the US military and defence department are not actively involved in providing funds for research in the field but also involved in framing standards and best practices of using said technology.

It is clear that the frontiers of quantum technology in the military domain have already been breached with immense capital being poured into the field by multiple states across the globe. While some have actively demonstrated the effects of such technologies, there still exists questions on how they might actually play out when deployed on the ground in actual conflicts. Military quantum technology is here but do we have the necessary tools and competence to regulate its use is the question that still needs to be answered.