How is quantum technology used in the military?

The dangers that quantum technology poses to encryption networks have increased geopolitical sensitivity, forcing the US, China and other major global players to develop national quantum strategies.

The Pentagon, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and NATO are among the leading military agencies investing heavily in quantum technology, according to GlobalData’s Quantum Computing in Aerospace, Defense and Security – Thematic Intelligence report.

Three main lines are used in defense: quantum computers (to process large amounts of data faster and more accurately than traditional computers), quantum sensing (detecting enemy submarines or mines), and quantum communications (secure communication channels protected from eavesdropping).

Pentagon at its peak?

Close ties with Microsoft, IBM, Intel and other technology giants give the US a significant advantage in developing quantum technology for military applications.

In 2022, President Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act, which “authorizes new investments in fundamental quantum research programs,” while the US military also announced $3 billion in federal quantum projects, with another $1.2 billion coming from the National Quantum Initiative.

The Pentagon’s so-called “black budget” projects are expected to further fund quantum computing initiatives.

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While the US may struggle to compete with China’s focused research in quantum communications through its centralized, state-led approach, the vast array of hardware research increases the likelihood that major quantum breakthroughs will happen in Washington first.

Beijing wants to keep pace

The US CHIPS and Science Act is open to its intentions to “counter China” – which will be no small feat.

China is investing more than $15 billion in quantum computing over the next five years, drawing expertise from across the country through its $10 billion National Quantum Lab at USTC Hefei.

In the long run, China’s autocratic economic model will be an advantage over the US; less bureaucracy and resistance to quantum investments.

Although Beijing maintains a cloud of secrecy around the nature of its quantum investments, “intermittent announcements demonstrate its strong position in quantum computing,” the report adds.

For example, the PLA is the world leader in quantum communications through the Micius satellite project and the Beijing-Shanghai Quantum Secure Communication Backbone. But the claims of quantum supremacy from some of the world’s fastest photon-based and supercomputing quantum computers demonstrate its true potential.

Who are the other players in quantum technology?

Although the EU’s Quantum Technologies Flagship program is far behind the US and China, it will provide $1.2 billion in funding over the next decade.

Individual Member States are implementing various R&D initiatives, with France and Germany, Europe’s largest economies, having the most comprehensive national strategies.

Germany announced $3 billion in May 2023 to develop quantum technologies, and while startups in the Netherlands, Finland, Spain and Austria have made notable contributions, this number remains unsurpassed.

In February 2021, NATO Defense Ministers endorsed the Emerging and Disruptive Technologies Strategy (EDT), in which quantum technology was one of nine technology areas promoted.

NATO’s Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) has been a particular driver of quantum investment.

DIANA’s conceptualizations of underwater quantum warfare, inertial navigation, and chemical sensing have been widely used as benchmarks for the technology’s military applications.

The EU and NATO investments will be driven in part by Russia – a newer quantum computing player.

Together with India, Moscow set out a quantum agenda in 2020. Both governments have pledged $1 billion, with Russia’s National Quantum Laboratory, run by state nuclear energy company Rosatom, pledging to specialize in the application of quantum technologies in the nuclear industry.

However, the report concludes that both countries’ smaller talent pools and loosely constructed ecosystems mean it will take several years before they are competitive with the US, China and other more established quantum players.