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Quantum Technology: The Defence Imperative

5 May 2020
Quantum Technology
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This blog is part of a series on Quantum Technology and future land warfare, put out by the Robotic and Autonomous Systems Implementation and Coordination Office (RICO), a part of Future Land Warfare Branch tasked with coordination and de-confliction or Army's Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS)/Artificial Intelligence (AI) efforts in accordance with emerging disruptive technology. 

Quantum technologies exploit the fundamental laws of nature to reach the ultimate limits of sensing, imaging, communications and computing, and thus promise otherwise impossible capabilities.[1] They are no longer scientific speculation; substantial public and private investments around the world are driving these technologies out of laboratories.[2] This acceleration will see quantum technologies transform our lives over the next 20 years.[3] This will be even more evident when combined with other emerging technologies, such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, space technology, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. Now is the time that Defence must begin to understand, explore and exploit quantum technologies throughout its operations, if it is to gain and retain a quantum advantage.

Framing a future with quantum technology

Quantum technologies are a suite of many heterogeneous technologies that have varying degrees of current readiness and future development timelines. Their applications are rapidly evolving and expanding, with many yet to be discovered. These applications span a broad range of sectors including science, industry, government and defence.

Promising examples of applications range from accelerated drug and genetic engineering through quantum simulation[4] and quantum imaging;[5] wearable quantum sensors that empower human-machine interfacing via magnetoencephalography (MEG); secure networks of autonomous systems assured by quantum communications;[6] and the enabling of advanced AI by powerful quantum computers.[7]

These examples demonstrate how quantum technologies can accelerate the development of other emerging technologies. But the converse is also true, as quantum technologies rely on emerging technologies (e.g. nanotechnology and machine learning for fabrication and optimisation) for their own advancement. This mutual dependence is a feature of the technological convergence that is occurring in the 21st century.

In summary, the key characteristics of quantum technology are:

  • unprecedented capabilities in sensing, imaging, communications and computing
  • technical diversity
  • rapidly evolving and expanding applications across domains
  • acceleration of and reliance upon other advanced technologies.

These characteristics should guide how a future with quantum technology is envisioned.

Vision of a quantum-enabled Defence in 2040

A quantum-enabled Defence in 2040 will be a distributed network of quantum sensors, computers and communication links that pervades all domains (land, sea, air and space) and stretches from defence industry through strategic level organisations to deployed operational and tactical units. Some of the quantum technologies are stand-alone, while many others are augmenting other technologies and platforms.

Possible roles of quantum technologies in future operating systems are listed in the following sections. The list is not comprehensive, nor should it attempt to be, given the above considerations. Rather it is designed to stimulate broad thinking by selecting a diversity of applications where quantum technologies may deliver advantage or modify operating concepts. It is consistent with the projected development timelines of different technologies over the next 20 years.[8]

Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance

Quantum sensors are deployed across domains in fixed installations, land, air and sea drones or crewed vehicles, and satellites for enhanced situational awareness. Examples include the imaging of subterranean/submerged structures or vehicles, geospatial mapping (e.g. magnetic and gravitational anomalies), and enhanced radar and other electromagnetic imaging and detection.

Quantum computers are distributed throughout the network in a variety of platforms and scales to meet the computational demands of growing sensor populations by performing signal and imaging processing, correlation and feature identification at higher speeds and resolutions. Fixed line or satellite quantum communication links network quantum sensors to enhance detection via spatial-temporal correlations.

Command, Control, Communications and Cyber

Quantum computers in strategic and operational level headquarters improve the speed and accuracy of decision making by accelerating operational simulation and optimisation, geophysical modelling (e.g. meteorology), data mining and AI. Quantum computers also enhance or provide new cyberwarfare tools. Quantum communication links enable physically assured security of communications between operational and strategic level nodes. Quantum sensors deliver improved timekeeping that speeds-up and reduces errors in conventional communication networks.

Manoeuvre and Offensive Support

Onboard quantum inertial sensors enable manoeuvre elements and munitions to precisely navigate in the absence of GPS. Deployed quantum computers accelerate the machine learning and optimal control of autonomous robot populations as well as the acquisition of targets.

Logistics and Combat Support Services

Quantum nanosensors and microscopes realise precision engineering, environmental and health monitoring, and new medical treatments through field-deployable chemical and biological analysis devices. Quantum computers enhance medical imaging (e.g. computed tomography) and optimise complex logistics systems.

Defence Science and Industry

Pervasive quantum nanosensors and microscopes provide new insights that advance the development of advanced materials, bio-chemical processes and nanotechnologies (e.g. atomically-thin electronics). National quantum computing facilities accelerate engineering design via enhanced computational simulation and optimisation.

The strategic imperative to act now

With the scientific principles of quantum technologies now largely proven, the world’s companies, nations and militaries are racing to produce quantum devices and be the first to identify and exploit their most disruptive applications.[9]

This is a race in which Australia can succeed. Decades of continuous and significant national funding of quantum science has delivered Australia pole position, alongside the world’s largest and most technologically advanced nations (e.g. China, United States of America, United Kingdom, European Union).[10] Australia must now keep pace and translate this rare scientific strength into industrial and martial advantage. This will require national strategic focus across key sectors, with Defence at the forefront.

For Australia’s security to gain a quantum advantage, Defence needs to lead the identification and development of defence applications of quantum technology through engagement with Australia’s quantum science community and emerging quantum industry. Owing to the diversity of technologies and potential applications, this task cannot be left to a single Service or Group but requires each to be quantum aware and to seek opportunities where quantum technologies may deliver an advantage, therefore enabling accelerated and coordinated exploration, assessment and technology development with science and industry.

Quantum Technology awareness

The first hurdle is generating broader awareness in Defence (and defence industry) of quantum technology, the national and global landscapes, and methods to accelerate innovation of defence applications. This post is the first in a series of blog posts here on the Land Power Forum working towards overcoming this first hurdle.

[1] Jason Palmer, “Here, there and everywhere; Technology Quarterly,” The Economist, March 11, 2017, 3.

[2] Elizabeth Gibney, “Quantum gold rush: the private founding pouring into quantum start-ups”, Nature, 574 (2019): 22.

[3] National quantum technology roadmaps: Engineering and Physical Science Research Council of the United Kingdom, A roadmap for quantum technologies in the UK (2015); European Union Quantum Flagship, Quantum Manifesto: a new era of technology (2016); US National Science & Technology Council, National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science (2018); Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Growing Australia’s Quantum Technology Industry, to be published.

[4] Y. Cao, J. Romero and A. Aspuru-Guzik, "Potential of quantum computing for drug discovery," IBM Journal of Research and Development, 62, 6 (2018): 1.

[5] V.S. Perunicic, C.D. Hill, L.T. Hall and L.C.L. Hollenberg, “A quantum spin-probe molecular microscope”, Nature communications, 7 (2017): 12667.

[6] Stephanie Wehner, David Elkouss, Ronald Hanson, “Quantum internet: A vision for the road ahead”, Science, 362 (2018): 303.

[7] Jacob Biamonte, Peter Wittek, Nicola Pancotti, Patrick Rebentrost, Nathan Wiebe and Seth Lloyd, “Quantum machine learning”, Nature, 549 (2017): 195.

[8] National quantum technology roadmaps.

[9] National quantum technology roadmaps and the Focus on quantum science and technology initiatives around the world, Quantum Science and Technology, 4 (2019).

[10] A.G. White and R.M. Roberson, “Charting the Australian quantum landscape”, Quantum Science and Technology, 4 (2019): 020505; Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Growing Australia’s Quantum Technology Industry, to be published

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.


Matthew Struthers on 16 May 2020 - 4:52am

Editor's note: This Land Power Forum post is now open for discussion.

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