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10 Oct 2023

Quantum tech to shape the future theatre of war

Quantum tech to shape the future theatre of war
Image source: Richard Collins, Henry Semenenko (QET Labs University of Bristol)

Written 10.10.2023. Updated 01.05.2024.
Author: | Mustafa Rampuri, Director, Quantum Technologies Innovation Centre, University of Bristol.

Quantum technology is fast evolving, with a diverse range of applications for defence. From cryptography and communications to encryption and electronic warfare, quantum has huge potential. The quantum computing market alone was worth $717 million in 2022 and is predicted to rise to $6.5 billion by 2030. We've teamed up with University of Bristol’s Quantum Technologies Innovation Centre (QTIC) to co-author this piece on quantum and its implications for defence.

Quantum competition is hot, with procurement organisations and accelerators rushing to research, develop and deploy at pace to help maintain competitive advantage for front-line users. Back in January, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) worked with PA Consulting to test new quantum tools to enhance human decision-making, lower risk, optimise resources, in a collaboration which Dstl says ‘helps position the UK at the forefront of practical quantum computing algorithm development.

The US Congressional research service wrote in 2022 that ‘in general, quantum technology has not yet reached maturity: however, it could hold significant implications for the future of military sensing, encryption, and communications, as well as for congressional oversight, authorizations, and appropriations’. In order to develop quantum into a state where it can be applied widely and impactfully, NATO has seen fit to designate quantum as one of its Emerging Disruptive Technology (EDT) areas, citing the ‘potential implications of novel quantum technologies for defence and security’.


What is quantum technology?

Quantum technology uses the principles of quantum mechanics, principally superposition and entanglement, to enhance devices and systems. This new technology works in a fundamentally different way to current digital tech, bringing about the potential for ultra powerful computers, ultra secure communications systems, and sensors capable of a level of precision unachievable with classical physics.


What potential does it hold for defence?

Quantum enhanced devices will have a profound impact in dual-use technologies. Near term examples include precision navigation and timing in GPS denied environments, quantum gravitometers to help detect hidden objects and infrastructure, and new cameras that can “see” around corners. As the battlefield extends evermore into cyberspace, quantum enhanced ICT solutions will have the potential to shape the future of the theatre of war. Unparalleled computer power combined with ultra-secure communications systems, precise geo-location without the need for satellites and in the longer-term, unjammable communications will change the nature of warfare. These technologies could perhaps have the capability to bring about a new balance of power that helps keep the peace.


How is quantum already being applied?

Many deployments of quantum technologies remain hidden, however publicised applications include quantum key distribution networks in China. The global race for quantum computing is spurned on by the “store now, decrypt later” approaches first publicised by the USA, as well as the new algorithms for optimisations, and in quantum chemistry and physics simulations. 

In the UK, quantum key distribution testbeds are available through commercial and academic organisations and there are numerous startups rapidly bringing quantum technologies from a scientific curiosity to fully commercialised systems.

Through the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the UK has considerable advantage in quantum clocks which are a vital technology to provide timing across our fixed and mobile telecoms infrastructures and to support navigation in GPS denied environments.

Check out some of the potential future uses of quantum technology.


What are the roadblocks? And how might they be overcome?

Skills is the number one challenge to the adoption of these technologies. In the UK there are not enough suitably skilled people to fill the quantum roles available, however since quantum skills are closely related to many conventional STEM knowledge areas, up-skilling of engineers and scientist will help to bridge the skills gap. There are some great courses available in the UK, for instance the National Quantum Computing Centre has a range of courses delivered with partners that go from novice to practitioner level.  Importantly though, quantum roles are not just for PhD graduates, there are numerous roles where apprentice level qualifications will be perfect, for instance as lab technicians.

Scalability of platform technologies is proving challenging, the system fidelities required are uncompromising and the energy needed to cryogenically cool and operate quantum computers is very high. However, with some of the brightest minds working on the problems, the roadmap for full-scale systems looks achievable within a 7-year timeframe, with useful outputs sooner than that from intermediate scale machines. This is important because it will take most companies and organisations about that long to train staff, become acquainted with the new language and formalisms of quantum, and to understand it well enough to harness it for business value.


Key players in quantum

Globally the usual big tech companies are spending billions of dollars to develop quantum systems, especially in quantum computing. The UK’s well-placed investment into core research, technological development and skills makes Britain a great place for quantum technology companies and corporate teams to be located. Within the UK quantum computer sector, there are a number of leading companies including Phasecraft and Riverlane for software and Orca and PsiQuantum for hardware. In quantum communications, BT and Toshiba are the leading corporations, with startup challengers such as KETS Quantum pushing the boundaries, particularly for use in difficult operating environments.

The UK has one of the most vibrant quantum tech startup ecosystems in the world, and whilst most folks would automatically consider London, Cambridge or Oxford to be the epicentre, it is fact Bristol that has produced the most quantum tech businesses, with one third of all UK quantum startups having launched in the city.     


Where should companies look for opportunities?

For companies that have a product and are looking for customers, then connecting with Defence Engage will help them to achieve that efficiently and effectively. There are of course other means such as through the National Quantum Technologies Showcase and the many global quantum-focused trade shows.  However, for those quantum companies with defence and security products DSEI would be at the top of my list.

For companies looking to understand the opportunities that quantum technology might bring to their organisation, products and services then the Quantum Technologies Innovation Centre team would be delighted to talk in more detail about the support on offer through the national programme, our partners and collaborators.


As an emerging disruptive technology, quantum holds much promise for defence and security applications. Quantum technologies are maturing and will continue to develop in coming decades, as accelerators and procurement organisations hope to secure a quantum-leap in front-line capability, securing the competitive edge required in the current age of instability. 


Author: Mustafa Rampuri, Director of Enterprise Services at University of Bristol, Director, Quantum Technologies Innovation Centre.

Author: Defence Engage


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