The quantum battle for the Indo-Pacific theater: Intersections of technology and territory

Quantum technologies have the potential to revolutionize various fields, from communication and cryptography to material science, financial modeling, drug devel...

 In recent news the Chinese Civil Engineering Construction Company (CCECC) was awarded a multi-million-dollar contract to redevelop an international port in Honiara, the capital city of the Solomon Islands. Though Solomon Island officials have insisted that the project will not expand into a naval base, it has sparked concern for the United States and its allies in the region who worry that China intends to build a base in the strategically located region. Both U.S. and Chinese delegates have visited Honiara, competing for influence of the Pacific Island nation. This development marks the latest in a growing trend of Chinese naval expansion in the Indo-Pacific theater and represents a larger theme of competition between the U.S. and China.   

Adding fuel to the fire, many are now aware of quantum computers and the impending threat they create. The Solomon Islands may be small, but small still matters. In fact, quantum “small matter” may have a more profound impact in the Indo-Pacific than any naval base. In laboratories across the Pacific there is a Cold War being waged at the smallest of scales as both sides are preparing quantum technologies that can be used for the next generation of warfare. This quantum competition has the potential to reshape the world and tip the balance of the geopolitical scales. The Indo-Pacific theater could be where we will see the first military uses of quantum technologies due to the convergence of two competitions: territory and technology.   

The quantum competition

Quantum technologies have the potential to revolutionize various fields, from communication and cryptography to material science, financial modeling, drug development, logistics, navigation and more. However, both the U.S. and China recognize the significance of quantum in enabling new military capabilities such as advanced sensing and imaging technologies, quantum radar, and quantum cyber-attacks. Such capabilities could give China a significant advantage over the United States in terms of situational awareness and battlefield decision-making and would be particularly useful in a battle for dominance in the Indo-Pacific theater.   

China has invested billions of dollars into quantum research and development in recent years. The Chinese government announced in 2016 that it would invest $10 billion in a national research program called the “Quantum Information Science” initiative. Additionally, China’s “Made in China 2025” plan includes a significant focus on quantum technology and development, with an estimated $400 billion being invested in the program by 2023. In 2020, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology announced that it would allocate $10 billion to build a national laboratory dedicated to quantum science – a demonstration of China’s commitment to quantum technology. The U.S. must keep up in the quantum space if it plans to deter adversaries in the Indo-Pacific theater.  

In recent years, the United States has adopted a strategy of ‘integrated deterrence’ in the Indo-Pacific region in an effort to prevent large-scale conflict. Among other things, integrated deterrence refers to the networked use of new and existing capabilities. This means having the most advanced weapon systems, communications, and new technologies that will deter adversaries from aggressive actions. Quantum technologies are becoming an essential part of the greater integrated deterrence strategy as China begins to pull away in the quantum competition and develop weaponized quantum technologies of their own.   

Future navigation and early warning systems

Quantum principles are difficult to understand, yet there are quantum technologies that are already in use today such as magnetic resonances imaging (MRI). Quantum sensors are devices that detect tiny changes in individual atomic and sub-atomic particles and extract information such as changes in electromagnetic fields, spin, acceleration, gravity and even time. This precision allows quantum sensors to make extremely accurate measurements. Though this technology has already made an impact in civilian life, recent advances in quantum sensing have led to military applications that could provide the U.S. with an edge in the Indo-Pacific theater.  

One particular area of interest for the U.S. military is quantum sensing for navigation as an extremely accurate alternative to GPS navigation. With China’s rapidly advancing jamming capabilities, the U.S. military, and INDOPACOM specifically, has sought solutions for operating in GPS-denied environments. Quantum sensing would allow U.S. naval and air assets to maintain navigation capabilities over huge expanses of ocean even when GPS is being jammed.   

Another quantum sensing application in early development is quantum radar, which works by distributing large amounts of entangled particles, most commonly photons. These photons can detect information through air, land and sea – thereby enabling the user to reveal information about airborne assets, submarines, and even structures deep underground such as nuclear missile silos. This technology has huge implications for nuclear deterrence and early warning capabilities for stealth aircraft and ballistic missiles. The ability to collect intelligence and deploy countermeasures is paramount to the survivability of sea-based nuclear deterrents and U.S. naval and air assets.  

The next Manhattan Project

Unlike quantum sensing, which is mainly used for detection and gathering information, the primary military application for quantum computing is breaking information, more specifically breaking encryption. Quantum computers are extremely adept at solving large optimization problems with many variables, problems that today’s classical computers cannot handle due to a lack of processing power. The backbone of our nation’s digital infrastructure, including most of the communications used by INDOPACOM, relies on asymmetric encryption. The fundamental principles underlying asymmetric encryption are mathematical problem sets, such as prime integer factorization, that are impossible for a classical computer to solve (at least within a timespan of millions of years). A cryptanalytically relevant quantum computer (CRQC), however, can theoretically break most asymmetric encryption techniques in use today within a matter of seconds.   

The most concerning quantum computing development in recent years is the emergence of hybrid quantum-classical computers. It’s a simple principle with various approaches that have shown success. Instead of using a single 4,099 qubit quantum computer to break encryption, a string of small quantum computers or existing quantum computing techniques paired with classical computing methods can accomplish the same task using less qubits. Leading experts (e.g., Arthur Herman, senior fellow and director of the Quantum Alliance Initiative at Hudson Institute) now believe that a CRQC or a hybrid variation will be available to break encryption within 3-5 years.  

More disturbing, a recent publication from researchers in China claimed to have physical proof that RSA-2048 encryption could be broken by a 372-qubit quantum computer, implying that RSA-2048 could already be compromised. While researchers had access to a 10-qubit quantum computer, they were successful at breaking a 48-bit RSA encryption. Their research has been met with both alarm and skepticism from cryptography experts, but nonetheless the paper has demonstrated that we need to prepare for quantum threats much sooner than expected.    

Whoever advances quantum computing the fastest could hold the “keys to the cyber kingdom” in the Indo-Pacific theater. The U.S. has reached a critical point in this territorial and technological competition where we need to start implementing defensive cyber capabilities to prepare for the arrival of quantum computers and maintain our deterrence posture.  

The quantum deterrence: Post-quantum cryptography

So what practical solutions exist to protect data from looming quantum attacks? While not technically a quantum technology, post-quantum cryptography (PQC) offers a readily available solution that can impact INDOPACOM’s integrated deterrence strategy today to protect data from quantum attacks. PQC refers to a family of cryptographic algorithms designed to be resilient to both classical and quantum attacks. These algorithms use mathematical problems that are believed to be too complex for even quantum computers to solve, such as the lattice-based, code-based, hash-based and multivariate-based cryptography. Since 2015, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has been leading a research initiative to find viable PQC algorithms for use on government and commercial communications pathways. Within the next few years, as mandated by NSM-8, NSM-10, and the Quantum Cybersecurity Preparedness Act, all instances of asymmetric encryption in government systems must be upgraded to PQC.   

Using PQC, INDOPACOM can harden its existing communications pathways without the need for expensive and time-consuming hardware overhauls. While PQC capabilities exist now, it is up to INDOPACOM to bring PQC into general use and out to the tactical edge. To accomplish this, the U.S. government must partner with industry to test and develop PQC capabilities across the integrated deterrence network. There are a huge number of devices that will require updates to PQC, but this mountain of updates can be expedited by leveraging flexible government contracting vehicles that allow emerging technologies to scale rapidly, such as the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. Advancing freedom and prosperity across the world’s largest ocean will require the convergence of both small particles and small businesses in the integrated quantum deterrence network.   

Patrick Shore is program manager at QuSecure, Inc. 

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