Quantum Supremacy: Harnessing Qubits for the National Defense

CSPS Fellow David Mendes discusses the challenges and opportunities provided by advancements in quantum computing and their impacts on US national security

In late October, Google announced that had achieved quantum supremacy using its 54-qubit Sycamore Processor to perform a complex mathematical calculation in just 200 seconds that would take the world’s most powerful “traditional” supercomputer 10,000 years to solve.  This milestone opens the path for future quantum technologies which will impact key aspects of national security and defense. Quantum computing is expected revolutionize key defense systems and technologies. Three promising applications include quantum key distribution, quantum cryptanalysis, and quantum sensing.

In the United States, both the government and the private sector have invested heavily to develop quantum computers and related quantum technology. In the private sector, the leaders are Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and D-Wave Systems. Within the United States government, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the military services, NASA and the Department of Energy have lead both research and funding for research into quantum technologies.

In December 2018, President Trump signed into law the National Quantum Initiative Act, which directs the Executive Branch through the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy to implement a ten-year program aimed at accelerating the development of quantum computing, in part by establishing at least two research centers, and provides for substantial funding for research by the public and private sector.

China and Russia, among others, have also invested in quantum research. China has established itself as a leader in quantum research and at present China spends more than $2.5 billion a year on quantum research, roughly times what the United States spends. In 2016, China launched the first quantum satellite, a feat the United States has yet to replicate.  China has used its quantum satellite to successfully test quantum communications technologies which if implemented in the future, could make its communication secure from foreign observation and collection efforts.

The first advancement made possible through quantum computing is quantum key distribution or “QKD,” which promises near unbreakable encryption. This has broad defense applications, the least of which would be to allow for sensitive communication to remain secret from foreign adversaries.

A second advancement, quantum cryptanalysis, encompasses efforts to use quantum computing and quantum algorithms to decode encrypted information. At present, encryptions used for highly sensitive information, would take billions of years for a traditional supercomputer to break via a brute force (trial and error) attack.  By using quantum computers current encryptions could be broken in much shorter time frames, akin to the 200 seconds it took Google’s Sycamore Processor to solve an otherwise 10,000-year quantum supremacy problem.

Finally, quantum sensing promises advances which include the ability to see through the oceans and solid ground to detect enemy submarines and underground bunkers. The ability to track an adversary’s ballistic missile submarines would upend established nuclear deterrence strategies, as these rely on submarines for second strike capability.  Quantum sensors are also expected to lead to much more accurate precision targeting systems and non-GPS dependent inertial guidance systems. 

Beyond these three areas, quantum technologies also are expected to have prolific applications in other key areas, including space applications, within the world of finance, and the ability to harness big data in ways which up until now have not been feasible. As such, the development and acquisition of quantum technologies is vital to national defense. Google’s recent landmark achievement opens the way for greater advances toward a quantum future. To achieve this future, and for the United States to achieve a competitive advantage in quantum technology, sustained investment by both the public and private sector is essential.

David Mendes is a part-time Master’s Degree student in the International Security Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government. He holds a Juris Doctorate from the University of New Mexico School of Law and a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts from Soka University of America. David is a partner at Tappan, Rastegar, Mendes LLP, a full-service litigation firm serving clients in the District of Columbia and the state of Virginia. His research interests include the intersection of national security and private industry as it relates to emerging threats and technology.

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