If Congress wants to keep China from beating the U.S. in the race for quantum weapons, such as unhackable computers and stealth-defeating radar, then last week’s House bill may not be enough.
On Thursday, the House passed the National Quantum Initiative Act, which aims to shore up national security by organizing and funding quantum science over the next 10 years, according to a summary of the bill by the House Science Committee.
The bill would “create a 10-year plan to accelerate development of quantum information science and technology applications,” establish a subcommittee on quantum information science, and support research through funding and private-sector collaboration.
“It does seem like it’s a fairly good initiative overall,” said Elsa Kania, adjunct fellow of the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for New American Security, or CNAS, and co-author of a report released the same day calling for greater focus on the quantum race against China. “It generally hits a lot of the right points.”
But Kania also argued that the U.S. needs more specific guidance from Congress.
“I did not see [in the bill] … preparing indicators and bellwethers for anticipating quantum surprise or estimating the progress of quantum technologies, or a more thorough assessment of the challenges of making a transition of cryptographic regimes on military and government networks,” Kania said of communications systems, in an interview with Defense One. “Thinking not just about developing the standards of cryptography, but how you actually implement them … and the risk of potential tech transfer or espionage, ensuring that there is sustained scientific cooperation but also … how we can secure our quantum innovation base or quantum state-of-the-art technologies going forward at a time when there is increasing competition.”
Kania and John K. Costello, co-founder and director emeritus of CNAS’s China Cyber and Intelligence Studies Institute, in their report call for the revival of the Office of Technology Assessment, which acted as Congress’ nonpartisan repository of technology expertise until it was killed by Newt Gingrich’s House GOP in 1995.
“The U.S. must recognize the potential for a future in which it no longer possesses and perhaps cannot establish clear military-technological dominance relative to this great-power rival,” say Kania and Costello. “Going forward, quantum technologies could contribute to the disruption of today’s information-centric ways of warfare, epitomized by the U.S. model of war-fighting.”
Quantum computing takes advantage of the unique properties of subatomic particles. While conventional computers use bits that reflect one or zero, quantum computers would use qubits that can convey an almost infinite number of values between zero and one. But science is still unsure of how to properly harness this phenomenon for real-world applications.
The first practical use for quantum science is likely to be communications. Because the behavior of subatomic particles change when viewed, it’s possible to see whether a message encrypted on the quantum level has been intercepted. There’s nothing that can be done to conceal the interception because that’s just the way physics works.
Beijing prioritized quantum information science, or QIS, as one of its “mega-projects,” in 2006, and pledged $244 million annually to its research and development, according to a July estimate from the Congressional Research Service. The U.S. is thought to have dedicated a similar amount to QIS, but future funding in emerging technology research is difficult to predict. CNAS’s researchers said they found several U.S. government reports that already have identified problems for quantum research, including limited and inconsistent funding, limited scientific talent in the field, and stovepiped government institutions. Result: the U.S. spends about the same as China but gets less return on investment.
Now China aims to lead the so-called “second quantum revolution”: using quantum science to make “unhackable” communications. Such goals might not be achievable. Nevertheless, China has been working to develop encrypted communication networks for its cities since 2012 and is currently working on a nationwide hack-proof communications system based on quantum technology. The U.S. up to now has lacked any similar effort, but China’s quantum computing is less robust than its encryption technology. While the U.S. has the current advantage in quantum computing, China could still lead in this regard through slow, steady, and consistent government investment and focus.
The report cites Pan Jianwei, considered the “father of Chinese quantum science,” who says China could lead the world within 10 to 20 years.
In the future, China will focus on quantum radar and sensing to improve intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, and to undermine the U.S. advantages derived from stealth technology.
Patrick Tucker contributed to this article.