Quantum computing in warfare: sensing the enemy

Global cyber warfare is a battle of might and technology between governments and their armies – and the UK government has recently rolled out a heavy weapon when it comes to the digital battlefield.

Equivalent to a prime bomber plane or a game-changing tank, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced it had acquired the first quantum computer for the country.

It was a “milestone moment,” according to Stephen Till, of the MoD's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. “Accessing our own quantum computing hardware will not only accelerate our understanding of quantum computing, but the computer's room-temperature operation will also give us the flexibility to use it in different locations for different requirements.”

Till was particularly enthused about the idea that the system, developed by ORCA Computing, a startup based at the White City campus of Imperial College London, would provide significantly improved latency - the speed at which it’s possible to read and write to the quantum computer.

IBM quantum computer
Quantum computer by IBM. Image by Shutterstock

Split-second decision making

That kind of split-second decision-making is vital when it comes to defense purposes, Till reckons – not least because algorithms may want to work both on classic, non-quantum systems and quantum computers.

Quantum computers are such a game changer because of the way they interact with and process information in a much more powerful way than non-quantum computers. While any data in a traditional computer is either in a state of on or off – one or zero – quantum computers are able to represent both states simultaneously. They do this through a process called superposition, which enables quantum computers to jump between binary digits.

That means quantum computers “think” more like humans, who are comfortable with uncertainty, than computers, which can only follow instructions, and become befuddled when presented with nuance. That kind of complicated thinking could bring huge benefits when it comes to the battlefield.

The defense applications

Quantum computing has long been on the minds of military planners because of the supremacy it would offer against opponents. Already countries strive to match each other when it comes to weaponry and hardware, and quantum computing could soon become a natural extension of that.

“Quantum technologies have the potential to bring profound new capabilities, enabling us to sense the insensible, transforming cybersecurity, and enabling us to solve problems we have never been able to solve before,” says a NATO review of quantum’s place in the defense and security sectors. NATO in particular highlights two areas that it believes could be beneficial for quantum applications.

The first is in sensing enemies. Submarines and stealth bombers or planes are some of the most troubling foes for military powers because they are tricky to spot. They occupy a hidden middle ground that means they’re useful for countries to deploy as offensive weapons: they often operate so far away from the human vision that it’s impossible for individuals to see, while also being so tricky to identify that ordinary computing power often struggles to do so.

Transformative tech

Putting the power of quantum computing towards finding them could help fill in that gap – the nuance often talked about. Sensors powered by quantum computers could be used to identify those vehicles and planes more easily. It would be a transformative capability for underwater navigation on submarines, for instance, NATO says, but also as a back-up navigation system for above-water platforms in case of GPS signal loss.

But that’s not all. Just as quantum computing could be used to identify the physical movements of vehicles and vessels, it could also be used to more carefully monitor the movement of data, too. Quantum computers allow those using them to more easily crack into communications, solving encryption algorithms that are meant to keep our data safe.

Overall, quantum computers are a huge boon for those who end up possessing them – which makes it obvious why the UK government has invested time and money into them. Their potential is almost limitless, and their deployment makes it more possible than ever to stay one step ahead of enemies.

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