Could the “spooky action” of quantum technologies enable China to develop disruptive military capabilities – and perhaps achieve a strategic advantage?
In its quest to offset U.S. techno-strategic advantages, China aspires to emerge as a “science and technology superpower” (科技强国) and leap ahead in quantum science through a new national megaproject. From the launch of the world’s first quantum satellite to setting a new world record with the entanglement of eighteen qubits, which reflects notable progress towards a future quantum computer, China’s advances are impressive. The billions invested in research and development, including through the construction of a new National Laboratory for Quantum Information Science, which could become the world’s largest quantum research facility, highlight that China aspires to lead in the development of these transformative technologies.
However, it is worth noting that hype often overtakes reality. Chinese Party and military leaders may hope that quantum cryptography will one day thwart foreign efforts to access their data and eavesdrop on their communications, but it’s far from clear that such supposedly unhackable systems can be practical and realized at scale. Despite its new record, China is not yet a clear leader in quantum computing. Despite the recent enthusiasm about the symbolic milestone of “quantum supremacy,” the reality is that there are long years ahead of developing and improving useful quantum computers, and it’s too soon to say whether China will succeed in this marathon.
Nor do we know just what to make of hints about Chinese progress in quantum radar, sensing, and navigation. The latest accounts of quantum radar could be variously interpreted as signaling a new capability – or as techno-propaganda to misdirect U.S. attention. In 2016, a team of Chinese researchers reported their successful development of a single-photon quantum radar capable of detecting targets up to 100 kilometers. At the time, Chinese media claimed that this radar could become the “nemesis” (克星) of stealth fighter jets. Its advantages could also include high reliability and resistance to jamming in a complex contested electromagnetic environment. In June, the team announced that they had completed most of the theoretical work for the project, allowing this quantum radar, which leverages entanglement among photons for detection, to enter the “experimental verification phase.” The lead researcher said that the system will track not only stealth aircraft but also “high-speed flying objects in the upper atmosphere and above” — that is, ballistic missiles.
It is worth noting that this research institute — China Electronics Technology Group Corporation’s 14th Research Institute’s Key Laboratory of Intelligent Sensing Technologies — and its affiliates have a fairly limited track record of publications that are currently available on this topic. This may imply that these efforts could be exaggerated or could simply reflect the secrecy associated with the details of their research.
However, it is clear that China academics and defense researchers are avidly pursuing the research and development of quantum radar, with progress noted in a limited, though growing, number of patents and publications. In addition, reports of active efforts in quantum remote sensing and imaging reflect a clear focus on techniques that could improve China’s detection and space-based surveillance capabilities.
Even a slim possibility that quantum radar or sensing could one day defeat stealth is a powerful incentive for the Chinese military to invest, perhaps quite heavily, in its development. For the U.S., stealth has been a key enabler of military advantage, and it could be critical in any future conflict scenario in the Indo-Pacific. If these claims about the state of China’s quantum radar prove credible, then the PLA could succeed in offsetting this vital pillar of U.S. military power in the foreseeable future.
Beyond these notionally ‘stealth-defeating’ technologies, the Chinese defense industry is also progressing in the development of quantum navigation technologies, which could enable independence from satellites that might be taken out in a conflict. Future Chinese submarines could be equipped with quantum navigation, improving their ability to navigate precisely and covertly, and these technologies might also be applied to improve missile guidance and enhance precision strike capabilities.
It is difficult to assess the real risks when science sounds like science fiction, and the reality of transformative technologies can be obscured by hype and techno-propaganda. The U.S. must take note, lest China’s advances become a black swan or a pink flamingo.
U.S. policymakers should neither react with alarm nor dismiss the potential disruption that could be wrought by China’s sizable investments in long-term research and development, paired with active efforts to educate and attract top talent. Instead, the U.S. must focus on improving its own competitiveness in quantum science and technology.
It is encouraging that new bills in in Congress have called for greater funding for quantum computing and communications, while focusing on promoting new public-private partnerships. The U.S. must particularly recognize the importance of educating and welcoming scientists to build up academia, industry, and defense. In addition, the U.S. should consider creating a stronger center of gravity for cross-disciplinary research and development of quantum technologies, whether through a new consortium, as proposed, or perhaps even a new national laboratory to bring together top researchers for a long-term, “full-stack” approach to this range of diverse but interrelated technologies.
Elsa B. Kania is an Adjunct Fellow with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). She is also a PhD student in Harvard University's Department of Government, where her research focuses on Chinese military innovation and emerging technologies.