The United States on Wednesday added eight Chinese companies specializing in quantum technologies to its blacklist. They claim that these companies posed a danger to American “national security” because this area of science and technology became a major problem for the military of the future.
After the battle for smartphones, the battle for 5G, the United States has decided to tackle quantum technologies “made in China”. On Wednesday, November 24, Washington blacklisted eight Chinese companies working in the quantum field.
This ban on doing business with these companies is aimed at countering “the Chinese army’s modernization efforts”, which would be based in part on the development of quantum technologies, the US Department of Commerce assured.
quantum arms race
Quantum as a weapon for the soldiers of the future? Defense is usually not the first program that comes to mind when discussing this technology that is often associated with the development of quantum computers. The development of these calculators has caused a lot of ink to flow: they would be able to perform in minutes operations that are too complex for the most powerful of today’s computers.
This opens up many perspectives, such as the rapid development of new drugs, large-scale and real-time automated management of road or rail traffic.
But this is only one facet of the coming quantum revolution. There are others who have been the dream of the military in many countries for several years. NATO has thus placed quantum technologies on its list of key innovations for the wars of the future, along with artificial intelligence, “big data”, autonomous weapons and biotechnology.
China has budgeted $ 50 billion to develop the technology, while Darpa – the US military’s most important research and development unit – in the US has been working on quantum networks for at least 20 years.
Europe is not left out when “the European Defense Agency set up a specific fund in July 2021 to promote research projects in quantum technology”, emphasizes Michal Křelina, physicist at Prague University of Technology and author of a study on military applications of quantum technologies, contacted by France 24 .
>> Also read about France 24: Europe is investing a billion euros to understand whether the cat is dead or alive
There is therefore a real quantum arms race, in which France also participates: Paris has provided an envelope of 30 million euros over five years to seek military applications for quantum technology.
But it is a race that is only in the first steps, as “while researchers have achieved promising results in the laboratory, it is not yet known whether these applications will also work under real conditions and meet the needs of the army,” notes Michal Křelina.
A world without military secrets?
The military therefore invested billions in a hope that is not even to manufacture new superweapons. “Quantum technologies will make it possible to significantly improve certain critical areas of modern conflicts such as communication, intelligence or even navigation,” sums up the Czech specialist.
One of the first military applications would be “to break the encryption of communications,” the U.S. Department of Commerce notes. Currently, no machine is capable of cracking the most sophisticated encryption keys, but a quantum computer could do so in minutes.
And it is a danger that is already present. “Some secret communications relate to information that will still be valid in 10 to 15 years. So it is enough for spies to steal them today and wait for quantum technology to mature to discover these secrets,” explains Michal Křelina.
That is why it is important to find countermeasures. The most advanced is to send quantum decryption keys. In other words, the secret message is transmitted using traditional means of communication, but the key to make it readable is sent via a quantum network, which – without going into technical details – is presumed to be impossible to hack. China has already proven that it was possible, in 2016, by “thus securing transmissions during a conference that brings people together in Beijing and Vienna,” NATO recalls in a blog post about quantum technologies.
The military holy grail, of course, would be to send the messages themselves through quantum networks. No chance as the enemy intercepts orders on these “ultra-secure” communications networks. But it is a very long-term goal, the US Congress assesses in an information note on this topic published in late October.
Stealth submarines and aircraft
The secrecy of electronic communications is not the only military domain that risks being turned upside down by the advent of quantum technology. Navigation can also enter a new era thanks to quantum sensors. “These are detectors that work with photons that are much more sensitive to the environment than what is currently available,” notes Michal Křelina.
This would be particularly useful for submarines to more accurately identify possible hazards such as mines located in the depths, NATO specifies.
In fact, the entire submarine warfare could be reviewed and corrected upon the arrival of this technology. For example, quantum sensors could take over from GPS in areas where this geolocation network does not pass … such as underwater. “The submarines could thus stay longer underwater and thus improve their stealth”, assures Michal Křelina.
The ability of quantum particles to better detect ambient motions and waves has led scientists to work with quantum radars. The promise would then be to make all stealth flight technology obsolete. In any case, that’s what Chinese scientists said in September 2021. But for part of the scientific community, it’s pretty violent because it would be too expensive to build such radars, and they would only work under extreme conditions (temperature close at the absolute zero point), notes the site Interesting Engineering.
Admittedly, there are currently exaggerations around the benefit that quantum technology would give the military. But for Michal Křelina, it will take another 10 to 15 years to begin to see the first real applications of what this new field will bring to armies. And the United States does not want the Chinese to be the first to demonstrate this.