Historically, the military sector has served as a testing ground for various emerging technologies. Nascent technological breakthroughs were fostered through government agency frameworks and funding before they went on to transform the world as we know it. A prime example is the Internet itself, the earliest iteration of which was a computer-to-computer communication experiment by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) in 1969.

So it’s no surprise that the global defense industry is investigating the potential effects of quantum technologies. In March 2022, the NATO Cyber ​​Security Center – responsible for protecting NATO’s communications networks – successfully tested secure communications flows in a post-quantum scenario using a virtual private network provided by UK deep technology startup PostQuantum.

The collaboration between NATO and PostQuantum demonstrates a trend of joint development between quantum technology companies and military end users. Despite research conducted by various military organizations and their historical leadership in emerging technologies, the NATO/PostQuantum collaboration also demonstrates how the majority of current research and development (R&D) in quantum warfare technology is largely expected to come from private sector organizations, according to GlobalData’s case study. Quantum investment in R&D by leading technology companies including IBM and Microsoft has increased in recent years compared to government defense budgets, making it more likely that major developments will come from the civilian field.

Anderson Cheng, co-founder and CEO of PostQuantum, agrees that the private sector is driving innovation in quantum technology in the defense industry. Typically, large defense contractors move very slowly, says Cheng, who credits PostQuantum’s flexibility as one of its key strengths in terms of innovation. Cheng says the easiest conversations right now should be with the defense world, with agencies like NATO, for example, because they will be early adopters of quantum technology.

In July 2022, the US House of Representatives passed Quantum Computing Cybersecurity Readiness Act which deals with the migration of executive agency information technology systems to post-quantum cryptography. The bill was also received by the Senate in July and referred to the US Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Enshrining the development of quantum technology in law is a clear signal that the world’s largest superpower considers this emerging technology a critical issue. In fact, Cheng credits the lawmakers’ actions as the impetus for the ongoing acceleration of quantum technology development in the defense sector. “The whole world took notice of post-quantum cryptography, while people questioned what we were doing when we launched PostQuantum in 2009,” he says.

The vulnerability of classified communication vs post-quantum attacks are now considered a clear and present danger in defense industry circles: gathering today’s data for future decryption by quantum computers is paramount to defense investment in quantum technology.

How will quantum technology change the defense industry?

According to GlobalData’s case study, “quantum capabilities are less likely to introduce new capabilities than to enhance existing ones.” What are these capabilities and how will they change the defense industry?

A board of scientific advisors to the US Department of Defense has concluded that quantum sensing, quantum computing and quantum communications are applications that hold the most promise. Indeed, advances in sensor technology using quantum technology make it the key near-term application for the defense industry, according to GlobalData research manager Daniel Jones. “Navigation is the most mature element of quantum technology in defense,” he says. “Actually, technically, atomic clocks are quantum technology and have been in use for many years.” An atomic clock measures time by monitoring the resonant frequency of atoms.

Quantum sensors have the potential to support fully functional military operations involving positioning, navigation and timing in situations where GPS is not available. Quantum sensors also have great potential for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance purposes. For example, a groundbreaking application would be the ability to detect submarines and stealth aircraft, Jones says.

Finding useful applications for quantum technology will be key and will require collaboration between public and private sector stakeholders. “As with any emerging technology field, collaboration will be critical not only between market players but also with universities,” says Jones. An example of this type of collaboration includes a partnership announced in 2021 between the University of Birminghamled by the UK Quantum Technology Hub and British defense company BAE Systems to develop and integrate quantum computing technologies.

What will quantum computing mean for military communication?

GlobalData Topical Research predicts that quantum communication will be “a major focus for defense organizations in the coming years and a source of significant investment.” Quantum key distribution (a secure communication method applying cryptography based on quantum mechanics) is the most developed field of quantum communications. Quantum supremacy—the point at which a quantum computer surpasses classical computation—will render all current encryption useless and in turn have a profound effect on government and military secure communications.

Quantum technology has the potential for maximum protection from adversaries while intercepting unsecured adversary communications. GlobalData Thematic Research predicts that quantum decryption of communications networks is not imminent, although the first signs will likely appear around 2030. More significant is the ability to increasingly encrypt information by distributing a quantum key in a way that cannot be accessed by foreign adversaries.

Quantum computing provides opportunities as well as threats to the defense sector, namely processing complex problems in a fraction of the time it would take a classical computer. US aerospace giant Airbus is exploring quantum computing to optimize flight routes, including weather factors, and to simulate new aircraft and wing designs. The company did not purchase the quantum technology itself, but instead accessed quantum hardware through the cloud, a typical route for even the largest corporations.

Although most defense companies will explore quantum computing through quantum computing as a service in the cloud, exceptions to this trend include US defense giant Lockheed Martin. The company has invested in physical quantum technology, with a commitment to quantum research that extends to a joint research center with the University of Southern California established in 2011.

Geopolitics and quantum warfare

Leading the way in the development of quantum technology in the defense sector are companies including Honeywell, Northrop Grumman, CETC, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. As the number of defense companies developing quantum technology increases, they will struggle to find an adequate skills base, according to GlobalData’s case study.

A skills shortage in quantum technology and the promise of first-mover advantage has led governments to increase investment in the field. In the US, up to $3 billion (€3.07 billion) of federal quantum projects are underway or planned, including the $1.2 billion National Quantum Computing Initiative. According to GlobalData’s case study, the US is almost certainly merging secret quantum development projects into existing programs at its main government labs, Darpa and the National Security Agency.

Meanwhile, China is leading the way in secure quantum communications through its Micius quantum satellite project, but lags somewhat behind the US tech giants in quantum computing. Chinese policymakers are allocating more than $15 billion (107.56 billion yuan) to quantum computing over the next five years, but unofficially much more, according to GlobalData’s thematic research. Other Chinese advances in quantum technology include the $10 billion National Quantum Laboratory at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei. Tech giant Alibaba is pioneering Chinese quantum research with its $15 billion investment in the Discovery, Adventure, Momentum and Prospect Academy.

The emergence of quantum technology coincides with the race between the US and China for global technological supremacy, as well as a period of turbulent geopolitics. If China or Russia are the first to build a working quantum computer, the world’s military balance of power has the potential to change significantly. As China gains ground in quantum satellite communications, the Sino-US technology war has led to restrictions on US visas for quantum technology students, as well as increased scrutiny of US-China academic cooperation. The battle for quantum supremacy is already underway and is set to change the defense sector as the technology slowly matures.

Related companies


Previous articleSince the debut of Crew Dragon, SpaceX has flown more astronauts than anyone else
Next articleHybrid work may not work for women