The Revolutionary Potential of Quantum Technologies
The U.S. decision to formulate the Third Offset strategy was impelled by recognition that its prior technological edge from the Second Offset has been “steadily eroding.” Although the Second Offset had enabled unparalleled technological advantage, through reliance upon precision-guided munitions, sophisticated C4ISR networks, and stealth, peer competitors have since taken advantage of the subsequent, inevitable process of technological diffusion. Consequently, potential adversaries’ military capabilities have progressively advanced, resulting in new calls for the U.S. to “offset” their investments through leveraging enduring U.S. advantages despite potential fiscal constraints.
Strategic competitors, especially China, have pursued asymmetric strategies that exploit perceived U.S. vulnerabilities, proving the temporary technological advantage of the Second Offset evanescent. Since the 1990s, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has successfully developed “counter-intervention” capabilities, often characterized by Western analysts as anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. In the process, China has employed critical Second Offset technologies, enhancing its C4ISR capabilities to enable precision strikes by a variety of ballistic and cruise missiles. The PLA has undertaken a highly asymmetric approach through its intense focus on “assassin’s mace” or “trump card” (杀手锏) capabilities, including for cyber, electronic, and space warfare. Looking forward, the PLA is intensely focused on the actualization of a range of “new concept” weapons (新概念武器), including hypersonic, “intelligent,” and directed energy weapons.
The efficacy of the Third Offset and future U.S. defense innovation initiatives depends upon the reactions of potential adversaries. The occasional assumption that the U.S. possesses the capability to innovate its way to regaining its traditional technological preeminence, thus ensuring continued military predominance, is inherently problematic. Today’s technological trends are not conducive to the preservation of such a decisive, undisputed edge. Because cutting-edge research and development increasingly occurs within the private sector—and the majority of emerging technologies are inherently dual-use—the rapidity of technological diffusion has increased significantly.
There are a number of asymmetries between U.S. and Chinese approaches to military innovation that will impact their respective prospects for success.
As the U.S. and China respectively prioritize advances in the same strategic technologies, innovations may take place simultaneously, and diffusion may occur almost instantaneously. As China has become a global leader in multiple critical technological domains—including unmanned systems, hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, and quantum information science—indigenous Chinese innovation, rather than simply its rapid expropriation and effective emulation of foreign advances, also has the potential to prove highly disruptive. Under these conditions, neither the U.S. nor China is likely to achieve or maintain an enduring technological advantage.
There are a number of asymmetries between U.S. and Chinese approaches to military innovation that will impact their respective prospects for success. In recent years, the decline in U.S. investment in basic research has provoked concerns of an “innovation deficit,” which could undermine long-term competitiveness. In the context of defense innovation, the Third Offset “isn’t an answer; it’s a question,” according to Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Selva. Through ongoing initiatives, the U.S. Department of Defense has intensified its focus on investments in a range of technologies with disruptive potential. This approach of “many small bets” could enable optionality and agility prior to later transitions to programs of record. However, there is a risk that the result could be insufficient and inconsistent levels of funding for critical disruptive technologies. At this point, the long-term trajectory of this initiative remains uncertain. Although Secretary Mattis has articulated his intention to evaluate the Third Offset, the new administration’s approach to and prioritization of defense innovation remains unclear, despite likely increases in the defense budget.
On the other hand, China’s strategy has consistently prioritized extensive long-term investments in strategic emerging technologies. This agenda has been determined and reaffirmed by the Chinese leadership at the highest levels through a series of national science and technology plans. Consequently, technologies that are perceived to possess particular strategic significance, including quantum information science and artificial intelligence, tend to receive a blank check. Contemplating the future of warfare, the PLA perceives innovation in military technology, organization, and theory as the crux of contemporary great power competition.
Today, China is hurtling headlong towards the quantum era. The Chinese leadership is betting heavily on the disruptive, even revolutionary potential of quantum technologies, which take advantage of the paradoxical principles of quantum mechanics, such as superposition and entanglement. China recognizes advances in quantum information science as a high-level priority under the Thirteenth Five-Year Plan’s National Science and Technology Innovation Plan and the new National Key Research and Development Plan. Through extensive investments, Chinese scientists have advanced rapidly in research and development of quantum communications, quantum computing, and even quantum sensing. Although it is difficult to project the timeframe within which the potential of these technologies will be fully realized, Chinese scientists have established a track record of consistent advances, indicating their potential for continued success.
China’s advances in quantum technologies thus have the potential to undermine vital aspects of contemporary U.S. military power.
China intends to lead the coming “second quantum revolution” and seeks to leapfrog the U.S. in this critical technological domain. The full extent of U.S. government and military quantum advances is likely not reflected by the limited information available in the public domain. However, the U.S. has yet to articulate an equally ambitious national agenda for quantum information science. There are concerns that the lack of funding and systemic issues could undermine future U.S. progress in this critical technological domain. In late 2016, White House official recently expressed concerns that the U.S. lead in quantum computing is increasingly “under siege.”
Looking forward, quantum technologies each have the potential to undermine unique aspects of U.S. technological dominance in information-age warfare—its sophisticated intelligence apparatus, satellites and secure communications networks, and stealth technologies. Quantum cryptography creates unbreakable, almost unhackable, protection for networks, ensuring the integrity of quantum communications. China’s expanding dual-use quantum communications infrastructure will certainly be employed for military purposes. Since quantum computing could defeat the most prevalent forms of encryption, rendering computer and satellite networks vulnerable, even the distant risk of its actualization is already prompting calls for “post-quantum cryptography.” Even if the risk of quantum computing to encryption may be mitigated, such immense computing power will have multiple impactful military applications, including in complex weapons systems. Eventually, quantum sensing will have unique applications, from quantum radar, which could overcome stealth, to the quantum compass, which might become a successor to GPS. China’s advances in quantum technologies thus have the potential to undermine vital aspects of contemporary U.S. military power.
For China, the successful development of even one or two of these quantum technologies could enable an eventual “offset” of its own—and this offset, China’s first, could decisively impact the future strategic balance. These quantum ambitions reflect an evolution from its traditional asymmetric approach towards a strategy that seeks to undermine core aspects of U.S. technological superiority. In effect, this weaponization of the paradoxical uncertainty at the core of quantum science could prove revolutionary. PLA strategists and officers anticipate that quantum technologies will transform warfare, perhaps possessing strategic significance on par with nuclear weapons.
This dynamic could shift the very metric through which military power is calculated, from one centered upon information to another that takes advantage of the paradoxical power of quantum uncertainty.
If the PLA achieves the capability to operationalize quantum technologies, this technological leap would enable a level of supremacy that supersedes information dominance. Such a revolutionary advance would enable decisive advantage on the battlefield, undermining the power, reliability, and centrality of the current information, and specifically intelligence-driven, technologies upon which modern warfare presently relies. The resulting dominance in the intelligence, offensive, and defensive spaces could constitute “quantum supremacy.”
China may be on track to achieve such quantum supremacy, demonstrating the intent, the means, and the will to become the world’s first true quantum power. These quantum ambitions may prove unrealistic, since the future trajectory of these technologies remains highly uncertain. Nonetheless, the advent of quantum technologies on the battlefield will radically alter the rules of the game, effectively disrupting today’s information-centric ways of war, epitomized by the U.S. model. This dynamic could shift the very metric through which military power is calculated, from one centered upon information to another that takes advantage of the paradoxical power of quantum uncertainty.
Elsa Kania is an analyst at the Long Term Strategy Group. Her research focuses on the PLA’s advances in and approach to emerging technologies. She recently testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) on the PLA’s unmanned systems and potential military applications of artificial intelligence. Elsa is a graduate of Harvard College, and she is proficient in Mandarin Chinese.
This piece is informed by prior collaborative research and co-authored writings, including: “Quantum Leap (Part 1): China’s Advances in Quantum Information Science,” China Brief, December 5, 2016; and “Quantum Leap (Part 2): The Strategic Implications of Quantum Technologies,” China Brief, December 21, 2016. For a more extensive evaluation of Chinese efforts in quantum information science, see also recent testimony on the topic before the USCC.
Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:
Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.
Header image: Derived from cover art from CNAS.