One of the most vital issues for nations and their militaries is the requirement for secure communications. The need for secure communications goes beyond battlefields to envelop the entire spectrum of our activities. The existing methodologies of ensuring security are continuously under assault, and breaches are once too often. Quantum technologies have a great scope of application to ensure the sanctity of networks and communication arteries on which most other activities function.
In any modern battlefield, the availability of accurate real-time secure tactical information is critical for a favourable outcome of any mission. Russia has been focussing on the tactical info-communication network for swifter operations to support a synergized ‘Command and Control’ in the ongoing Ukraine War. This war has also established drone tactics and drone communication as an integral element of a future battlefield, with drones extensively used by both warring militaries. Newer countermeasure techniques evolved to disrupt drone operations through electronic warfare and information warfare to primarily deny, exploit, corrupt or destroy the drone-aided communication spectrum.
Various techniques like COMSEC (Communication Security) and TRANSEC (Transmission Security) evolved to achieve data confidentiality, integrity, authentication etc., for guaranteed availability of secure communications. Even though the Russian ground forces deployed advance technologies like digital tactical SDRs (Software Defined Radios) for achieving secure communication, the high risk of captured info-communication equipment with encryption modules landing up in the NATO labs for code-breaking has restricted the physical deployment of the very latest Russian technologies within the Ukraine war zone. Overall, future battlefields shall see a paradigm shift in secure communication networks for handling ‘hard real-time’ data constraints and voluminous data sets.
In recent times, quantum physics has come to the forefront in military networks for gaining advantage through ‘quantum communication’. Though quantum physics has always been a captivating science since the very discovery of phenomena related to mysterious correlations between far-off particles through Schrödinger Quantum entanglement or uncertainty in the existence of atoms etc., but technology enhancements have made it possible today for advanced nations to apply such nature’s bizarre phenomenon for solving real-world military problems.
Quantum Key Distribution (QKD)
Quantum communication provides secure communication between two users transmitting and receiving encrypted messages using ‘entangled’ photons to establish pairs of particles having a unique quantum-mechanical relationship. Any eavesdropping attempt in this paired communication connection results in a loss of entanglement between the photons. A Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) system utilises quantum physics to encrypt information sent over traditional networks. It uses a quantum secure pair of symmetric keys between two endpoints. This secure communication cannot be clandestinely intercepted during transmission. In fact, the system also sensed any stress on the fibre optic media for tapping, and the transmission interrupted for security reasons. It has been reported that China has completed a QKD network spanning a 2000 km fibre optic link between various cities and a satellite link spanning 2600 km between two land-based observatories. Various experiments have been conducted to utilise a pair of hovering drones to share secure quantum information with two separate ground stations. A new role of drone swarm to link multiple users in a quantum network is being researched for a mobile quantum connection in a battle space.
Quantum computers are the future of faster pace computing, evolving rapidly to meet the high processor-intensive domain of artificial intelligence (AI) and cryptography. Quantum computers can assist militaries in achieving improved near-real-time machine-based target identification and automated target engagement. China has claimed that the hard RSA-based encryption has been cracked using qubits (basic units of quantum information). A quantum computer for code-breaking can potentially turn today’s military and commercial world upside down and have the capability to adversely affect the everyday use of secure banking and financial services etc.
Quantum sensing pertains to using quantum phenomena to perform a physical measurement. The PNT (Positioning, Navigation and Timing) technologies provided through satellite constellations in Earth’s orbit (like India’s indigenous NavIC (Navigation with Indian Constellation) are essential services in today’s world. Quantum sensing is emerging as an alternative PNT service, specifically of interest to war-fighting units to perform in a GPS-denied or GPS-degraded environment. Quantum sensors are highly sensitive and have the potential to be used in detecting nuclear materials or electromagnetic emissions.
Many labs worldwide are today working in the field of quantum science pertaining to quantum communication, quantum computers and quantum sensing. Plans are to secure 5G communication using Quantum Random Number Generators. Some open domain solutions like QNu Lab’s QOSMOS (Entropy-as-a-Service) are now accessible on the online Amazon Web Services Marketplace for use in applications like cryptographic key generation, tokenization, authentication, and identity management.
India’s scientific brilliance too has been well supported by a robust technological ecosystem evolved by the GoI/Department of Science and Technology. The Indian Army, too, established its Quantum Lab in 2021 at the Military College of Telecommunication Engineering to explore the efficacy of Quantum science in military systems, keeping pace with rapid progress made by China.
The military exploitation of cutting-edge technologies to gain an advantage over an adversary has been considered a major stimulus in making many advanced technologies prevalent in the commercial world. Today, silently but surely, Quantum technology too is being considered a modern-era disruptive technology. Multiple issues are yet to be considered in implementing Quantum technologies either in a standalone mode or integrated with other technologies for Defence purposes. In order to prevent any superlative hopes or misrepresentation so often seen while describing emerging disruptive technologies, it may be practical to term quantum technologies as ‘quantum advantage’ rather than ‘quantum supremacy’ at this stage of development to achieve more realistic battlefield applications in the future.
Cdr Milind Kulshreshtha (Retd)