Throughout history, the weaponization of new technologies has disrupted the security architectures of empires and nations. For instance, the making of the atomic bomb brought unprecedented (even existential) risks to the threat matrix of many nations. While the bomb may be an extreme example, many security experts warn that some emerging technologies could do the same in this century. Consequently, the national security implications of many next-generation technologies are being discussed ad nauseam and are areas of growing strategic focus for governments across the world.
Quantum computing is a textbook example of such a technology. Both the United States and China see quantum information science as a critical technology for their national security, and strategic competition is now a de-facto framework used to analyze many developments in the area. This is hardly surprising, given the potential of quantum technologies (QT). Although at a nascent stage of development, quantum computers offer a dramatic increase in computing power compared to classical computers today. This is because instead of bits (that can hold values of 0 or 1), quantum computers use qubits that can hold a 0, a 1, or any proportion of 0 and 1 in a superposition of both states, counterintuitive as it may sound. As of 2019, this is no longer just a theoretical possibility: Google unveiled a Quantum Computer (with just 54 qubits), which was able to carry out an experimental calculation in 200 seconds that would have taken the world’s most powerful supercomputer around 10,000 years to compute.
It is important to emphasize that the use cases of quantum computers today are very narrow and at present offer no practical advantages over classical computers. However, many experts now believe that a paradigm-shifting breakthrough is no longer a question of if, but when. Governments and tech firms have already invested billions of dollars in quantum tech, and they argue that it offers broad and significant gains across sectors of the global economy. A recent report by McKinsey estimates that QT will have a global market value of a whopping $1 trillion by 2035.
Unfortunately, the catch is breathtaking.
Quantum computers are posed to break many of the encryptions (like RSA-2048) we use today to protect bank records, passwords, intelligence classified by the governments, military communication networks, and so on. This is because, unlike classical computers, quantum computers can use tools like Shor’s algorithm — taking advantage of quantum mechanical phenomena, such as superposition, entanglement, and uncertainty — to try out different factorial combinations of encryption keys on an unprecedented scale. It requires little imagination to foresee the scale of security disruptions such an advancement could cause.
The United States and China are trying to gain or maintain a lead over each other in quantum tech and scrambling to bolster their cyberinfrastructures to mitigate risks in efforts that resemble an arms race. For instance, on December 21, 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden signed into law the Quantum Security Preparedness Act, pushing federal agencies to “migrate systems to post-quantum cryptography, which is resilient against attacks from quantum computers and standard computers.” The U.S. currently enjoys a lead in quantum computing and can boast of hosting the most powerful quantum computer in the world (IBM’s Osprey with 433 qubits), but China is uncomfortably close behind, if not pulling ahead.
In quantum communications, China is leading and has built the longest Quantum Key Distribution (a communication method that is unhackable, even by quantum computers) network in the world, spanning thousands of kilometers between Shanghai and Beijing. China also launched a second quantum communication satellite into orbit last year, seven years after it made history by launching Micius, a first-of-its-kind quantum satellite. Micius established an unhackable link between two ground stations separated by more than 1,000 kilometers in 2020, bringing China one step closer to a fully operational quantum satellite network, which will create completely impenetrable channels of communication for Beijing. Further, Chinese scientists have made at least two even more worrisome claims: In 2021, a research team at Tsinghua University claimed to have engineered a quantum-based radar that could soon detect stealth aircraft, which have been the backbone of U.S. air superiority for decades. And then, early this year Chinese researchers published a paper claiming to have developed an algorithm that could potentially break the RSA-2048 encryption, using just 372 qubits.
While security experts are skeptical about the veracity of these claims and Chinese scientists are yet to demonstrate either of these developments, it does reveal that China is actively seeking to weaponize quantum technology already. While Beijing’s investments and research in QT are shrouded in secrecy, McKinsey & Co. estimates that China has already committed more than $15 billion in public spending. Moreover, a piece in The Diplomat recently reported that China has also identified quantum computing as one of three strategic technologies critical for its national rejuvenation. This indicates that Beijing will even further intensify its efforts to achieve quantum supremacy.
Naturally, these developments have worried security officials and policymakers in India. On April 19, 2023, the Union Cabinet approved $730 million for the National Quantum Mission (NQM). The aim is to foster and advance a QT ecosystem in India by encouraging top R&D institutes to research quantum computing, quantum communication, quantum sensing and metrology, and quantum materials and devices. While much of the focus of NQM is centered on scientific research, the very fact that India launched a dedicated national mission (spearheaded by the Department of Science and Technology) to expedite quantum research is in itself an indication of New Delhi’s strategic perspective. Furthermore, many (if not most) advanced research projects in QT are being carried out under the guidance of strategic government agencies like the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), India Space Research Organization (ISRO), and others. Even the Indian Army has set up a Quantum Computing Lab, which is directly backed by the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) of India.
India has modest capabilities in QT already. This includes a Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) link covering 100 km between Prayagraj and Vindhyachalm, jointly demonstrated by scientists from DRDO and IIT-Delhi in 2022. In March this year, the government announced that the first quantum communication network is operational in the country and challenged ethical hackers to break its encryption, offering a handsome award per break. The same month researchers at Raman Research Institute, in partnership with ISRO, demonstrated a QKD link between a stationary source and a moving vehicle — the first step in enabling quantum-based communications with satellites.
India is also moving fast to build an indigenous quantum computer, and a stated objective of the NQM is to build a 1000-qubit system in the next eight years. Moreover, establishing satellite-based secure quantum communications between ground stations over a range of 2000 kilometers within India, long-distance secure quantum communications with other countries, and inter-city quantum key distribution over 2000 km are all stated objectives as well. The NQM is a strong indicator that India is indeed serious about closing the gap with other nations and developing capabilities to deter adversaries from deploying cyber attacks on Indian digital infrastructure.
Indian leaders have emphasized the need for indigenous development in the NQM. This is indeed important given the strategic nature of QT, but a more realistic assessment suggests that international collaborations with partners may be necessary for leapfrogging and making rapid gains, at least in the short term. A thoroughly interconnected technology ecosystem in the globalized world makes international cooperation a prerequisite, for driving innovation and research. For instance, a Rand Corp. analysis has found that half of all published papers on quantum research result from international collaborations. In fact, U.S. scientists have co-authored more papers with scientists from China than any other country, despite strategic competition.
But as the U.S. and its allies now move to de-risk their critical technology supply chains from China after the recently concluded G-7 summit, Indian researchers and tech firms will find more opportunities for establishing international partnerships, including in QT. India has already identified Quantum Computing as a key area of collaboration with the U..S-India Initiative for Critical Emerging Technologies (IcET), and the EU-India Trade and Technology Council (TTC), suggesting that policymakers are already cognizant of the need for partnerships.
In a global security environment that is more dynamic than ever, QT will emerge as a major frontier in cybersecurity. India’s NQM has the potential to go a long way in building capacity and consolidating its security interests.