WASHINGTON — As the Pentagon seeks to maintain a technological military edge over the rest of the world, the potential of quantum technology is tantalizing.
But a new report by an Air Force research group has found that while quantum capabilities could impact everything from major platforms to data processing, in many areas the technology is not quite ready for use.
The report was performed by the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), an independent federal advisory committee made up of 50 scientists and researchers who every year drill down on a series of topics the service has asked them to consider.
This most recent trio of studies, which launched in January, looked at how — or if — the Air Force should invest its research funding into upgrading unmanned systems, the utility of quantum technologies, and how to build in cybersecurity for internal processors on existing and current platforms.
The report, which has a focus on quantum technologies, will only be released in a redacted form come January, but Werner Dahm, a former chief scientist of the Air Force who serves as SAB chairman, briefed reporters last week about some of the findings.
The results, he said, were not what he had expected.
"By about a third of the way through the study it became clear that while there is a lot of hype in this area — there are a lot of people walking around saying 'magic,' essentially, is possible with quantum systems — it's just not true," he said. "These systems have enormous potential, but there is much more hype than reality in there."
And that is the problem with quantum technologies in a nutshell — the possibilities are endless, but it's not clear exactly when, or if, any of those possibilities can be tapped. Or, as the Center for a New American Security's senior fellow and director of the Technology and National Security Program, Ben FitzGerald, put it, "The word 'theoretical' comes up everywhere with quantum computing."
But while much of the capability is hypothetical, the US cannot afford to ignore the growth of quantum capabilities. According to Dahm, America accounts for about a quarter of the total global-declared R&D in quantum technologies. Coming in second, he noted, is China, which means the US isn't just looking for advantages, but defenses against quantum-enabled weaponry.
FitzGerald said quantum technology falls right in "the sweet spot" for the Pentagon.
"It's theoretical, it's complex, it potentially solves a number of challenges the DoD already has without requiring any major institutional reform," FitzGerald said. "It helps the department deal with issues around encryption and also to deal with data."
FitzGerald said quantum is part of the "next generation of next-generation technologies," which could have an impact on defense far down the line.
Or as Mark Gunzinger, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, put it: "Quantum computing may be the next step toward maintaining the US military's ability to assess and react to tactical situations far more quickly than its enemies."
The three areas the SAB found had utility for the Air Force were quantum sensing, quantum communications and quantum computing.
For sensing, the potential for quantum navigation systems to replace inertial measurement units could deliver very high accuracy while not being jammed, giving pilots precise position information even if GPS is being blocked by an enemy.
"These systems are making remarkable progress and could be brought to a level of maturity in a relatively close time scale," Dahm said.
Similarly, these sensors could give more accurate timing to weapons or other systems — if they can be shrunk down to fit onto a plane or bomb. The study recommends that the Air Force "take the lead" and invest in miniaturization of these systems.
But while some systems may be near-ready, that doesn't mean they fit into the Air Force concept of operations. As an example, Dahm said that the oil and gas industry is using quantum gravity gradiometers to search for areas with reservoirs of oil. That's off-the-shelf technology available now —– but it requires the plane to fly low to the ground, which is likely at odds with Air Force operations.
Quantum communications are less fruitful, with the SAB concluding that the service should spend its money elsewhere.
"The high-level takeaway on the communication part is that most of what the studies saw in the quantum area, the Air Force has equally good or better alternatives with other approaches," Dahm said.
That includes things like quantum key distribution, which could enhance secure communications. But "rather remarkably" the Air Force has other alternatives that are not as complex but provide roughly the same level of security, Dahm said.
"That came as quite a surprise, certainly to me, but that's why we do these [studies]," Dahm said.
The Air Force, in particular, has struggled with what officials have called a "tsunami of data" that comes off various intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms. FitzGerald said that quantum computers could help in that regard.
Gunzinger added: "Quantum computing could revolutionize operations that require crunching large amounts of data very quickly. It has obvious implications for validating the massive lines of code now needed to operate advanced weapon systems such as stealth fighters, for creating cyber operations time advantages over enemies and conducting other operations which are extremely time sensitive."
Seth Lloyd, a professor at the engineering systems division of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied quantum technologies, said data crunching is a great use of quantum computers. But a more exciting one, he said, is machines learning algorithms — which could eventually lead to automated data processing.
"With quantum computers, you can detect patterns in a way you can't" with older systems, Lloyd said.
But while the imagination is focused on the hardware side, Dahm said, the trick is designing the algorithms that would allow software to operate on high-end future computers.
"It's the software side where things are weak, and unless the software matures much further, it is unlikely the Air Force should be expecting great utility from quantum computing," Dahm said. Instead, he noted, the "study recommends a modest, continued effort, with a shift in focus more to the algorithm side than the hardware side."
Given the level of investment in quantum computing from industry — Canadian firm D-Wave, which claims to have the first fully operational quantum computer, counts both the US government and Lockheed Martin among its customer base — FitzGerald sees "some merit to the approach that says we should focus on algorithms rather than computing, from a purely market dynamics perspective."
Lloyd also said that companies such as Google, Microsoft and IBM are pumping millions of dollars into quantum technology development.
The SAB is now turning its gaze to its next project list, which is expected to be announced in the coming weeks. The three completed studies are being briefed at the Pentagon, with final reports due by the end of summer for a January released.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.