January 26, 2024

IntelBrief: NATO’s Quantum Technologies Strategy Highlights Intensifying Strategic Competition

AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

Bottom Line Up Front

  • NATO’s first-ever Quantum Technologies Strategy, aimed at establishing a quantum-ready Alliance, presents quantum technology as a critical frontier of strategic competition and a disruptive dual-use technology.
  • Quantum technologies, a type of emerging technology that leverages the principles of quantum mechanics, have a range of applications set to revolutionize the defense and security sectors, including computing, sensing, and communications applications.
  • The NATO strategy proposes fostering a resilient quantum ecosystem, emphasizing cooperation, investment coherence, skilled workforce development, and situational awareness, with key pillars including the identification of dual-use quantum applications, interoperability frameworks, a shift to quantum-safe cryptography, and preventive measures against adversarial investments.
  • While China outpaces the U.S. regarding announced public investment in quantum technology by roughly thirteen billion USD, U.S. companies like IBM remain the leaders of large-scale quantum computing.

On Wednesday, January 17, NATO published its first-ever Quantum Technologies Strategy, aimed at establishing a quantum-ready Alliance. The strategy approved by NATO foreign ministers on November 28 highlights quantum technologies as a pivotal element of strategic competition, presenting unprecedented advantages in computing, communications, and sensing. The strategic document highlights the dual-use nature of quantum technologies and aims to rapidly and responsibly increase the quantum capabilities of the Alliance to prevent adversaries and competitors from gaining a strategic advantage. While much of the policymaking community has been focused on leveraging the capabilities of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML) for national security and simultaneously preventing its malicious use, accelerating technical progress in quantum computing and other quantum fields renders the strategy both timely and necessary.

Quantum technologies are emerging technologies that leverage the principles of quantum mechanics. The latter is a branch of physics that focuses on how nature behaves at the most miniature scale, specifically at the atoms and subatomic particles level. The three types of quantum technology include quantum computing, quantum communications, and quantum sensing. Unlike classical computing, which uses bits to represent the binary option of either 0 or 1, quantum computers use qubits, which can exist in multiple states simultaneously due to the quantum mechanics principle of superposition. Quantum computing will have various disruptive effects in the security and defense realm. For example, it could easily break widely used cryptographic algorithms, potentially exposing critical and sensitive information for national security. Simultaneously, quantum computing’s vastly greater processing power than conventional computers will facilitate various calculation tasks, including modeling and complex simulations. Quantum communication is a quantum technology that enables secure and ultrarapid data transmission. This offers clear benefits on the battlefield, including more efficient and secure communications by military command and control as well as increased security of satellite communication, which is relevant for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. Quantum sensing harnesses quantum mechanics to enable sensors to achieve unparalleled levels of sensitivity and precision, enhancing their capability to measure physical entities accurately. Overall, this technology could revolutionize the military’s detection and surveillance capabilities as well as improve space-based data collection. While quantum technology is set to revolutionize much of the security and defense sector, numerous technical challenges impede immediate widespread adoption and commercialization, including difficulties in creating and stabilizing large-scale, fault-tolerant quantum computers.

The NATO Quantum Technologies Strategy outlines a vision for a quantum-ready Alliance by fostering a resilient quantum ecosystem. It emphasizes the need for cooperation between Allies, investment coherence, skilled workforce development, and increased situational awareness. The strategy considers the identification of promising dual-use quantum applications, the development of interoperability frameworks, a transition to quantum-safe cryptography, and Ally-level prevention mechanisms against adversarial foreign investments in its quantum ecosystem as critical pillars of a quantum-ready Alliance. Furthermore, it emphasizes the importance of fostering a Transatlantic Quantum Community “to engage with government, industry, and academia from across the innovation ecosystems.” Additionally, the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) and the NATO Innovation Fund (NIF) are depicted as crucial for NATO’s engagement with the Allied quantum ecosystem. Sam Howell, Research Associate of technology and national security at the Center for a New American Security, posits that the strategy aligns with the U.S.’s framing of quantum technology development as a zero-sum game, which, though conducive to innovation and competitiveness, may at the same time lead to an exaggeration of the risks associated with quantum. Zero-sum discourse was also notable in the earlier stages of AI adoption, with some experts making “arms race” analogies – disputed by others as alarmist and scientifically unfounded, with accusations of fearmongering evocative of Cold War dynamics.

While it is the first-ever strategy released by NATO on the topic, NATO has been actively working toward more investment in quantum technology for security and defense purposes for years. Various quantum technology start-ups have been developed and cultivated to navigate the defense and security sector through the DIANA accelerator program. Additionally, in September, NATO opened Deep Tech Lab – Quantum in Denmark, serving as a test lab for promising start-ups in quantum technology. Globally, actors have allotted significant resources to the research and development of quantum technology for the strategic advantage it is bound to offer. Aside from the United States and the European Union (EU), China is a top player in the strategic competition surrounding quantum technology. In an estimate published by McKinsey and Company in April 2023, China outpaced the EU and the U.S. regarding announced public investment for quantum technologies by approximately eight and thirteen billion USD respectively. However, U.S.-based companies like IBM remain the leaders in advanced quantum technology development. China has become a primary perpetrator of industrial espionage in quantum computing at higher education institutions in the U.S. Since 2018, the U.S. has sought to counter China’s advancements in quantum computing and other dual-use technologies through sanctions and trade and export restrictions related to advanced semiconductor chips. However, Beijing seems undeterred and recently made its superconducting quantum computer, Origin Wukong, accessible to international audiences. As researchers resolve some of the crucial issues hindering large-scale quantum computing development, NATO will have to swiftly implement its strategy and provide significant incentives to the private industry to aid its execution.