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Research Questions

  1. What are the national security implications of quantum technology?
  2. Which countries are the major players in developing quantum technology?
  3. What are the timelines for the deployment of useful quantum technologies?

This report provides an overview of the current state of quantum technology and its potential commercial and military applications. The author discusses each of the three major categories of quantum technology: quantum sensing, quantum communication, and quantum computing. He also considers the likely commercial outlook over the next few years, the major international players, and the potential national security implications of these emerging technologies. This report is based on a survey of the available academic literature, news reporting, and government-issued position papers.

Most of these technologies are still in the laboratory. Applications of quantum sensing could become commercially or militarily ready within the next few years. Although limited commercial deployment of quantum communication technology already exists, the most-useful military applications still lie many years away. Similarly, there may be niche applications of quantum computers in the future, but all known applications are likely at least ten years away. China currently leads the world in the development of quantum communication, while the United States leads in the development of quantum computing.

Key Findings

Quantum technology is grouped into three broad categories: quantum sensing, quantum communication, and quantum computing

  • Quantum sensing refers to the ability to use quantum mechanics to build extremely precise sensors. This is the application of quantum technology considered to have the nearest-term operational potential.
  • The primary near-term application of quantum communication technology is security against eavesdroppers, primarily through a method known as quantum key distribution (QKD). Longer-term applications include networking together quantum computers and sensors.
  • Quantum computing refers to computers that could, in principle, perform certain computations vastly more quickly than is fundamentally possible with a standard computer. Certain problems that are completely infeasible to solve on a standard computer could become feasible on a quantum computer.

Every subfield of quantum technology potentially has major implications for national security

  • Some of the primary applications for quantum sensing include position, navigation, and timing and possibly intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
  • Quantum communication technology could use QKD to protect sensitive encrypted communications against hostile interception, although some experts consider other security solutions to be more promising.
  • Quantum computing could eventually have the most severe impact on national security. A large-scale quantum computer capable of deploying Shor's algorithm on current encryption would have a devastating impact on virtually all internet security.

There is no clear overall world leader in quantum technology

  • The United States, China, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Canada all have specific national initiatives to encourage quantum-related research.
  • The United States and China dominate in overall spending and the most-important technology demonstrations, but Canada, the United Kingdom, and the European Union also lead in certain subfields.
  • China is the world leader in quantum communication, and the United States is the world leader in quantum computing.

The highest-impact quantum technologies are still many years away

  • Applications of quantum sensing could become commercially or militarily ready within the next few years.
  • Limited commercial deployment of quantum communication technology already exists, but the most-useful military and commercial applications still lie many years away.
  • There may be niche applications of quantum computers over the next few years, but all currently known applications are likely at least ten years away.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Overview of Quantum Technology

  • Chapter Three

    Outlook over the Next Few Years

  • Chapter Four

    Major Players

  • Chapter Five

    National Security Implications

  • Chapter Six

    Conclusion

This research was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense and conducted within the Cyber and Intelligence Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

This report is part of the RAND Corporation Research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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