Military & Aerospace

Ultracold Quantum Technology and Thief and Spy – China
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 30 Dec , 2020

Quantum communication is a field of applied quantum physics closely related to quantum information processing and quantum teleportation whose most interesting application is protecting information channels against eavesdropping by means of quantum cryptography. Quantum computing uses quibits as basic resources, similar to how bits are used as basic resources in classical computing.

China uses every possible means and no country poses a bigger threat than Communist China. But the US is just one target of China.

Bill Phillips, winner of Nobel Prize for physics says, “A quantum computer is as different from a classical computer as a classical computer is from an abacus.” Quantum key distribution (QKD) is a secure communication method which implements a cryptographic protocol involving components of quantum mechanics. It enables two parties to produce a shared random secret key known only to them, which can then be used to encrypt and decrypt messages. On December 9, 2020, the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) successfully demonstrated QKD-based communications between its two labs in Hyderabad to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh.

While India has witnessed the first demonstration of successful quantum communication, China has made giant strides in this field. But Chinese advances in technology and trade are largely based on Beijing’s worldwide operation of spying and theft. In February 2020, Christopher Wray, Director US FBI had said that China’s theft of technology is biggest law enforcement threat to US and that China’s theft of US trade secrets were costing the US $300 billion to $600 billion annually. He also said that the FBI’s some 1,000 ongoing investigations had opened into Chinese technology thefts across the 56 regional offices. China uses every possible means and no country poses a bigger threat than Communist China. But the US is just one target of China.

Recent news reports reveal that despite pumping £1billion in quantum technology since 2013, Britain has handed over these technological advances to China on a platter – through seats of learning. A Portin Down-based secret laboratory of Oxford University (part-funded by the British defence ministry) has been linked to a Chinese military university. Beijing helped fund the Ultracold Quantum Matter lab through a university controlled by China’s Communist Party (CCP) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). China’s Changsha-based National University of Defence Technology (NUDT) is the main training centre for China’s spies.

In 2016, China launched the satellite ‘Micius’, which is solely dedicated to quantum information science.

For five years, Oxford trained and nurtured a Chinese doctoral student Dongyang Xu – Leo who had graduated from another military university and was being funded by the NUDT. He entered Britain in 2012. Before Oxford, he studied at two UK centres of excellence in high-tech engineering, Lancaster and Cambridge. When Xu hosted two Oxford workshops for the NUDT in 2016 and 2018, he gave his Chinese colleagues tours of the secret lab. They were welcomed with open arms by the Oxford University. The British Government and Oxford are naturally mum on the revelation but a former MI-6 chief is furious about how lax British universities are.

In 2016, China launched the satellite ‘Micius’, which is solely dedicated to quantum information science. It has reportedly achieved several ground breaking results that are bringing the once esoteric field of quantum cryptography into the mainstream. In 2017, the concerned Chinese team, along with a group of researchers in Austria, was able to employ the satellite to perform the world’s first quantum-encrypted virtual teleconference between Beijing and Vienna.

However, it was not foolproof because of the discovery that the satellite itself knew the sequences of photons, or keys, for each location, as well as a combined key for decryption. This implied that if a spy had eavesdropped on the satellites activity, the communications could be hacked. This weakness was eventually obviated by not using the satellite as communications relay but allow it to only simultaneously transmit a pair of secret keys to allow two ground stations in China, located more than 1,120 kilometers apart. Each secret key is one of two strings of entangled photon pairs.

The laws of quantum physics dictate that any attempt to spy on such a transmission will unavoidably leave an error-like footprint that can be easily detected by recipients at either station.

News reports of June 2020 now indicate that the Micius satellite successfully established an ultra-secure link between two ground stations separated by more than 1,000 kilometers. A paper published on June 15, 2020 in ‘Nature’ about a secure method of quantum messaging using Micius has brought China closer to realizing global communications that would be immune to hacking.

Quantum technology is evolving quickly and no doubt will have a significant impact not only on warfare but also in terms of national security.

The Chinese team next plans to launch and operate a quantum satellite in a higher orbit – 10,000 kilometers above Earth’s surface which may take up to another five years. Micius orbits only 500 kilometers above earth but a satellite orbiting at 10,000 kilometers above Earth would facilitate quantum communications between ground stations much farther apart from one another throughout the day.

Quantum technology is evolving quickly and no doubt will have a significant impact not only on warfare but also in terms of national security. However, experts are still not certain what exactly this impact will be since its final shape will emerge only some years from now. Also, the basic properties of quantum mechanics have opened new opportunities for technology, but they also pose some fundamental challenges. As an example, quibits may be equivalent of regular computer bits but they cannot be duplicated or cloned. This means routine programming techniques relying on copying the value of a variable are impossible to use with quantum technology. Denying  reading the same qubit twice is big advantage for secure communications but cryptographic keys that cannot be forged can also create difficulties in computing as it complicates the techniques necessary for testing.

In 2018 NASA initiated development of the National Space Quantum Laboratory that planned to use lasers on the International Space Station to achieve secure communications between ground stations. In 2021, a joint UK-Singapore project plans to launch a quantum communications satellite. The European ‘Quantum Internet Alliance’ too is working on quantum communications.

China may be ahead in quantum communications by virtue of spying and thieving but India has enough brains to catch up given the right focus. The initial breakthrough in quantum communications has already been successfully demonstrated on December 9. The good news is that India and Japan are also jointly working on launching a quantum communications satellite. In addition to launching quantum satellites we should also be experimenting with lasers for quantum communications between ground stations using lasers, similar to what NASA is doing.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

is a former Lt Gen Special Forces, Indian Army

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