Top Pentagon official Michael Griffin sat down a few weeks ago with Air Force scientists at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to discuss the future of quantum computing in the U.S. military. Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, has listed quantum computers and related applications among the Pentagon’s must-do R&D investments. Quantum computing is one area where the Pentagon worries that it is playing catchup while China continues to leap ahead. The technology is being developed for many civilian applications, and the military sees it as potentially game-changing for information and space warfare. The U.S. Air Force particularly is focused on what is known as quantum information science. “We see this as a very disruptive technology,” said Michael Hayduk, chief of the computing and communications division at the Air Force Research Laboratory. Artificial-intelligence algorithms, highly secure encryption for communications satellites and accurate navigation that does not require GPS signals are some of the most coveted capabilities that would be aided by quantum computing. Hayduk spoke last week during a meeting of the Defense Innovation Board, a panel of tech executives and scientists who advise the secretary of defense. The DIB met at the Pentagon’s Silicon Valley location, the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental. Quantum computers are the newest generation of supercomputers — powerful machines with a new approach to processing information. Quantum information science is the application of the laws of quantum mechanics to information science, Hayduk explained. Unlike traditional computers that are made of bits of zero or one, in quantum computers bits can have both values simultaneously, giving them unprecedented processing power. “The Air Force is taking this very seriously, and we’ve invested for quite a while,” Hayduk said. The Pentagon is especially intrigued by the potential of quantum computing to develop secure communications and inertial navigation in GPS-denied and -contested environments. “It’s a key area we’re very much interested in,” said Hayduk. Some of these technologies will take years to materialize, he said. “In timing and sensing, we see prototype capabilities in a five-year timeframe.” Communications systems and networks will take even longer. Quantum clocks are viewed as a viable alternative to GPS in scenarios that require perfect synchronization across multiple weapons systems and aircraft, for example, said Hayduk. “We’re looking at GPS-like precision in denied environments,” he said. “It often takes several updates to GPS throughout the day to synchronize platforms. We want to be able to move past that so if we are in a denied environment we can still stay synchronized.” Meanwhile, the Pentagon continues to watch what other nations are doing. China is “very serious” about this, he said. It is projected to invest from $10 billion to $15 billion over the next five years in quantum computing. China already has developed quantum satellites that cannot be hacked. “They have demonstrated great technology,” said Hayduk. In the U.S., “we have key pieces in place. But we’re looking at more than imitating what China is doing in ground-satellite communications. We’re looking at the whole ecosystem: ground, air, space, and form a true network around that.”
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