Over the weekend, I watched Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster, “Oppenheimer.” The film delves into the riveting narrative of the Manhattan Project director’s frantic race to craft the world’s first atomic bomb, outpacing Nazi Germany and the Soviets. J. Robert Oppenheimer harnessed the revolutionary marvels of quantum physics, bestowing upon the United States an unequivocal technological edge. As I sat there, I couldn’t help but draw connections to The Quantum Race theme that we have been discussing over the course of the last few weeks. The implications of our contemporary rivalry with China in this race to unlock quantum technology mirror the scale and magnitude witnessed during the atomic and nuclear races of history. Here’s why:

It’s a national security imperative that the U.S. reach supremacy in quantum computing and other technologies before China, just as Oppenheimer did in his day with Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. The first nation to operationalize quantum technologies will wield a diverse arsenal capable of overwhelming unprepared adversaries. The nation that attains quantum technology with unprecedented prowess stands poised to ascend as the forthcoming global hegemon, given the truly formidable and transformative power intrinsic to this technology. 

The race for quantum dominance revolves around a battle between private businesses operating under their own steam and state-controlled initiatives. In the U.S., approximately 180 private companies are engaged in the pursuit of quantum computing, funding their endeavors independently. In contrast, China also recognizes the potential of quantum technology, but their approach centers on larger government-funded labs, supported by subsidies that accumulate to over $15 billion per year. This is estimated to be at least four times what the U.S. quantum industry invests domestically each year. The latest request from the Pentagon for $75 million to expedite quantum technology represents a positive step forward, but it still falls far short of putting the U.S. on par with its strategic rival in terms of investment.

The advancement of quantum technology carries significant implications for the military. Rather than introducing completely new weaponry or standalone military systems, quantum technology significantly enhances measurement accuracy, sensing capabilities, computational power, and efficiency within current and future military technologies.

The most critical threat posed by opposing quantum capabilities is to U.S. cybersecurity. A powerful quantum computer could decipher encryption algorithms that are widely used in computers. Quantum computers could also be turned into tools for breaking into sensitive classified information, private sector systems, and crucial infrastructure. They are also expected to hasten the development of machine learning and artificial intelligence for military use. This spans applications like optimizing logistics, empowering autonomous weapon systems, and advancing fields such as materials science, medicine, and defense.

Beyond computation, quantum technology holds immense potential for the military’s future. Incredibly sensitive quantum sensors have the potential to revolutionize activities such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. China claims to have developed a sensor array capable of detecting magnetic field signatures from submarines located up to 5 kilometers away. While China has surged ahead in pioneering the realm of quantum communication technology, it remains of paramount importance that the United States persistently forges ahead to maintain its competitive edge.