‘Disruptive impact’: India’s military starts investing in quantum key distribution

The D-Wave Systems Advantage quantum computer, the first such system with a processor architecture of over 5,000 qubits to go into operation outside North America, is seen at the Forschungszentrum Jülich research center on January 17, 2022 in Julich, Germany. (Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — As the US races to outpace China in the quantum communications game, a new competitor is starting to make its own investments in the emerging technology area: India, the world’s largest democracy which serves as a vital partner for America’s interests in the Pacific. 

The Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) recently issued a commercial request for proposal to QNu Labs, the first company in India to develop quantum-based commercial cybersecurity solutions, to procure an “advanced communications solution” based on quantum key distribution, technology that is used to securely distribute encryption keys. While quantum technology is still in the fairly early stages of capability, the military benefits could be “huge” moving forward, said one expert. 

“My big picture view of this is that India has huge opportunities here to move forward and QNu Labs, I like to think, is just the cutting edge of what’s going to be a big move for India in this area,” Arthur Herman, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told Breaking Defense in an Aug. 29 interview.

Herman, who is also the director of the Hudson Institute’s Quantum Alliance Initiative, of which QNu Labs is a member, added the Indian military is likely thinking about how to keep up with China’s own advances in the area of quantum communications and how to protect sensitive communications. 

“The other area [for India] is quantum cybersecurity, making sure that its data and networks are safe from future quantum computer attack through quantum resistant algorithms, which is what we’ve been working on in the US,” Herman said. “That’s very much [what] the US government’s focus has been on, that kind of solution.”

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Quantum key distribution could “arguably be the most technologically advanced piece of equipment in the Indian armed forces’ inventory,” Tristan Sauer, land domain analyst at data company GlobalData, said in an Aug. 22 press release

“India’s decision to invest in domestic quantum defense solutions for the defense sector is both a significant milestone and a tacit admission of concern over its position within the global computing market,” he said.  

Creating An Unhackable ‘Link’ From Point A To B

Quantum key distribution is about creating a “link” between two points that is unhackable, Herman explained. The connection between the two points is based on a quantum link, which he describes as a one time unique link generated by a quantum random number generator, a tiny device that is embedded in both ends of the link. 

If anyone tries to break into that link, like a hacker, the link is automatically severed and both parties at either end of the connection are immediately aware someone’s trying to break in, Herman said. What they’re able to do then is either “change the communication or restart” using the quantum random number generator device, which would create a new, previously unused connection, he added.

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“So a quantum key distribution consists of two things: No. 1, got to have a quantum random number generator, and that’s one of the things that QNu Labs makes,” he said. “The second thing that you need is the receivers in which those two devices connect and be used to convey encrypted messages in this fashion.” 

In military use, quantum key distribution would work best in point to point communication — that is, communicating from one person to another. Creating a “true network” that’s able to send the same encrypted message to multiple receivers at once is challenging because the encrypted bit that’s carrying the message eventually begins to lose its coherence and “drops away,” Herman said. 

“In the military, where you’re sending extremely sensitive classified data from one office to the next, you want to make sure that no one’s going to be able to break into and decrypt that,” he said. “Well, [quantum key distribution] is definitely a way in which to carry that out.” 

In an Aug. 14 press release, the Indian MOD said quantum technology will have huge potential for the military and a “disruptive impact on modern-day warfare.”

China’s Quantum Lead

According to a Sept. 18, 2020 report by the Brookings Institution, China has taken the lead in quantum key distribution over countries like the US, Japan, Canada, Singapore and Europe, which initially led quantum key distribution efforts.

The emphasis within the quantum technology field has shifted over the past 20 years, with the US and other Western countries focusing on quantum computing, while China has focused more on quantum key distribution, according to the report.

That “difference of emphasis reflects the deep concern about internet security at the highest levels of Chinese leadership, while in the United States, quantum computing advances have been driven by large companies,” the report said at the time. 

“China has a demonstrated lead in demonstrations of several specific QKD technology areas, including space-based quantum key distribution using entangled photons launched from space,” according to the report. “Since this method has some distinct advantages for very long-range secure information, China could become increasingly dependent on space-based QKD for securing data over long distances. This could provide the basis for a common interest in preserving the stability of satellite-based communications between the United states, China and other countries that are increasingly dependent on space.”

According to GlobalData’s press release, China last year demonstrated a quantum key distribution-based communication network spanning over 4,600km, the largest global network to date, with four quantum metropolitan area networks connecting cities in remote locations in Western China. And on July 27, China also launched a quantum communications satellite as part of an ongoing initiative to field a network of quantum-secured communications with global coverage, according to the press release.

“As tensions in the Asia-Pacific region continue to grow and Chinese military capabilities on show during the recent exercises near Taiwan, India understands that the long-term economic and strategic value of domestically produced quantum computing solutions may prove key in ensuring its national security,” Sauer said.