SPECIAL REPORT: AUKUS Countries Team Up to Develop Key Quantum Capabilities
iStock illustrationThis is part 4 of a 4-part special report on the trilateral agreement known as AUKUS — Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Much of the focus of the Australia-United Kingdom-United States partnership, or AUKUS, is on nuclear-powered submarines. However, the agreement’s other lines of effort to produce joint advanced military capabilities could prove just as significant.
In particular, the effort to develop and integrate quantum technologies could give the three countries a major capability for the future, particularly in a potential Indo-Pacific conflict, experts said.
Within the partnership, the three countries have formed the AUKUS Quantum Arrangement, which “will accelerate investments to deliver generation-after-next quantum capabilities,” an April 2022 White House fact sheet on the implementation of AUKUS said.
Quantum computing has the potential to solve problems that may be intractable for traditional computers and offer enhanced capabilities for a range of applications such as sensing, communication and decryption, said James Andrew Lewis, director of the strategic technologies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
When processing decisions, traditional computers only allow for two outcomes — 0 or 1 — while quantum computers utilize units called qubits that allow for outcomes beyond the binary, said Felix Chang, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
“You can have an intermediate state, which means … within a single decision you can have more than two different outcomes,” allowing you to process certain decisions much faster, Chang said.
While quantum “isn’t a big market yet,” all three AUKUS countries have strong quantum sectors, Lewis said.
“A lot of the competition now is over hardware, particularly with quantum chips,” he said, adding that the United States “is currently in the lead” when it comes to building hardware for quantum capabilities.
The United Kingdom is the third largest quantum developing country after the United States and China, according to the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme website. Established in 2014, the program represents a “1 billion pound partnership between government, academia and industry, one that is fast-tracking quantum knowledge from laboratory to wider society,” the website says.
Meanwhile, Australia “ranks eighth globally for quantum research impact” and “has notable strengths in its civilian quantum sector,” said Jennifer Jackett, a non-resident fellow in the foreign policy and defense program at the Australia-based United States Studies Centre.
These quantum advances in Australia’s civilian sector “could be harnessed for military applications in areas like computing, cryptography, sensing and logistics management,” Jackett wrote in a July 2022 analysis titled “Laying the Foundations for AUKUS: Strengthening Australia’s High-Tech Ecosystem in Support of Advanced Capabilities.”
The Australian military “has sought to capitalize on these strengths by growing engagement with industry and academia to provide insight into capability requirements, signal market opportunities, and support collaboration,” she wrote.
However, Australia “risks losing its edge as other countries substantially step up their investments in this field, notably China, the United States, France, Germany and the European Union,” Jackett added.
Australia’s decision to join AUKUS wasn’t just about the physical security of acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, but also the industrial security the United States and United Kingdom could provide for advanced technologies such as quantum, Chang said.
When Australia’s agreement with France to acquire French submarines fell through in 2021, “the United States and the United Kingdom could offer kind of a package deal,” he said.
For Australia, “there’s an incentive to be a part of new technologies and new innovations, but because of their smaller industrial base and smaller population base, sometimes you can’t get that critical mass to do it on your own,” he said.
China — which the 2022 National Defense Strategy called the United States’ “most consequential strategic competitor for the coming decades” — is making significant investments in quantum technology. The country recently invested about as much as “the rest of the West combined” into research and development and the construction of facilities to develop quantum computing capabilities, Chang said.
“They’re not only trying to meet where the West is right now in terms of quantum computing technology, but they are trying to leapfrog it,” he said.
“The Chinese have made real progress — you could debate about whether they’re a peer or a near-peer — but in quantum computing, they are quite strong,” Lewis said. “If you break it into … different markets — hardware, sensing, communication, decryption — the Chinese are competitive in all of them.” They are very competitive in communication and less competitive in hardware, he added.
A key part of AUKUS is the partnership’s “commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the White House fact sheet said. However, “[China]’s coercive and increasingly aggressive endeavor to refashion the Indo-Pacific region and the international system to suit its interests and authoritarian preferences” presents “the most comprehensive and serious challenge to U.S. national security,” according to the 2022 National Defense Strategy.
Given China’s rapidly increasing military capability and the vastness of the Indo-Pacific, the region presents a unique logistics challenge in a potential conflict, the deputy commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Stephen Sklenka said.
“We’re going to be operating in an environment unlike anything any of us have ever experienced,” Sklenka said during a panel discussion hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association and the Institute for Defense and Business in November 2022.
The “initial focus” of the AUKUS Quantum Agreement will be on technologies for positioning, navigation and timing, with integration of quantum technologies through trials and experimentation set to get underway over the next three years, the White House fact sheet said.
These technologies could prove critical in a contested logistics environment such as the Indo-Pacific, Lewis said.
“Quantum gets around the problem of interfering with GPS signals,” he said. “It provides an onboard capability to determine position as accurately as GPS.”
Another capability where quantum could play a major role in an Indo-Pacific conflict is secure communications.
“Australia and the United States have been very concerned about the direct line of communications” between one another, which also explains Australia’s concern about Chinese influence in the Oceania region, Chang said.
Given Australia’s small population and the vast distances across the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean that separate Australia from the United States and other allies, “the ability to maintain those lines of communication to the United States and to the rest of the West really [is] very important,” he said.
Quantum computing poses a huge challenge for encryption, as quantum technology can overpower current encryption tools, Chang said. “So, having secure quantum communications in the future is obviously important for security.
“Having the ability to leverage the research that the United States is already doing will clearly benefit Australia … and I’m sure the United States could leverage off of what [Australians] have already achieved,” he added.
Quantum decryption is “the holy grail for a lot of governments,” Lewis said, “because if you can get quantum decryption, you can pretty much break conventional encryption.”
In a paper published in December, a group of Chinese researchers announced they had discovered how to use quantum computing for decryption — a claim Lewis didn’t put much stock in.
“I think what they actually discovered is the formula that if you had quantum capabilities, you could use it for decryption,” he said. “If the Chinese government knew that they had the ability to decrypt using quantum, they would never tell the world.”
While China as a single country can unify its investment into quantum, it will be difficult for AUKUS to reach a “parity in investment … given the different sizes” of the three countries, Lewis said.
Additionally, the three governments must figure out the role of the private sector in this effort, he said.
“A couple American companies — Google, IBM — are world leaders … in fact, they’re probably ahead of the government when it comes to offering quantum computing capabilities,” he said. The United States and its partners must invest in and support these private sector “innovation ecosystems” as the quantum capabilities they are striving for are “probably not going to come out of a government lab,” he said.
That said, the AUKUS countries must also be aware of how significant this investment in quantum will likely be, both financially and technologically, Chang said. For example, a lot of the software the military uses today would possibly have to be rebuilt to accommodate quantum computing capabilities, he said.
“All computing has been based off of on or off, 0 or 1,” he said. “If they’re introducing 0, 1 and 2, that’s a big change. … It will require a different means of programming.”
While middleware companies such as IBM will likely introduce translation tools allowing for older software to communicate with quantum computers, “there will be a necessity to do it quickly” and “it will require additional defense spending,” Chang added.
Despite these potential challenges, AUKUS collaboration so far is going well, Lewis said.
“I wondered how it would actually work, and it seems to be going relatively smoothly,” he said. “They’ve got all these working groups — let’s see what they produce — but so far, smooth sailing.”
The work is just beginning, but Sklenka said he is most hopeful about AUKUS’ joint effort to develop advanced technologies such as quantum capabilities.
“All of our friends will benefit” from these technologies, he said. “While the United States has long been the leader in developing emerging technologies, we no longer have sole purview of understanding knowledge of those areas.” There are other countries and sources of intellect and innovation that the United States can tap into and work with, he said.
Part 1: Why AUKUS Is Unlikely to Deliver Nuclear Subs Anytime Soon
Part 2: Sub Deal Poses Questions About Shipyard Capacity
Part 3: AUKUS Partners Aim to Catch China in Hypersonics Race