Quantum Encryption, Hypersonic Missiles, Quantum Radar, and Drone Swarming: Emerging Military Technologies Shaping the Future of Warfare
Summary: The advancement of technology is transforming the landscape of warfare, with four emerging technologies at the forefront: quantum encryption, hypersonic missiles, quantum radar, and drone swarming. Quantum encryption utilizes the unique properties of quantum physics to secure information transmission, providing unprecedented levels of security against cyber threats. Hypersonic missiles pose significant challenges to conventional defense systems due to their incredible speed and maneuverability, making them difficult to intercept. Quantum radar leverages quantum mechanics to enhance radar capabilities, enabling improved detection and tracking of stealthy targets.
Additionally, drone swarming involves coordinated groups of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) working together, presenting new possibilities and threats on the battlefield. These technologies are reshaping military capabilities and strategic considerations, heralding a new era of warfare characterized by enhanced security, speed, and autonomous operations.
Disruptive Military Technologies – Quantum Encryption
Ensuring information security has traditionally relied on complex algorithms to encrypt data, rendering it incomprehensible to unauthorized individuals. However, advancements in technology, particularly in quantum computers, threaten the effectiveness of traditional encryption methods by making it easier to crack encryption codes through increased computational power.
To address this challenge, the field of quantum physics offers a potential solution. Quantum encryption leverages the unique properties of sub-atomic particles, such as superposition and entanglement, to securely store, transmit, and deliver information. This process, known as quantum key distribution (QKD), utilizes entangled photons as encrypted keys to safeguard transmitted messages.
The Vulnerability of Traditional Encryption:
Conventionally, complex algorithms have been employed to encrypt data, ensuring its secrecy from potential eavesdroppers. However, given enough time and computational power, these algorithms can be deciphered, compromising the confidentiality of intercepted messages. The advancement of quantum computers further exacerbates this vulnerability, as their increased calculation power facilitates the breaking of encryption codes, diminishing the effectiveness of traditional encryption methods.
Leveraging Quantum Physics:
Quantum physics presents a promising avenue for addressing the security challenges posed by advancements in computing technology. At its core, quantum physics reveals that sub-atomic particles can exist in one of two different states. When observed, a particle assumes a definite state, but when unobserved, it exists in a state called “superposition,” which is a combination of both possible states. This unique property enables particles to hold multiple states simultaneously. Additionally, quantum physics demonstrates that two particles can be “entangled,” meaning their states become linked and remain interconnected, even when separated by considerable distances.
Quantum Key Distribution (QKD):
The inherent properties of quantum physics, specifically superposition and entanglement, offer a means of securely storing, carrying and delivering information. Quantum key distribution (QKD) lies at the heart of quantum encryption. The process begins with the generation of a pair of “keys” using entangled photons. These keys are utilized to encrypt the transmitted message, ensuring its confidentiality. Subsequently, the message can be converted back into a readable form using the same keys. To achieve this, the photons carrying the information are transmitted in the form of a laser beam.
Initially, experiments attempted to transmit quantum information via optical fibers, but this method was found to be insufficient due to signal absorption. This resulted in the loss of information and the entanglement breaking down quickly over short distances. To overcome this issue, scientists developed a series of quantum repeaters to receive and retransmit the message. Alternatively, utilizing satellites proved to be a more effective method, albeit requiring a high degree of precision. The signal can be transmitted unaltered to and from Earth across the vacuum of space, but it may be affected when traversing the atmosphere.
The superposition of the photons ensures the transmission’s security, as any attempt to intercept or observe the message by a third party will immediately change the quantum status. This will modify the ciphering keys and render the message impossible to decrypt, as well as alert the users to the communication attempt or any alterations to the message.
China successfully tested this revolutionary method of encrypted communication in 2018 through the Quantum Experiments at Space Scale (QUESS) program. The Micius (Mozi) satellite-enabled a video call between Beijing and Vienna, causing a sensation worldwide due to its scientific breakthrough and security implications. This achievement suggests that China is ahead of other powers in the crucial field of quantum technology.
Disruptive Military Technologies – Hypersonic Missiles
The emergence of hypersonic missiles has ignited a vigorous debate among security experts due to their unique capabilities. These advanced weapons can travel at speeds exceeding five times the speed of sound (Mach 5) and execute evasive maneuvers during flight, making them extremely challenging to intercept using conventional missile defense systems.
The inclusion of nuclear warheads on some hypersonic missiles further amplifies concerns about their potential impact on global strategic stability. Major military powers such as the United States, China, and Russia, along with other nations, are actively involved in their development. While the specific technical details and operational performance of hypersonic missiles remain shrouded in secrecy, it is evident that they will play a significant role in future warfare, carrying significant implications for military and international affairs.
Hypersonic missiles encompass two primary types of systems: hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) and hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs). HGVs are launched by ballistic missiles and separate from them mid-flight to glide toward the target at hypersonic speeds. On the other hand, HCMs are fired similarly to conventional cruise missiles but employ scramjet engines to achieve the required high speeds. Both variants possess remarkable speed and maneuverability, rendering interception a nearly insurmountable challenge.
Currently, no existing missile defense system is considered capable of effectively intercepting hypersonic missiles. Although the United States is exploring various anti-hypersonic solutions, they are still in the early stages of development. Consequently, effective defenses against hypersonic attacks do not exist presently, and even future progress is expected to face significant technical hurdles, especially when dealing with large-scale assaults. The fact that hypersonic systems can be equipped with nuclear warheads elevates this technical challenge to the level of strategic deterrence.
It is not surprising that the United States closely monitors the development of hypersonic missiles, both within its own programs and those of competitors and allies, as indicated by a recent report by the Congressional Research Service.
Russia and China are actively pursuing the development of hypersonic weapons as part of their anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy. These nations aim to deter US forces by keeping them at a distance from their territories and rendering their operations ineffective in proximity. In this context, hypersonic missiles serve as a means to threaten US carrier battle groups, forward bases, logistical infrastructure, and other critical assets.
China has made significant progress in developing hypersonic weapons, notably the DF-ZF (previously known as WU-14). This hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) is believed to possess a range of 2,000 kilometers and a top speed of Mach 10. Primarily designed as an anti-ship weapon, China has not confirmed whether it will be equipped with nuclear capabilities, but it has reportedly tested ballistic missiles such as the DF-21D for its launch. There are also claims that China tested another hypersonic vehicle called Xing Kong 2 (Starry King 2) with a speed of Mach 6 in 2018, although limited information is available about this particular system.
Meanwhile, Russia appears to be at the forefront of hypersonic systems deployment. The Avangard (Project 4202/Yu-74) is a nuclear-capable HGV that entered service in 2019. It boasts a range of at least 6,000 kilometers, incorporates electronic countermeasures, and is capable of evasive maneuvers, allegedly reaching speeds of up to Mach 20, although this claim may be exaggerated.
The 3M22 Tsirkon (Zircon) cruise missile, designed primarily for naval and air units, has an estimated range of 400 to 1,000 kilometers and a speed ranging from Mach 6 to 8. The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal (Dagger), on the other hand, is a hypersonic ballistic missile, deviating from the HGV and HCM categories. With a range of 2,000 kilometers and reportedly reaching Mach 10, it can carry nuclear warheads and is capable of striking both ground and naval targets. The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal is expected to become operational in 2020.
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The United States initiated the development of hypersonic weapons as part of the Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) concept, aiming to enable American forces to strike any target worldwide within an hour. Originally conceived in 2008, this concept was revived to counter China and Russia’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy by targeting critical infrastructure, military bases, command centers, logistical nodes, and other strategic facilities to undermine the enemy’s warfighting capabilities.
Currently, the United States has three hypersonic missile programs. The Navy-led Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) program intends to equip a Virginia-class submarine with HGVs. The Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) program focuses on developing a land-based mobile vector with a range of 2,200 kilometers, based on the same HGV concept. Additionally, the Air Force is working on the AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), a smaller-sized hypersonic missile designed to arm B-52 strategic bombers. It is worth noting that, according to official statements, none of these programs are intended to develop nuclear-capable weapons.
Other countries are also actively developing hypersonic weapons. Australia collaborates with the United States on the Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation (HIFiRE) program, which has conducted multiple tests involving HGVs and scramjets. Japan is working on both HGVs and HCMs, with plans to deploy anti-carrier and area suppression variants between 2024 and 2028. India has cooperated with Russia on the BrahMos II HCM and reportedly is also developing an indigenous system of the same type.
France has sought collaboration with Russia on hypersonic systems and is modifying its ASN4G cruise missile under the V-max (Experimental Maneuvering Vehicle) program to achieve hypersonic speeds, potentially for nuclear strike capabilities.
Disruptive Military Technologies – Quantum Radar
During the Cold War’s final stages, the introduction of stealth technology by the US armed forces marked a significant shift in military operations. Referred to more accurately as “low radar observability,” stealth enabled American aircraft to penetrate heavily defended areas undetected by enemy sensors. Its operational value was demonstrated during the 1991 Gulf War, leading to its integration into US military operations and subsequent application to other platforms, including ships. While stealth technology is no longer exclusive to the US, as Russia and China have also deployed hardware with purported low observability features, it remains a distinct advantage possessed by advanced militaries.
However, the emergence of new experimental technologies has the potential to disrupt the status quo. One such technology is “quantum radar,” a novel sensor that holds the promise of detecting stealth platforms. Although still in its early stages and subject to technical limitations, the successful development of quantum radar could usher in a new phase in the ongoing struggle between defense and offense in warfare.
What is Quantum Radar?
To assess the potential strategic impact of quantum radars, it is essential to understand their operation and how they differ from traditional radar systems.”Radar” stands for “radio detection and ranging,” reflecting its fundamental functioning principle. Radars emit radio waves that, upon hitting an object, are reflected back to the source. By analyzing this return signal, radars can detect and track the object. Two possible solutions exist to counter radar tracking: jamming and stealth systems.
Jamming involves producing a signal in the same wavelength as the radar, interfering with its ability to distinguish the return signal from the spoofing emission and effectively blinding it. Stealth systems, on the other hand, utilize design features such as radar-reflecting shapes and radar-absorbent materials to reduce their radar cross-section (RCS) and make detection more challenging. Although no stealth platform is completely invisible to radar, as sensors operating in the very high/ultra frequencies (VHF/UHF) band can detect low-RCS objects, achieving precise localization for targeting remains complex.
Quantum radars operate on a different principle. These systems leverage a physical property called quantum entanglement. When two particles are entangled, they share the same quantum state, so any change in the status of one particle results in an immediate corresponding change in the other, regardless of their distance. Quantum radars exploit this property by generating a visible light beam composed of entangled photons that split into two. One half remains in the visible wavelength, while the other is converted into the microwave band without altering its quantum state.
This microwave signal is emitted by the radar. Upon hitting an object, it reflects back to the source and is converted back to the visible wavelength. By comparing the quantum states of the particles in the two beams and filtering out unrelated sources, the system can detect the presence of the object.
Jamming and stealth technologies would become ineffective against a properly functioning quantum radar. Jamming systems would be unable to determine the quantum state of the radar signal, rendering their spoofing emissions distinguishable and ignorable. While stealth platforms would still disperse most of the incoming radar signal, a small portion, insufficient to be detected by conventional radars, would return to the source. The observation of changes in the quantum status of the particles would lead to detection.
However, quantum radars also have their limitations. As an experimental technology, they require significant refinement before becoming fully operational. Their primary drawback lies in their limited range. Quantum decoherence, the loss of entanglement properties in particles, restricts the range of quantum radars. A 2015 study estimated the effective range to be under 7 miles, but a Chinese team claimed to have developed a quantum radar with a range of 61 miles the following year.
Although the current detection range of quantum radars falls significantly short of that of conventional radars, the anticipated introduction of quantum radars in the future could have profound implications in military and geopolitical contexts. Considering the crucial role of stealth systems in the US military, any nation aiming to challenge its dominance would have a keen interest in quantum radars.
Presently, China appears to be at the forefront of this field, but the same holds true for Russia. Quantum radars would greatly enhance their anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy, designed to deter US forces from operating in proximity to their territories. As stealth technology and electronic warfare (EW) methods like jamming have played vital roles in US military operations involving incursions into heavily fortified areas to strike enemy command and control (C&C) centers and critical logistical infrastructure, the introduction of quantum radars would significantly impact the attacking capabilities of US forces.
However, the limited range of quantum radars diminishes their effectiveness as anti-stealth solutions. Nevertheless, by employing sensor fusion techniques—where data is shared among various platforms to achieve a comprehensive battlespace awareness—the shortcomings of limited range could be mitigated to some extent. If quantum radars were capable of providing sufficiently detailed data on the position (including altitude for aircraft), speed, and direction of missile launchers, this information could guide weapons toward their intended targets. Nonetheless, implementing such a solution presents its own technical challenges.
Disruptive Military Technologies – Drone Swarms
Unmanned systems, commonly referred to as “drones,” have become a regular presence in advanced militaries worldwide. These vehicles, ranging from aerial to maritime and ground-based forms, serve diverse roles. However, the integration of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and data fusion has the potential to revolutionize their utilization, allowing large swarms of drones to operate in a coordinated and responsive manner. If fully developed, this concept of “swarming” could have profound tactical and strategic implications, potentially reshaping the nature of 21st-century warfare.
An Overview of the Present State of Drone Warfare
Presently, unmanned systems of various types are employed by militaries across different countries. It is essential to clarify certain distinctions. Firstly, while aerial platforms, specifically unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are most commonly associated with the term “drone” in the popular imagination, they are not the sole type of unmanned system in use. In fact, there are also land-based systems (unmanned ground vehicles or UGVs) and naval platforms, which are further divided into two subcategories: unmanned surface vehicles (USVs) and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs).
Secondly, not all platforms possess the same level of autonomy. Many are remotely piloted systems, but there are also fully autonomous drones capable of functioning without direct human intervention, such as the US Navy’s experimental X-47B.
Finally, not all drones are equipped with weaponry. While numerous remotely piloted aerial systems (RPAS) carry missiles or bombs, like the well-known MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, fully autonomous platforms are less likely to be armed due to ethical concerns, technological limitations regarding targeting, and adherence to rules of engagement. In fact, the development of lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS) has raised ethical concerns, leading to the formation of a coalition of NGOs known as the “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.” Nevertheless, there are drones capable of autonomously engaging targets, like Israel’s Harop (Harpy 2), a “kamikaze” platform designed for radar detection and destruction.
That being said, drones are deployed for a wide range of missions, including intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); search and rescue (S&R); logistics; mine clearance and the disposal of improvised explosive devices (IEDs); armed patrols; and even targeted killings. In such cases, drones operate individually or in small numbers, each controlled by its respective operator(s). However, advancements in AI, robotics, and data fusion may not only pave the way for fully autonomous systems capable of independently executing complex missions but also enable sophisticated collaboration among drones, potentially leading to a radical transformation of warfare.
Unveiling the Notion of “Swarming”
In a paper published by the US Air Force, swarming is defined as “a group of autonomous networked small unmanned aircraft systems (SUAS) operating collaboratively to achieve common objectives with an operator on or in the loop.” The key differentiating factors of swarming are coordination and reactivity, distinguishing it from simply employing a large number of drones en masse against a single target to overwhelm its defenses. In en masse drone employment, each platform is controlled separately without datalink coordination between the drones themselves, although pilots may coordinate their actions. On the other hand, drones operating in a swarm are interconnected and maintain constant communication.
The quantity of drones required to form a swarm does not have a definitive threshold, ranging from a few hundred to billions depending on type and size. What matters is their ability to share sensor information and make AI-driven collective decisions to achieve a shared objective. The datalink and AI software is crucial in creating a “hive mind” that characterizes a swarm, enabling effective functioning. Each drone in a swarm plays a specific role, with certain drones tracking targets, others performing jamming and electronic warfare tasks, and another category engaging hostile forces, among other functions. The swarm as a whole dynamically reacts to changes in the battlespace, executing complex non-linear, and counter-intuitive maneuvers.
The potential of swarming is immense and has the capacity to revolutionize warfare. Swarms excel in patrolling large areas more efficiently and with shorter reaction times than human personnel, accelerating operations without risking human lives. They are particularly suited for search and destroy missions against enemy air defenses, submarines, and mobile missile launchers, as well as for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), counter-insurgency, over-the-horizon targeting, air combat, and anti-access/area denial (A2/AD).
Symbiotic relationships with manned platforms are also possible, where advanced data fusion software in platforms like F-35 fighters can control swarms, utilizing them as force multipliers. Creating an effective swarm necessitates cutting-edge technology in terms of software and hardware, requiring powerful AI, advanced sensors, and robust data links. Consequently, it is likely to take decades before swarms are deployed, remaining exclusive to high-tech militaries in developed countries.
Although swarming is currently mostly theoretical and still under development, major military powers such as the US, China, Russia, and others have displayed great interest in this concept and have invested significant resources in its advancement. For instance, in 2016, a US project successfully launched a swarm of 103 Perdix drones from three F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters. Considering the rapid pace of technological advancements in the past two decades, it can be anticipated that the importance of swarming will only increase in the near future, potentially altering the nature of warfare in the 21st century.