The internals of a quantum computer. Photo: IBM

With a wary eye toward China, India is investing in quantum technology to gain a computing and information edge. 

Last month, Indian scientists from the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi successfully demonstrated a Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) link for more than 100 kilometers between Prayagraj and Vindhyachal in Uttar Pradesh.

This was achieved using existing commercial-grade fiber-optic networks. The network demonstration aimed to show the feasibility of creating a secure network for Indian security agencies using indigenous technology.

QKD is a method of communication that allows two parties to create a shared random “key” that is known only to them. This key can be used to encrypt and decrypt messages.

Its strength is that any disturbance breaks the quantum characteristics of this communication method, which means if a spy or a hacker tries to intercept the key generation, they will introduce errors and reveal themselves.

QKD is made possible by quantum computing technology. While both traditional and quantum computers use both 1s and 0s to process data, quantum computers use ‘qubits,’ which have a third state called ‘superposition,’ which allows them to represent 1s and 0s at the same time.

Instead of analyzing 1s and 0s sequentially as is the case in traditional computers, superposition allows two qubits in superposition to represent four scenarios at the same time. This drastically reduces processing time for large data sets, making quantum computers far faster and more powerful than traditional computers. 

As such, quantum computers can crack present-day encryption which would be too complex or time-consuming for traditional computers to do. Classified military information can now easily be decrypted, which could have posed national security risks if done the more traditional way. 

Apart from decrypting classified information, quantum technology is expected to revolutionize military capabilities such as cybersecurity, AI, communications, intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, reconnaissance, chemical and biological warfare simulation and detection, electronic warfare, underwater warfare, space warfare, new material design and man-machine interfaces. 

That said, India has made several notable strides in a relatively short amount of time to boost its quantum technology prowess. 

Previously, in December 2021, the Indian army established a quantum computing laboratory and an AI center at a military engineering institute in Madhya Pradesh. This project was backed by India’s National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS).

Also, India’s Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT) launched a quantum communication lab in October 2021 after unveiling a QKD solution. It can support more than 100 kilometers on standard optical fiber.

Large-scale quantum machines could be used to shed light on a host of complex processes and eventually help bring about real-world breakthroughs in material science, communication technologies, finance and many other fields. Photo: Handout

In August 2021, India launched the Quantum Computer Simulator (QSim) Toolkit to provide the first quantum development environment to academicians, industry professionals, students and the scientific community in India.

The QSim allows researchers and students to write and debug quantum code essential for quantum algorithms. Quantum systems are highly sensitive to environmental disturbances, so much that necessary controls and observations disrupt them.

In July 2021 India’s Defense Institute of Advanced Technology (DIAT) and the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC) agreed to collaborate and develop quantum computers.

Also, in March 2021, India’s Department of Science and Technology and 13 research groups from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) – Pune launched the I-HUB Quantum Technology Foundation (I-HUB QTF) to further enhance the development of quantum technology. 

Also, in January 2021 India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) established a Quantum Computing Applications Lab in collaboration with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to facilitate quantum computing-led research and development.

These projects are the result of India’s US$1.2 billion investment in quantum technology development as part of its National Mission on Quantum Technologies & Applications (NM-QTA), which was launched in 2020.

This program aims to develop quantum technologies in pursuit of India’s national interests, train a steady pool of Indian quantum technology experts, apply quantum technologies in engineering, scientific, defense, industrial, health and agricultural purposes and harness the potential of quantum technology as a driver of economic growth. 

The driving force for these efforts may be China’s own quantum technology advancements. China’s 14th Five Year Plan emphasizes quantum technology among other fields, and it intends to install satellite-enabled, global “quantum-encrypted communications capability” by 2030. 

In 2016, China launched the world’s first quantum satellite, built a 2,000-kilometre quantum communication line between Beijing and Shanghai, and the world’s first optical quantum computing machine prototype.

China’s quantum technology research may also be merged with its civilian infrastructure, as part of its Military-Civil Fusion Strategy that adds dual-use ambiguity to China’s efforts in this field.  

As with India, China’s advancements in quantum technology have military applications, such as detecting submarines, stealth aircraft and cracking encrypted information.