WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Any technology like Quantum Radar that renders all traditional stealth obsolete is a game changer.
Hot on the heels of China’s announcement last year that they’d managed to create the world’s first working Quantum Radar, a technology that would render military stealth technologies nothing less than obsolete overnight, and were developing a complimentary quantum ghost imaging satellite, Canada has announced that they’re investing $2.7m into developing technology as well.
The technology is being developed jointly by the University of Waterloo, which is rapidly turning into Canada’s hotbed of quantum research, and the University of Surrey, its equivalent in the UK, and when its ready it’ll be used to replace the country’s existing Arctic radar stations.
Quantum radar can theoretically detect objects with a far greater level of accuracy than conventional radar and make use of a phenomenon called Quantum Illumination which is the process of isolating pairs of entangled photons and which I’ll explain a little bit more about in a moment.
Canada and the US jointly maintain 54 North Warning System (NWS) radar stations in the Arctic, which act as the first line of early warning atmospheric air defence for North America. These radar stations are approaching the end of their life spans, and could need to be replaced as early as 2025.
In November, the Chinese Academy of Sciences in China, who were also responsible for creating China’s new quantum radar system also recently announced that its scientists were developing a new type of spy satellite that would be able to “uncover” stealth aircraft, so as you can see the race is hotting up.
Quantum illumination uses quantum entanglement, a phenomenon whereby a pair of photons are connected, and even if the photons are separated by a great distance – such as hundreds of miles and the actions performed on one photon continue to affect the other.
True quantum entanglement is difficult to maintain for long periods of time, a problem that computer scientists and quantum physicists continue to grapple with as they race to build the world’s first quantum computers and quantum encryption systems.
However, even if the pair of photons disconnect, which is a process known as “Decoherence,” they still remain related, which means they can be used to detect stealth aircraft.
Imagine you’re firing out photons in the hope they will hit something and bounce back. If they bounce back, it tells you there is something there. That’s how regular radar works, using microwave signals.
Stealth fighter jets and bombers are typically designed to have lots of angles, so that when a microwave photon bounces towards the body of the aircraft, instead of bouncing straight back to the sender, the photons bounce off in a different direction.
This means that fewer photons return to the detector, which makes the object seem “invisible,” or at least much smaller than it really is, on conventional radar detectors.
With quantum radar though you have a pair of entangled photons, and only one of the photons gets fired out. It bounces off the hidden object, and because it is entangled, the detector can trace where it went to, and keep firing more photons until a picture is built up of where the object is in the atmosphere. In short it’s a bit like a quantum version of the game Battleship.
According to quantum computing expert Prof Alan Woodward, of the University of Surrey, when an entangled photon is fired out, there is a much higher level of certainty that the photon detected is actually one that you fired, as opposed to other photons that just happened to be around the aircraft at the same time.
“In theory, entangled photons should be a significant improvement over the results of conventional radar,” he said in an interview with the BBC, “but we’re at a very early stage, and this investment is about seeing whether we can really turn theory into practice.”
Roger McDermott, a visiting senior research fellow at the department of war studies at King’s College London, said that there were currently no known electronic warfare technologies capable of unmasking stealth aircraft.
Quantum radar could become a viable form of electronic warfare, he said, but so far, “there is little evidence that it has advanced much beyond the laboratory” in any country, “it needs further research and development, as well as field testing before it reaches a realistic procurement option.”
Prof Woodward said that in addition to improving North America’s radar defence, Canada has a history of supporting quantum technologies, and would like to be one of the top countries in the world in this field so the investment shouldn’t come as a surprise.