A top Chinese military technology company announced the development and preliminary testing of a new form of radar able to detect stealth planes 100km away, South China Morning Post recently reported.
The state-owned China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), one of the top Chinese military industry groups controlled directly by the central government, develops and deploys key hardware components, software, and information systems for military and civilian applications. Since March 2016, the CETC is also tasked with technical support to counter-terrorism.
According to a statement published on the CETC website, the new radar developed by engineers at CETC’s Intelligent Perception Technology Laboratory is China’s first “single-photon quantum radar system” and uses entangled photons to identify objects invisible to conventional radar systems, which has important military applications.
Quantum entanglement, the “spooky action at a distance” that baffled Einstein but was later recognized as a key feature of quantum systems, results in correlations between remote particles that, in some cases, can be exploited for remote sensing. Given the military applications of the projects, it’s not surprising that the CETC scientists have not disclosed detailed information. However, quantum radars studies have been published in the open scientific literature. See American Physical Society’s “Focus: Quantum Mechanics Could Improve Radar” for an overview.
Beyond Science Fiction
The popular online magazine Daily Galaxy described the Chinese quantum physics breakthrough as “Beyond Science Fiction.” DARPA has reportedly funded similar research and military suppliers such as Lockheed Martin are also developing quantum radar systems for combat purposes, according to media reports, but the progress of those military projects remains unknown.
“The effective range reported by the international research community falls far below 100km,” said Prof. Ma Xiaosong, a Nanjing University physicist, adding that he had “not seen anything like this in an open report.” Another Chinese military radar researcher hinted that the actual range of the new radar could be even greater than the 100km announced by CETC.
Besides the range, the key feature of the new radar is its ability to detect stealth planes. Other possible applications include small, highly mobile and sensitive radar systems able to survive combat and evade enemy countermeasures.
A Completely New Area of Research
According to CETC, the field testing of the new radar opens up a “completely new area of research.” Lockheed Martin was granted a patent in 2008 for a “Radar systems and methods using entangled quantum particles” able to “visualize useful target details through background and/or camouflaging clutter, through plasma shrouds around hypersonic air vehicles, through the layers of concealment hiding underground facilities, IEDs, mines, and other threats.”
Popular Mechanics notes that, since the 2008 patent, Lockheed Martin has been “silent on the subject of quantum radars.”
Given what a technological leap such a system would be, it’s quite possible the research has gone ‘black’ – highly classified and subject to a high level of secrecy.
Another possibility is that research in the US might not have advanced much. Of course, the Chinese results could be over-hyped. Popular Mechanics warns that the fact that the quantum radar breakthrough has been first reported by state-owned media is suspicious, but that can be also interpreted as an indication of the interest of the Chinese government in next-generation quantum technologies.
SCMP notes that CETC collaborated with quantum scientists at the University of Science and Technology of China, where many quantum technology breakthroughs have been achieved, including the world’s longest quantum key distribution network for secured communication and the development of the world’s first quantum satellite recently covered by Hacked.
In fact, it appears that China is engaging in a government-supported, well-funded quantum technology development effort ranging from unbreakable encrypted communication networks to combat support operations. Next-generation quantum technologies with military applications may arrive sooner than we think: policy makers and military planners in the West should bear in mind that China is striving to achieve quantum supremacy.
Images from iStock and Wikimedia Commons.