UK minister says fitting quantum sensors to warships will strengthen Britain's defences

Sensors will send signals through the ocean in nanoseconds to determine location of enemy submarines

Quantum sensors are tipped to revolutionise Britain's naval defences. PA
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Harnessing quantum technology will have enormous benefits for the UK’s defence sector and will enable ships to better detect enemy submarines, Britain's Science Minister has said.

George Freeman said the Conservative government had identified the quantum field as one of the “really hot technologies” where more action and investment is needed to propel innovation and encourage advancements.

During a discussion about how to unleash the UK as a “science superpower through quantum technologies” at London Tech Week, Mr Freeman used an analogy about the game Battleships to explain how quantum could transform Britain’s military capabilities.

If the Royal Navy’s warships were fitted with such technology, it could mean the difference between them being able to hit an enemy’s underwater vessel and a total miss.

“Quantum will send a sensor through the oceans in nanoseconds which will tell you exactly, or roughly, where the submarine is,” Mr Freeman said.

“It might not immediately draw the sharp line at it but it will tell you exactly where it is."

Battleships, the popular boardgame, is played on rules of grid on which each player’s fleet of warships are marked. The location of the fleets are concealed from other players, who take turns to ‘call shots’ at their opponent’s vessels. The objective of the game is to destroy your opponent’s hidden fleet.

“I use that definition because it immediately gets everyone in the cabinet thinking, ‘hang on, this is going to have massive applications in defence, in quantum encryption, in a whole raft of fields’.

“So, it is a cross-government technology and part of what we’re doing in our strategy is getting every department to think ‘front foot, back foot, attack and defence, what might this do for us? What are the opportunities and what are the challenges?’”

Britain is home to a “great ecosystem” of companies involved in quantum technology, including Fujitsu, Toshiba and BT, and start-ups, Mr Freeman said.

The government is committed to continue its investment in the national quantum computing centre and improving quantum skills, he added.

Quantum technology works by using the principles of quantum mechanics, including quantum entanglement and quantum superposition.

It exploits unique properties of quantum physics to achieve functionality and performance that cannot be achieved using classical physics.

Parts in computers and MRI scanners are examples of first-generation quantum technology.

Experts say a second revolution of quantum is around the corner, which will make novel and revolutionary technology available.

By using the technology, the location of objects can be measured very precisely.

Given its potential, quantum has been identified as a key emerging technology by Nato.

The transatlantic military alliance said in the future quantum sensors could be used to detect stealth aircraft and also for position, navigation and timing (PNT).

“Such ‘quantum PNT devices’ could be used as reliable inertial navigation systems, which enable navigation without the need for external references such as GPS,” a 2021 report from quantum expert Michiel van Amerongen said.

The UK Quantum Technology Hub has said the development of new technology that will enable the detection of stealth objects will be a “game changer for the defence industry”.

Stephanie Simmons, co-chair of the advisory council to Canada’s national quantum strategy, told London Tech Week that the fast-advancing technology is “used synonymously with the word magic”.

Dr Simmons said quantum is “transformational and it will unlock opportunities that can’t be accomplished any other way”.

Mr Freeman said technology cycles have halved since he was first elected as an MP in 2010.

“If that wasn’t happening, I think our economy would be a bit stuck, but it is happening and we got a chance to harness it and anchor here [the] extraordinary pace of growth in new technologies,” he said.

He said there is enormous excitement about the future of the technology sector.

“I genuinely think we’re on the cusp of the most extraordinary decade, two decades of huge investment, huge prosperity and opportunities driven by some really obvious things [such as] the pace of technology,” he added.

Updated: June 14, 2023, 12:41 PM