New bill would greatly expand Defense Department quantum efforts

The Dilution refrigerator is seen inside Amazon's quantum networking lab.

The Dilution refrigerator is seen inside Amazon's quantum networking lab. Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Proposed legislation would establish a quantum advisor and a new center of excellence.

Republican lawmakers introduced a new bill Wednesday to accelerate the Defense Department’s use of quantum information science, from sensing and navigation to more ambitious goals of quantum computing for advanced artificial intelligence applications. 

As drawn up by Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., the Defense Quantum Acceleration Act would direct the Defense Department to establish a new quantum advisor role and stand up a center of excellence to “explore and identify [quantum information science] technologies that have demonstrated value in advancing the priorities and missions of the Department,” according to the text of the bill, viewed exclusively by Defense One. 

Quantum information science, which takes advantage of the unique properties of quantum mechanics, has many potential defense applications. Information that’s encrypted on the quantum level can’t be secretly intercepted because attempting to measure a quantum property changes it. Quantum sensors can relay information about location, making them a more secure means of navigation than GPS, which can be spoofed. Quantum computers, today in their infancy, could eventually process information exponentially more effectively than conventional computers. The National Academies of Sciences has said “quantum computers are the only known model for computing that could offer exponential speedup over today’s computers.”

But China has outpaced the Defense Department in terms of investment in quantum technology, dedicating $15 billion over the next five years—or $3 billion a year—as opposed to the $700 million yearly Defense Department investment. 

The new bill doesn’t push the Defense Department to match China’s numbers. Private companies such as IBM, Google, and Lockheed Martin are already heavily spending on research and development for next-generation quantum computing. But it does raise the profile of quantum technology within the Defense Department and, theoretically, would allow the Pentagon to start buying more quantum technologies faster, enabling quicker innovation from private companies. 

“Quantum’s impact on our national security will be considerable, and we must take immediate steps to ensure the United States is the first nation to reach quantum advantage. This bill will ensure the Department of Defense, led by the incredible work at [The U.S. Air Force Rome Laboratory in New York] is able to outpace our adversaries and rapidly develop and transition quantum technologies to our service members,” Stefanik said in a statement.

The Defense Department already has a director of quantum science in the office of the undersecretary for research and engineering. Under the bill, the new established quantum advisor would have a much-expanded role, coordinating with combatant commands on where they might need or use quantum science, coordinating with allies like Australia to share knowledge and best practices, and specifically looking at the challenges the Defense Department faces to determine if quantum information science might help. 

The bill would also direct the stand-up of a center to coordinate with businesses and academia and develop prototypes of more near-term quantum technologies for sensing and navigation, in addition to accelerating quantum computing research.

Chris Padilla, vice president of government and regulatory affairs at IBM, applauded the introduction of the act, which he said, “helps ensure the Department of Defense embraces this revolutionary technology. For national defense and economic security reasons, the United States must maintain a leadership position in quantum computing, and this legislation supports that effort. IBM encourages Congress to pass it and the administration to begin deploying quantum-centric supercomputing.”