Venture Capital Joins Pentagon In Spending Big To Thwart China In Quantum-Tech War

Companies like Vector Atomic and Infleqtion are helping the military harness quantum technologies to develop underground sensing, secure communications and alternatives to GPS.

By Jeremy Bogaisky

Ifa spy balloon floating high above the U.S. is an example of a 19th century tech war, think of quantum as the near future.

The Pentagon has for years been searching for new ways to use quantum physics to wage war, whether it’s developing more powerful computers, backstopping GPS, strengthening the security of communications or creating means of surveillance that could better detect submerged submarines and underground bunkers. There’s urgency: China is investing heavily in furthering these capabilities, too.

Take GPS, for example. In the event of armed conflict between the U.S. and China, one of the first things both sides would target would be the other country’s global positioning system. Imagine the chaos on the ground and the confusion in the sky without it.

Researchers are developing quantum-enhanced navigation systems that would enable ships and aircraft to stay on course in the event of a GPS outage, as well as guide missiles to their targets more accurately. Part of that involves creating more accurate atomic clocks, since GPS is at heart a timing system — calculating the difference in time between satellites and receivers on the ground. The technology will be ready within five years, said Michael Hayduk, a deputy director of the Air Force Research Laboratory.

“This will change the world in rather remarkable ways, and you don’t have to wait too long for it,” William Clark, a physicist and vice president at Infleqtion, a startup that’s one of the leaders in the field, told Forbes.


The Department of Defense’s assessment of the readiness and expected military impact of a range of quantum technologies.

In its tech race with China, the Pentagon has ramped up research-and-development spending in many areas, including quantum sciences. Government agencies had $918 million to spend on quantum R&D in fiscal 2022, up from $449 million in 2019, with the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Office of Naval Research among the chief funders. Their contributions have been supplemented by increasing amounts of venture capital. U.S. quantum startups soaked up $870 million in funding in 2022, according to Pitchbook, almost double 2020.

Most of the focus has been on developing quantum computers. While classical computing is based on “bits” that are either one or zero, quantum computing uses subatomic particles as “qubits.” Due to the quantum phenomenon of superposition, qubits can be one and zero at the same time, or proportions in between, which could allow them to be used to quickly solve complex problems that are beyond the reach of current machines.

Useful quantum computers may be a decade or more away, but some of the underlying research into controlling individual atoms and photons is on the cusp of being put to use to make more accurate sensors, including ones that track motion, like accelerometers and gyroscopes, as well as devices that detect small changes in the force of gravity and magnetic fields.


The military is looking at a range of applications for quantum technology.

Reports in 2017 of a Chinese breakthrough in quantum magnetometry raised speculation that it might be able to deploy an airborne network of devices to detect underwater submarines from miles away. Many experts are skeptical, but in the long term it’s expected that quantum gravimeters and magnetometers will be able to more accurately map underground features like oil and mineral deposits, water tables, bunkers and tunnels.


The threat of breakthroughs by China in quantum computing is already having an impact in cybersecurity. National security insiders say that China and other hostile countries are collecting encrypted communications and other sensitive data from the U.S. and storing it until the day when quantum computers are powerful enough to crack their encryption.

Last year, the Biden Administration and Congress took steps to push government agencies to transition to new “post-quantum” cryptographic methods that are believed to be impregnable to quantum computers.

China is taking a different and more expensive tack to the threat of quantum code cracking. The country has developed networks of thousands of miles of fiber-optic cables connecting major cities that distribute random quantum keys via photons to secure communications. Due to the nature of quantum mechanics, it’s believed any attempt to eavesdrop on such a network would alter the photons, alerting the users. China is also the first country to demonstrate quantum key distribution via satellite.

On the strength of those efforts, China has pulled ahead of the U.S. in quantum communications, a RAND study concluded last year. The U.S. leads in quantum computing, while it’s unclear whether either has an edge in sensing, the RAND researchers wrote.

Timing And Navigation

The current generation of satellite GPS can only estimate locations to within three meters. Quantum physics would allow for more precision.

In labs, scientists have developed more accurate, room-size atomic clocks based on optical lasers that would lose a second after billions of years. Vector Atomic is among a handful of companies working on developing smaller, more rugged clocks for everyday field use, trading the cutting-edge performance of lab breakthroughs for reliability and practicality.

Last summer at the multinational Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises, the California-based startup said it demonstrated shipborne optical clocks in a relatively compact 40-liter package that drifted from accuracy by 10 trillionths of a second after roughly an hour. Current satellite GPS clocks drift that much after 20 seconds.

That kind of improvement could have a multitude of benefits. GPS would remain accurate with less frequent updates to satellite-based clocks from the ground. Paired with low-Earth-orbit satellites, which would bring GPS signals closer, more precise timing would improve accuracy to within centimeters. That would mean, for instance, that GPS could keep driverless vehicles in their lanes.

Better timing would also allow for more efficient use of cellular and other wireless networks, packing more users into spectrum that’s currently considered highly congested.

Portable atomic clocks could be put on aircraft or ground vehicles. It would allow American forces to erect temporary local GPS networks around battlefields with communication signals that would be too strong to disrupt, while the U.S. jammed enemy space-based navigation systems, said Vector Atomic CEO Jamil Abo-Shaeer, who managed quantum programs at DARPA from 2010 to 2014.

The company, which has taken no venture funding while racking up over $50 million of government research contracts, is working on projects with the Navy and DARPA to shrink its clocks so they’re smaller than carry-on luggage.

Also at RIMPAC, Vector Atomic demonstrated a compact quantum gravimeter paired with a standard inertial navigation system that promises to allow naval ships to navigate without GPS. The device measures tiny changes in the local strength of gravity due to variations in undersea terrain. By comparing the measurements with a gravitational map, the device was able to correct for drift in the ship’s inertial navigation system to accurately fix the vessel’s location over three weeks of use, Abo-Shaeer said.

The company believes that in two to three years it will be able to start commercializing an energy-efficient version small enough to fit in a car trunk.

Several other companies are working on quantum inertial sensors, including Australia-based Q-CTRL, which is planning a field demonstration in mid-2023 of a quantum-enabled navigation system with partner Advanced Navigation. Colorado-based Infleqtion is part of a U.K. project to develop a Quantum Positioning System for individual vehicles. A quantum gyroscope the company is building for the initiative will be flight-tested in 2024.


With DARPA funding, Infleqtion, which last year changed its name from ColdQuanta, is also developing quantum radio receivers to replace satellite dishes. They can be tuned to frequencies across the spectrum, from the HF and UHF bands used by military tactical radios to the K-band used by SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband network. The technology will enable one device to substitute for what ten different receiver sets do today, Clark said.

By 2025, the company plans to demonstrate a pocket-sized six-band receiver with lasers and back-end electronics shrunk down to the size of a small shoebox.

Further out, Clark said similar technology might be used to create a tunable multiband transmitter. “That would be the Holy Grail,” he told Forbes. “It would be like your Star Trek communicator, full transmit and receive in a little device.”


While the Soviet Union produced some of the greatest theoretical physicists of the 20th century, there aren’t many signs that Russia is developing significant quantum technologies today, RAND researcher Edward Parker told Forbes.

China’s work in quantum technology is concentrated in large national laboratories. That might put it at a disadvantage in commercializing quantum sensors compared with the U.S., with its array of private companies, Parker said.

“The real progress in quantum sensing to be made now is not necessarily laboratory work or academic work, but in getting it fieldable,” Parker said. “It’s unclear to me whether they have the private sector infrastructure to do that kind of nitty-gritty work.”


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