Will Rafael’s quantum research change the face of submarine, aerial, and networked warfare?

Quantum official tells ‘Post’ what to expect next in defense arena.

Rafael Advanced Defense Systems' Seabreaker precision missile (photo credit: RAFAEL ADVANCED DEFENSE SYSTEMS)
Rafael Advanced Defense Systems' Seabreaker precision missile
(photo credit: RAFAEL ADVANCED DEFENSE SYSTEMS)

The quantum computing race that will reorder the dynamics of the world’s military, economic and technological powers has been breaking into the headlines more frequently in recent years.

But little do most readers realize that many militaries and defense companies are already producing, in some cases, and close to producing in others, practical, significant defense technologies using quantum sensors.

Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. cannot discuss most of its operational focuses on-record, but it can confirm that it is interested in quantum sensors for navigation in GPS-denied environments, and as the basic building block for Inertial Measurement Units used in a wide number of industries.

These sensors may change the playing field in both navigation and detection for submarines, aircraft, drones and even small groups of commandos on covert raids.

Quantum computing and quantum sensors can be seen as cousins in a quantum physics revolution that will be no less significant than the space race.

Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Logo (credit: Courtesy)Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Logo (credit: Courtesy)

But Rafael Quantum Technological Center Head Ran recently told The Jerusalem Post that quantum sensor technology could be two years or less away from being deployed by a military somewhere. But quantum computing may be five, 10 or more years away from having practical real-world applications outside of the finance sector.

“Our Quantum Center is focused on trying to develop quantum sensors and quantum technology that would enhance classical sensors,” Ran said. “Rafael is focused on sensors for defense.”

China and the US are leading the way in the quantum sensors field, but England, France and Israel are also deeply involved.

Without referring to a specific country, Ran said that new advances in quantum sensors for submarine and other sea vessels’ navigation systems may be two years off.

Geometrics is one American company that produces quantum magnetometers, which it says can already provide detection capabilities for the defense of a harbor area. Israel Aerospace Industries is also working on quantum magnetometers, and Ran said that the US Air Force has demonstrated quantum magnetometry that may be only a few years from being operational.

Technological demonstration of a quantum gravimeter sensor on a large drone is underway and will probably occur within two years, Ran said, again without referencing a specific military. He added that full navigation capability using such a quantum sensor is around seven to 10 years away for drones and small aircraft.

“Submarine sensing you can do through magnetic sensing of big metallic objects,” Ran said. “If you have a very sensitive magnetic sensor – a metallic object far away can be sensed – you need to verify it, which is very tricky because there is a lot of magnetic interference [causing false positives] such as magnetic storms, and you need to differentiate that.”

In 10-15 years, he said, there may be miniaturized and cheap quantum sensors with full navigational capabilities for soldiers of various militaries to use during commando raids.

Ran said that the most immediate likely defense application of quantum sensors that players in the defense establishment might produce in combating Hamas and Hezbollah would be to make the IDF’s networked smart-vehicles hacking and jamming proof.

An increasing number of IDF land vehicles operate using networked and artificial intelligence technologies for everything from navigation to targeting, and publicly available sources indicate that militaries using such technologies could be vulnerable to certain kinds of classical jamming absent an upgrade to quantum sensors.

In fact, the US, other Western militaries and the IDF (according to foreign sources) have been deploying such jamming against adversaries for years, and it is only more recently that some of those less advanced adversaries are catching up or are expected to catch up in certain areas.

However, if the IDF had quantum sensors, then even when the enemy used GPS jamming technology against IDF smart-vehicles they would be able to avoid being jammed.

That is because the way that classical jamming technology works on classical detection technology is to create noise, spoofing and to mimic enemy units with a large volume of false positives that loses the real targets in the malaise.

But quantum sensors operate at such a deeper level of accuracy – editing out the noise and spoofing arising from such jamming issues – that they can pierce the veil of false positives and hone in on the true target.

This means that quantum sensors would allow uninterrupted attacks and movements by IDF or other Western military forces.

Related quantum technologies would also allow ongoing encrypted and uninterrupted communications by Western military or IDF forces, with the full range of their respective friendly forces and headquarters.

“We are usually talking about vehicles,” Ran said. “Vehicles have faster movements, and you want... to use complex communications protocols to stay encrypted. You get to keep GPS capabilities and positioning accuracy” with respect to other friendly and hostile units.

“A gravimeter is a more gentle sensor, as it is very sensitive to vibrations,” he said. “It is much more challenging to put on an airplane. You can place it on... a truck. This has been demonstrated.”

He said that a French company has taken a gravimeter on a boat and an airplane taking various navigational measurements, while short of being able to provide full navigation services.

There are already quantum gravitational sensors being worked on to produce subsurface images for predicting earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. This could also lead to overcoming stealth technology because “no one knows how to counteract gravitational signals,” Ben-Gurion University quantum physicist Ron Folman recently told Physics Today.

Rafael is working on a quantum gravimeter with the Weizmann Institute of Science.

“Rafael has two quantum groups,” Ran said. “One is more of a physical state group that takes academic knowledge into making technological demonstrations. This is what we do. There is another group, more of an engineering technology [group] to demonstrate an actual product.”

Asked what makes quantum sensors so much more accurate than classical sensors – by 10-11 orders of magnitude – Ran said: “The reason for that is that you are measuring basically the characteristics of matter itself.”

For example, “When you want to sense time – you sense the difference between two energy levels. You can do that very very accurately. Quantum sensors are to sense what you want to know and not just noise from accelerating and from vibrations.”

He explained that a classic atomic clock for navigation or detection of the enemy is sensitive at 10/-12 level, whereas quantum sensing can get as accurate as 10/-19 level.

Noting that the National Institute of Standards and Technology demonstrated a small (chip-scale) and less advanced quantum atomic clock in 2004, he said that it has taken a long time even for such older sensory instrument models to be widely distributed and easily affordable at scale.

He noted that there is a larger market for quantum sensor positioning versus specific defense sensor capabilities, “because there is a civilian market as well as for security.”

To illustrate potential in the civilian sector, he said, “I heard an interview of a DARPA officer about UBER. You could have a GPS that will not function. No one would know where they are at” without quantum sensors.

Many companies “like to get into autonomous vehicles, and would like to take care of a situation where there is a GPS-denied environment,” Ran said. Otherwise, without a quantum sensor, a classical sensor would be “very sensitive to these sorts of issues” – meaning it would be disrupted.

He noted that there have been a number of instances where a military’s forces had trouble functioning for multiple days during a storm that left them in a GPS-denied environment.