Indian military ready to put long-range quantum key distribution on the line

Local startup can make it happen over 150km

India's military has celebrated the nation's Independence Day by announcing it will adopt locally developed quantum key distribution (QKD) technology that can operate across distances of 150km.

QKD is a technology to securely distribute encryption keys – items that could make communications an open book to an adversary. QKD makes interception of encryption keys vastly difficult by transmitting each bit of a key using a single photon. As photons are quantum particles, observing them changes their state. And that change can be detected – a signal that indicates a key may have been compromised and is therefore not worth using.

The tech therefore has the potential to improve security of military comms in peacetime or during conflicts.

But QKD is hard to do. While the likes of Toshiba offer a commercial service, current implementations such as a network in London span just 32km.

India's military announced it has trialled tech that operates over 150km, and now plans to buy it and put it to work. It has mentioned its use for "critical data/voice/video, across … end points" and talked up the potential for "disruptive impact on modern-day warfare."

India's tech came from a startup called QNU Labs that worked with India's defense tech incubator iDEX.

QNU Labs offers entropy-as-a-service, a quantum VPN, and a secure messaging service.

India's government hasn't said which of those it intends to acquire, but has issued a Request For Proposal (RFP) for the company's tech and pledged to put it into production.

Doing so may put India's defense forces ahead of other militaries. The likes of NATO are on the record as talking about QKD as a theoretical future capability. Of course it is entirely possible that many other nations have developed and deployed QKD for their armed forces but have kept quiet about it in case the technology can't quite deliver.

India appears not to worry about letting the world know of its intention to acquire QKD capabilities, and some detail of the systems it will employ. Indeed, the nation was proud of its announcement – it came on the eve of its 75th Independence Day celebrations and was trumpeted as another sign of its ability to become self-sufficient in important technologies.

Potential foes India may feel QKD is necessary to deter include neighbouring Pakistan, which stands accused of supporting terrorist proxies to attack India. The nation also has an uneasy peace with China, which has revealed QKD capabilities of its own – using satellites over a distance of 7600km. ®

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