AUSMIN 2022: technology collaboration for energy storage and resilience
30 Nov 2022|

As Australia’s foreign and defence ministers and the US secretaries of state and defence prepare to meet for the annual AUSMIN consultations, ASPI has released a collection of essays exploring the policy context and recommending Australian priorities for the talks. This is the second of three edited extracts from the volume’s technology chapter, which proposes five key science and technology areas for greater US–Australia collaboration that carry significant national security and defence risks for both countries.

Powering the warfighter: energy storage for next-generation technologies

Drones have been deployed by both sides in the Russian war on Ukraine to significant effect. Russia has used them for missile strikes and continues to seek more advanced military-grade drones from Iran. Ukraine has had great success in employing its civilian population’s personal drones for monitoring the location and disposition of the enemy.

Among the many lessons learned in the war has been that these small, low-cost, lightweight drones are easy to deploy in numbers, harder to detect and harder to bring down than expected; for intelligence and reconnaissance, only one needs to get through and communicate back to its operators. However, they’re very easy to misdirect (see the next section on resilience) and they can’t stay in the air for long or run advanced electronic sensors or equipment due to their small, necessarily lightweight power supplies. This has also been the major limitation in research into tiny drones, such as robot bees in the commercial sector: there are no viable ways of powering them for flight, sensing and communications.

Most next-generation, computer-heavy technology has a high requirement for reliable power and cooling. In the case of field-deployable vehicles and drones, we can also add small and light to that list. Australia is a natural logical partner as a regional technology hub and as a power generator for the region, particularly as the world continues its shift towards electric vehicles. However, we have significant limitations in energy storage for transport, particularly batteries suited to deployment in the defence context. Also, the world’s supply of rare-earth minerals and compounds is limited. It won’t scale up to the demand for batteries if they remain as designed today, using the same materials that are in demand for national electricity production, semiconductors and a wide range of other technologies, particularly as China controls most of the global supply of rare earths.

We must develop new battery, storage and energy-use strategies that will mitigate our dependence on non-renewable sources and that will meet our power and mobility requirements. It’s likely that a diversity of battery options will be needed to offset the risk of exhausting materials, and, in cases where storage isn’t possible, trusted sharing or offloading of computing to wherever energy is plentiful. It wouldn’t be the first time that Australia and the US have run ‘follow the sun’ defence and space programs, which hand over responsibility for 24/7 operations as business days begin and end in our respective time zones.

Recommendation: AUSMIN should agree to a joint state-of-play review for energy gaps and limitations with current technologies in defence in order to identify possible collaboration opportunities.

Resilience with disruptive technology: quantum technologies beyond computing

Australia produces some of the world’s best quantum research and quantum researchers. The defence focus has traditionally been on the race for a quantum computer capable of breaking sensitive cryptography and the risks that poses to national security. China has also invested heavily in this race and appears to be positioned only slightly behind the most leading-edge US achievements for quantum processors.

However, a quantum computer capable of breaking currently secure cryptography is still many years away, and the US National Institute of Standards and Technology announced in June this year the final candidates for quantum-resistant cryptography standards. Google recently announced that it now uses post-quantum cryptography to protect its internal communications.

This means that we can and should begin the migration to using such algorithms as soon as possible to mitigate the damage caused by a technologically advanced adversary such as China scraping all the encrypted data that it possibly can now and storing it for later decryption when the quantum computer becomes available.

Quantum computing research is established and well funded, and will continue for many years with mitigation strategies in place. However, this particular quantum computing application has resulted in a mistaken blanket classification of all quantum work as ‘sensitive technology’ for national security purposes. This has caused problems for wider quantum research and international collaboration in areas such as quantum sensing, materials, communications and navigation that don’t share the same risks.

AUSMIN and the US and Australian defence departments could swiftly reduce obstacles for the quantum industry in dealing with non-sensitive applications by reducing time-consuming national security processes for AUKUS partners, such as export controls and Foreign Investment Review Board engagement, which significantly slow down collaboration. Any self-imposed processes that hinder our ability to get our quantum research to market efficiently simply aid countries such as China, which will capitalise in our place.

Moreover, there are some areas where delivering quantum solutions as soon as possible could solve some critical challenges, such as quantum position, navigation and timing research to mitigate our dependency on the Global Positioning System. GPS is integrated into an enormous range of modern technologies, from military-grade weaponry and uncrewed vehicles, to commercial shipping and tracking, through to consumer technologies such as mobile phones, cars and drones. It’s even used in multifactor authentication tokens and apps for secure services. GPS uses extremely weak signals that are very easy to jam, as noted in the use of drones in Ukraine. Russia and China both maintain their own constellations of satellites for global positioning (GLONASS and BeiDou) rather than relying on GPS, which could make GPS an attractive target for disruption in a conflict. However, the application of quantum entangled pairs to provide high-fidelity timing data for geolocation would be extremely difficult to interfere with.

Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Group has an excellent quantum position, navigation and timing program that could provide the foundations for a valuable collaborative initiative between Australia and the US on a critical issue for national resilience.

Recommendations: AUSMIN should develop a framework to work with the new Australian Quantum Alliance (a group jointly designed by ASPI and the quantum industry under the Tech Council of Australia) to identify areas where government processes can be streamlined for quantum collaboration, advocate and prepare for an imminent move to post-quantum cryptography for defence and government communications, and make quantum position, navigation and timing collaboration a key pillar for quantum under AUKUS to accelerate practical research that can mitigate our dependency on GPS.