Information warfare (or cyberwarfare) is the fifth domain of combat, after land, sea, air and space. That’s been clear for decades. Barely a month goes by without a major news story involving a major hack. 

The need for secure communications has been with us for much longer, with codes and codebreakers sparring for centuries. Today, supercomputers chomp away at previously unbreakable codes and encryption systems. But new advances in communications technology have taken secure communications to a new level.

The strange effects of quantum mechanics (physics at a subatomic level) have been known to us since Einstein and others began to unravel them at the start of the 20th century. But it’s only recently that the long-theorised concept of secure quantum communications has become feasible. Without going through a physics course, quantum communications allows both the transmitter and the receiver to be sure that a message has not been intercepted, as doing so would upset the fragile quantum structure of the transmission. Having been tested across laboratory desktops, and then large distances on Earth, the most ambitious quantum communications project has now been started by the Chinese.

Earlier this month, China launched Micius, the world’s first quantum communications satellite. It’s still largely an experimental project, but it is probably the shape of things to come. Critically, it is a major advance in communications technology that has not originated from the US or Europe. China has scored a major goal for its IT industry as well as its space program.

The widespread deployment of quantum communications technology will complicate efforts to bug or intercept communications, both in times of war and peace. From an international relations perspective, it means more secure links to anything from embassies to aircraft carriers. This could increase the centralisation of control for national capitals over their farflung assets. It could also increase the potential for surprise, both diplomatically and strategically. Fear and pre-emption could both escalate.

But are quantum communications systems as unhackable as advertised? Probably not. For sure, the quantum components of the system are secure. But the quantum link is just one part of an overall system that includes mundane electrical components and human operators. Nazi Germany thought that its enigma code machines could not be broken. They were wrong, as the wizards of Bletchley Park demonstrated. There are weaker elements in these new systems, and these will be targeted. Nothing is totally secure.