Stealth-beating radar to shore up Canadian Arctic surveillance

A multi-million dollar defense project to develop ‘quantum radar’ will improve Canada’s military capabilities in the Arctic.

By Kevin McGwin - April 18, 2018
The flags of Canada and the United States fly at the North Warning System Site at Cambridge Bay, Canada. (Lanis Williams/US Air Force)

Canada, it seems, has a thing for quantum physics. In 2016, Justin Trudeau, the prime minister, received a standing ovation from gathered scientists after displaying a solid grasp of the concept (see below).

Now, another member of his cabinet, Harjit Sajjan, the defense minister, is showing that he, too, has embraced the field.

Sajjan announced last week that his ministry will sink CA$2.7 million ($2.2 million) into development of a new generation of radar based on the technology, that, once complete, will shore up the radar network along Canada’s northern border that serves as the cornerstone of one of North America’s defence perimeters.

The money will go to fund a research project at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, and is part of a CA$133 million block of funding Ottawa is spending on measures keep an eye on the skies and waterways along its borders. Much of this funding is expected to be spent on surveillance capabilities in the Arctic.

Known as quantum radar, the technology has several advantages over the traditional radar that is currently installed in the 54 installations that make up the Northern Warning System.

Most hyped is its ability to detect objects designed to avoid detection — better known as stealth objects — often without the adversary being aware that it has been detected. But the radar will also be used to keep an eye out for things like incoming missiles and traditional aircraft. Quantum radar is expected to be able to help in this task thanks to its ability to cut through the electromagnetic chaff that is common in the atmosphere over the Arctic.

Quantum radar’s advantages over regular radar stem from its reliance on a technique known as quantum illumination. Quantum illumination is based on the concept in which two light particles are said to be linked, or ‘entangled.’

To detect an object, one of the two linked particles is emitted. To determine whether the particles the radar collects have returned after hitting an object, the system compares them with the un-emitted halves of the entangled pairs. Particles that cannot be paired are ignored, making it possible to see through disturbances, whether natural, in the form of electromagnetic static, or man-made, in the form of jamming.

China has reportedly conducted real-world tests with quantum illumination. In the west, its development has been confined to the lab. But, with the NWS radar coming to the end of its lifespan, as well as with the emergence of new radar-beating technologies, such as stealth, Canada, and the U.S., partners in NORAD, a joint aerospace defense command, are hard at work finding a replacement.

“This project will allow us to develop the technology to move quantum radar from the lab, to the field,” Jonathan Baugh, of the University of Waterloo. “It could change the way we think about natural security.”