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Reading War With China

Ghost Fleet is a fictionalized foretelling of World War III fought in the Pacific that's too real for comfort.
navy ships at sea formation

Imagine a near-future scenario in which China and Russia sneak-attack America’s assets in the Pacific, sink its fleet, and occupy Hawaii in order to stage a multi-front war of land, sky, space, and cyber. Meanwhile, U.S. Marines turn into mujahedeen, NATO crumbles like a cookie, and Wall Street plunges into a black shroud of despair.

This may sound like “Red Dawn”, but authors Peter W. Singer and August Cole endeavor to make their new (and first) novel Ghost Fleet a modern cautionary tale more in the mold of World War Z, informed by two writers whose professional métier is the unbounded realm of the U.S. national security establishment, otherwise known as the Military Industrial Complex. As think tank denizens in the belly of the Beltway beast, both Singer and Cole have an inside grasp of how the Washington military culture works, with a particular focus on future war technology and all of the politics, hubris, and unintended consequences that world entails.

On the front end, Ghost Fleet, which hits the bookshelves on June 30, will no doubt cheer critics who see the Pentagon as long overdue for a reality check. On the back end, however, it’s a traditional war novel, sure to excite readers of the genre for illustrating the major conflict Washington really wants to fight—not a conflict against rag-tag religious fundamentalists in the Middle East who never seem to go away, but Great Power against Great Power, in the Pacific. In other words, World War III.

It’s not all wishful thinking—today’s headlines certainly lend themselves to the narrative, with China’s massive island building in the South China Sea, and its suspected super hack of the U.S. government’s most sensitive personnel data. Reportedly Chinese computer spies have routinely breached American weapons projects in order to clone them. Meanwhile, national security experts now openly refer to an “arms race” in the Pacific, egged on in part by Washington’s own public displays, such as the “pivot to Asia,” the Pentagon’s offset strategies, and years of doomsday reports from the U.S. Navy.

Singer, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, has been writing about the U.S. military’s strengths and vulnerabilities for some time. He was the first to take full measure of outsourcing war, capping it off with a seminal book on the private military industry in 2007. Today he focuses on cutting-edge robotics and unmanned systems. Cole is a former defense reporter for the Wall Street Journal who now runs the Art of Future War project at the Atlantic Council. Together they make a formidable team of two men who write about Washington’s defense community while advantageously situated within its fraternal embrace.

The result: Ghost Fleet is an ambitious blend of fact and fiction, Herman Wouk-meets-William Gibson, with a dash of Brave New World and “In Harm’s Way” for good measure. Critics of the Washington war machine will appreciate the first half, which takes a scalpel to nearly every major budget and acquisition debate since 9/11, underscoring the cynical subtext of each failed, aborted or over-extended program.

But if this makes Singer and Cole’s military readers uneasy, they’re soon rewarded by the second half, which allows them another crack at glory not seen since the Navy picked itself out of the detritus of Pearl Harbor. From their vantage, the authors not only know the machines, but the myth, and weave a tale that will speak directly to defense insiders (this early review is a tip off). Thanks to some fun sci-fi touches and the pace of a Tom Clancy novel, Ghost Fleet will likely find an audience among thriller lovers, too.

Ultimately, Ghost Fleet is not an argument against war, but a primer on how to wage it better. TAC talked to Singer about this, and the real-life U.S.-China conflict, in a recent interview:

TAC: So I’m reading Ghost Fleet and suddenly there are all these headlines about China building massive islands in the South China Sea and (Secretary of Defense) Ashton Carter calling on them to stop. Tensions seem to be ramping up and the headlines seem to be cuing the book.

PS: It was very hard to engineer a geopolitical crisis just for the benefit of the book but it worked out (laughs). The book is a mash-up of fiction and non-fiction. It is both a novel, but also looking at the overall trends in technology and politics of the real world. One key issue we wanted to explore is how geopolitics is undergoing a shift. If you look at the 20th century, it was shaped by great power politics, both the world wars that we actually fought, and the one that we didn’t fight but defined the last half of the century’s politics, the Cold War.

After the Berlin Wall falls and then 9/11, that idea of a war between great states is off the table, it’s not even thought of. It’s all about terrorism and insurgency. Conflict doesn’t go away but it’s not about the big boys anymore.  It’s not even thought of.

But now the risks of a big war between great states is back on the table.

With Russia and China and the U.S., you not only have a new arms race but a massive amount of tension and it is scary. I don’t think war is inevitable but that phrase ‘war is inevitable’ was used in a Chinese newspaper just last week … there are some very dangerous [signs] here. What the book does, is that it takes these trends and says ‘What if?’

TACThe Navy especially has been talking about conflict with China for the last several years, in fact it seems to be what the military culture in Washington would prefer. As someone who works both in and outside the defense community here, were you in a sense reacting to that, or are you seeing something else when you wrote this?

PS: I have a track record as a sort of trend spotter. Over a decade ago I was writing about the rise of the private military companies and—five years ago—the rise of the robots in war … This trend is one that I see as both real, but misunderstood. If you look at the raw data, China is clearly rising as an economic, political, and military great power, and we see that in everything from its economy moving towards the number one position in the world, it’s military spending has essentially gone up a greater percentage than anyone else’s in this period. They built the most warships in 2013, the most warships in 2014, they are expected to build the most warships in 2015 and are planning for the most in 2016 and 2017. You sense the trend here.

But there is another trend, as these two great powers engage in an arms race. This added risk is revealed when you look at both China’s plans and U.S. plans. Both militaries are gearing up for something. That is the centerpiece of the new U.S. “offset” strategy, which is about buying a whole new generation of tech to deter or defeat China. And that is at the center of China’s more emboldened strategy, where it is redefining its thinking on “active defense” from close to home to global power.

The problem is that both of them have the notion that any conflict would be “short” and “sharp” in their words and would work out for their side. There are great levels of overconfidence, both inside and outside of government, noting for example polling in China that 74 percent of the public thinks their military would beat the U.S. in a war. This doesn’t just make war more likely, they can’t both be right! One of them has to be wrong and would lose, or it could be that both could be wrong and the war could be draining and long. From a U.S. perspective, I think we are looking at what we can do and not factoring in the other side looking at what we can do and then reacting to that.

…The difference of a World War III is it would see battles of different domains. And you would be competing against states that could have just as good gear as you do—or even better. That could be very challenging, which makes it entirely compelling from the fictional standpoint—and of course scary if there was a real war.

TAC: One of the most compelling themes here is that our own technology—the sophisticated weapons systems, ships, planes, drones, communications—can be turned on us so easily by an adversary.

PS: The amazing networked communications, the command and control information domination that we have been able to put on the battlefield—they are strengths that could be turned into weaknesses. For example, we totally depend on GPS satellites. What happens when we don’t have access to that? We have that at play.

But we also have the “own goals” we might score on ourselves—an old soccer saying. We have spent not millions, but trillions of dollars on weapons system that might not serve us in actual great power war. We’ve bought weapons systems that we already know are riven with cyber vulnerabilities. Last year, the Pentagon’s tester found 40 major programs had vulnerabilities. Similarly, we are in the middle of buying warships that in the words of the Navy’s own tester are “not survivable” in an actual battle. We’ve bought a plane that is supposed to be a generation ahead of anything out there and we are seeing Chinese prototypes flying that already look like their twin.

TAC: Speaking of scoring goals on ourselves, what does it mean when you are fielding fighter jets in which 78 percent of the microchips in it are made by the people you might end up fighting, which is raised in the book?

PS: That’s not a random number, it’s the exact number in the F-35, that we cite in the book from a DARPA presentation. The risk there is not just someone cuts off your supply line, but you’ve opened yourself up to a new kind of hack, a “hardware hack,” where the other side can literally back vulnerabilities into your systems that you won’t know are there until they activate. Oops, I just spoiled one of the opening scenes.

TAC: There is a ton of technology here. I’m no techno geek—and I don’t mean to insult you here—but how much of the technology in Ghost Fleet actually exists and how much is of the “Star Trek” order, where it sounds perfectly real, but has little basis in reality?

PS: We came at it opposite of “Star Trek” in that many of the cool technologies in  “Star Trek” were actually imagined a way to solve production problems on the set. For example, the transporter was created because the prop of an actual shuttle craft would be too expensive to build for the original series. Our rule was everything in the book has to be inspired from the real world—it had to be a technology that is already at the research and development or prototype or even operations stages. It may sound fiction but it’s all footnoted in the index. No Klingon power packs or teenage wizard wands.

TAC: Ghost Fleet is very Navy-centric, why?

PS:  There is definitely at the center, a Navy theme … that’s again reflecting the real world and the fiction that I love. We envisioned what would be different about a war with China is it would involve something we haven’t seen since 1945 and that is a battle between great powers … If you look at China, the military build-up has literally created a modern powerful and soon to be globe spanning Navy … If you look at the next generation of our warships, where are we sending all of them? The Pacific. Like it or not it is a reality. It is an arms race in the Pacific—the U.S. and the Chinese are in a looming Cold War, with nationalism raising the risks. Just as we are talking right now, Foreign Policy magazine released an article describing the U.S.-China predicament as ‘riding the tiger.’

Hopefully (the book) will to shape politics in a way so that the scenario doesn’t come true. That is a difference with the “Star Trek” series—you hope that it doesn’t come true.

TAC: All of this speculation about a U.S.-China confrontation, is any part of you concerned that it merely whips up the war hawks and helps the Navy and defense industry justify expanding their budgets? It might sound cynical but this is Washington, and the Pentagon is still smarting from sequestration.

PS: No, they don’t need my help in that. My concern more is us buying gear that weirdly isn’t that great for an insurgency fight in the Middle East or a great power conflict in the Pacific. We have a lot of what I joke are Pontiac Aztec defense programs, where you try to be all sorts of things simultaneously and end up being bad at all of them individually, the way the Aztec was supposed to be a sports car crossed with a van crossed with an SUV.

TAC: I never asked you about Russia’s role in all of this. Why Russia, and how do you think real-events shaped the U.S-China narrative in your book?

PS: There is an ever closer alignment between Russia and China, and even more so after Ukraine further isolated Russia from the West. Indeed in the last few months they’ve signed over 30 major agreements on everything from energy to cybersecurity and done joint military exercises not just in the Pacific but also in Mediterranean. The problem for Russia is that it is China’s junior partner, who doesn’t want to realize they are the junior.

TAC: Thank you for your time.

PS: Thank you.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.