Tuesday saw the release of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, written by Peter Singer and co-authored by August Cole. This book portrays a global conflict, essentially World War III with the Chinese and Russians squaring off with the U.S. in the near future. Already the book is receiving rave reviews and is apparently circulating around the Pentagon in pre-published form. From what is already known of the book, it presents a realistic conflict scenario akin to those produced by one of the greatest geo-political, techno-thriller writers of the late 20th century, the late Tom Clancy. The book should provide a lesson to policy makers by providing a realistic depiction of a future conflict that one can connect to better than a government produced policy brief or academic analysis. It is the horrid nature of the conflict spelled out in a novel with human characters that should serve to reinforce the idea that conflict is not a possibility that should be taken lightly.
Without going into the plot too much, the book revolves around a 2020s war between the U.S. and the “Directorate” created by Russia and China. Recently, military thrillers have been based on the wars we are fighting today; asymmetric conflicts against terrorists and non-state entities. The authors in presenting a future conflict deviated from that mindset by presenting a great powers war where an ascendant China along with Russia as a junior partner take on a declining U.S. There have been books written about possible U.S.-China conflict such as The Bear and the Dragon by Tom Clancy though Ghost Fleet is the most recent and arguably well researched about such a possible near term scenario.
The authors spent a considerable amount of time researching future weapons; those that are being put through trials now and those that are on the planning boards and will soon be put into prototype by major defense contractors. A problem that I personally find with many alternate histories or in this case, future scenarios is that novels often lack a solid grounding in fact. This is something the writers of Ghost Fleet have sought to avoid by including nearly 400 endnotes describing why certain weapon systems work the way they do, why certain scenarios play out the way they do, etc. The fact that they have taken great strides to make the scenario as realistic as possible and explain it makes the book all the more intriguing.
The name of the book itself refers to the ghost fleets that the U.S. currently has in places such as Suisun Bay. Essentially, the U.S. keeps mothballed ships around just in case an event might arise that will necessitate their use. In this book, large manned vessels have predominantly fallen out of favor in the U.S. From that mindset, the authors asked, what would be if the U.S. is forced to fight a war with weapons it no longer thought are needed? In that sense, their WWIII scenario deviates from the typical belief that such a conflict would be nuclear by instead portraying a conventional conflict and by furthering that a future conflict will not be solely the domain of ultra-high tech weaponry.
The authors of Ghost Fleet are no lightweights. Singer serves as a strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation and is also a consultant for the U.S. military. He has received numerous accolades for his work and is widely recognized as a leading expert on 21st century security issues. Cole serves as a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security and in the past was a defense reporter with the Wall Street Journal. One of his roles is to utilize narrative fiction and visual media to provide insight into the future of conflict. This book is not written by simply military enthusiasts but by those who truly understand the nature of a future conflict.
The Chinese launch a surprise attack against the U.S. akin to Pearl Harbor in 1941 though through modern means; cyberattacks and even space based weapons. Cyberwar fare is not so much becoming a major threat as it already is, one which the U.S. has been late to respond to. The revelations of the hacking of the OPM in recent weeks and the compromise of millions of security clearance documents should drive that truth home. As frightening as the situation is, that fear is compounded by the widely held belief that China is responsible, our primary geopolitical opponent. Now it would be wrong the say that the U.S. does not take offensive moves in cyber warfare but the exact results of them are unknown; seeing it occur to the U.S. by a foreign power and be publicized is scary.
So many weapon systems today and command and control functions are reliant on network connections which can be hacked. This is not to say that the scenario played out in the hit television show Battlestar Galactica where the opposition shuts down the defenses of the good guys by hacking into the latter’s defense network is entirely possible, though parts of it are. Any attack that cripples part of our command and control will not destroy our entire ability to wage war but will hamper it. That is the scenario that Ghost Fleet puts forth; where our reliance on technology both greatly helps our warfighting capability and also can be used to limit it.
The book goes into the future use of drones on the modern battlefield. Drones of course have been all over the news but for the most part, they are still in their infancy when used for carrying out combat missions. The drones of the future will be far more lethal and in the hands of those countries which seek to oppose the U.S. such as China.
Furthermore the book explores the use of space based weaponry, a domain which current and past conflict have failed to reach apart from the use of satellites for intelligence and targeting. Already the Chinese have been making great strides in developing anti-satellite technology aimed at knocking out U.S. military satellites. The use of such weapons against U.S. satellites would severely limit the ability of the U.S. military to transmit and relay orders, direct weapons, and acquire intelligence. What would occur would be a significant degradation in the ability of the U.S. to use its most advanced weaponry. Drones that are not fully autonomous require data uplinks to the humans that pilot them, targets need location information provided in some cases by satellite direction, and so on. Such a scenario would be disastrous.
As I do have the book but have yet to finish it, I must say I am extremely intrigued. Despite all the technology in the U.S. military, there are so many areas where it can go wrong and where the high reliance on such technology can turn into an impediment. The majority of the human race must understand that war is a last resort though when countries openly flaunt the possibility of it or its inevitability, there is cause for concern. Sure there are policy briefs all around from government agencies, think tanks, universities and elsewhere that somewhat show what a future conflict might come to resemble. This book on the other hand provides human characters and adds that critical human element that makes such a conflict all the more real and frightening. With that said, this is one book I will finish as soon as I can.