Don’t Fear the Military Technothriller
Speculative fiction often wrongly predicts war
An award-winning short story by a top U.S. Navy intelligence officer serves as a thinly-veiled warning.
The Navy, and the country it serves, must better prepare for war with China. And if they don’t, America will lose aircraft carriers, destroyers, presumably thousands of sailors … and the war.
Capt. Dale Rielage’s “How We Lost the Great Pacific War,” which won Proceedings’ 2017 essay contest, belongs to a subgenre of military fiction — the speculative technothriller — that began in the late 19th century and continues with books such as Jeffrey Lewis’s The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States from 2018 and August Cole and P.W. Singer’s 2015 novel Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War.
The subgenre purports to wrap real policy prescriptions in readable and realistic stories. But its authors also have a tendency to draw inspiration from recent headlines while misreading big historical trends.
Which is why many of the classic entries in the subgenre are about wars that never ended up happening and which, as stories, began to seem downright silly just a few years later.
Rielage’s story takes the form of a memorandum from the disgraced chief of naval operations in 2025, shortly following the ceasefire that ended a cataclysmic conventional naval war between the United States and China.
A war the United States lost as “waves of enemy high-end surface-to-air missiles and fourth-generation fighters” and other high-tech weaponry wiped out American carrier air wings, sank two aircraft carriers and destroyed enough Hawaii-based destroyers “to cast a pall across the island” as the fictional admiral writes his post-mortem memo.
The admiral blames America’s loss on the Congress for under-funding the Navy, the Navy itself for failing to adequately prepare for intensive warfare and on the whole country for shoveling military resources into the bottomless maw of the Middle East while the real danger to U.S. supremacy — China, although Rielage never actually names the country — slowly grew in the Western Pacific.
In pleading for more attention to the possibility of peer conflict in the Western Pacific, Rielage is hardly alone. It’s no secret that China’s military is modernizing in pace with the country’s expanding economy and Beijing’s growing ambitions. But Reilage’s story does what think-tank studies and official Defense Department reports can’t do — it humanizes the reasons for, and potential cost of, losing a war.
“We also missed opportunities to tell our commanders frankly that there could be no medical evacuations while sitting in the adversary’s weapons engagement zone,” Rielage’s imaginary CNO writes in one particularly evocative section of his memo. “The crew of the destroyer USS Fishburne earned a Navy Unit Commendation going back for the survivors of the USS Holloway.”
“It was a heroic, if unsuccessful, gesture that ultimately cost us a second DDG,” the admiral continues. “The reality is that keeping Fishburne’s missile magazines afloat and in the fight would have saved more American lives than any successful rescue. The Fishburne’s commanding officer made that call, but the error was mine for not having that uncomfortable conversation with my commanders before they were faced with such decisions.”
At top — the former USS America sinks after U.S. forces targeted it during an exercise in 2005. U.S. Navy photo. Above — fan art of a conceptual Chinese missile strike on American warships
Rielage’s story has resonated. Kevin Eyer, a former U.S. Navy destroyer captain, called it “hard-hitting” and warned that it could “become prophetic.”
But technothrillers that seem prophetic on publication often don’t age well. World War III never broke out in Europe as the Soviet Union disintegrated, as British general John Hackett’s 1978 novel The Third World War posits. Nor, for that matter, did an energy crisis spark the same kind of conflict, as occurs in Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising from 1986.
The late Clancy, arguably the modern master of the military technothriller, rarely had any success in predicting real-world conflicts. One of the most important events in his series of novels about spy Jack Ryan is a 9/11-style terror attack on the United States that’s inspired by … ultra-nationalist Japanese industrialists.
Japan’s explosive economic growth and commensurate huge investment in U.S. companies was a popular theme in American fiction in the 1980s and ’90s. But Japan never conquered the United States either militarily or culturally. Japan’s export-dependent economy actually contracted nearly three percent in the last quarter of 2018. The country’s population, too, is shrinking.
The same broad trends that undercut the popular specter of a dominant Japan also could be China’s undoing as a superpower. The Chinese economy heavily depends on exports and government debt. Its population rapidly is aging.
“Many policymakers and economists question whether China’s current growth trajectory can be maintained in the face of clear structural challenges that include pollution, corruption, chronic diseases, water shortages, growing internal security spending and an aging population—all factors that feed off of one another and exact increasingly large costs for the Chinese state and economy,” China experts Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins wrote in a 2011 essay.
All that is to say that Rielage’s story, while compelling in 2018, soon might seem quaint. As military technothrillers tend to do.
“At their best they offer the fun of geopolitical chess and exciting action,” critic Nader Elhefnawy wrote about the subgenre. “However, they tend to suffer from bland or thin characters; prose ranging from the mediocre to the atrocious; and the crudeness of their propagandizing.”
“Their strengths also tend to deteriorate with age,” Elhefnawy continued. “The geopolitical chess all too often derives its interest from its topicality, the instant drama of a ‘plot ripped from the headlines’ that can only fall flat after the headlines have changed.”