What Does a Major 21st Century War Look Like? Read ‘Ghost Fleet’
The U.S. Pacific Fleet gets hammered in this technothriller
Scattered along America’s coastlines are hundreds of rusting, mothballed Navy ships. The United States doesn’t keep these reserve vessels floating around to look pretty. No, it keeps them in case of World War III.
Ghost Fleet, a new novel by P. W. Singer and August Cole, is about that scenario. Having read the book, it’s one of the more plausible depictions of a major 21st century war — and one of the more realistic portrayals of cyberwar — I’ve seen in fiction.
In a discursive and wide-ranging interview, we talked with Singer about the book’s themes, science fiction and the future of conflict. According to him, we need to get used to the idea that our technology won’t save us — and that we should reconsider some older methods of warfare that are anything but antiquated.
Some spoilers follow.
A few years from now, naval officers of the United States watch holographic presentations while wearing Google Glass style heads-up displays. Warships are smaller and leaner, with skeleton crews relying on gadgetry to make up the difference.
Drones are everywhere. But this tech turns out to be a major weakness.
The Communist Party no longer rules China. In its place is a plutocratic-military regime known as the Directorate. The regime severs its ties with the U.S. — which it perceives as a declining empire holding China back from vital energy resources. With Russian support, China launches a surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet, resulting in its near total destruction.
The results are pretty horrifying. A Chinese space laser team coldly and methodically destroys most of the America’s spy and GPS satellites. Washington’s military computer networks are so badly compromised by jamming, spoofing and decades of sabotage, that the beginning of the war reminded me of the opening episodes of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica.
Except that the scenario plays out in the Pacific and within our lifetimes.
“We use the book to show the consequences of that ongoing campaign,” Singer said regarding Chinese espionage. “So it’s not just the takedown of GPS and communications networks that matters — essentially it’s like pulling the nervous system out of the U.S. military.”
“But it’s also — in the wars that we may fight in the future — we will not have that technological edge that the U.S. has expected to have for the last 70 years. You will be taking on foes that have comparable and in some cases even better gear than you.”
I realized after reading it that this is the only cyberpunk war novel I’ve read. In a way, I hesitate to use the term cyberpunk, but the description fits. Cyberpunk novels, such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, depicted a near-future world transformed by computers and information technology — and not always for the better.
These novels were among the scifi genre’s more prescient, if only because their authors’ ambitions were more limited than, say, exploring a wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant. Chinese hackers hoovering up military secrets from their apartments in polluted megacities isn’t a 1980s fever dream — it’s part of the world we’re living in today.
This is the world of Ghost Fleet, too, but extended another 15 or 20 years or so. One difference is that cyberpunk protagonists are typically anti-heroes and disgruntled outsiders. Singer and Cole’s characters are a mix of soldiers, astronauts and political and military elites. So think of Tom Clancy novels.
The technology here is more advanced than our own, but there’s nothing that the military isn’t researching or working on today. The Directorate relies heavily on disguised container ships, something which a Russian weapons firm has actually developed. But like in cyberpunk, these systems don’t always work that well.
“So we, for example, explore the issues of using what’s in the real world called battle management systems,” Singer said. “Basically, the slow accruement of A.I. into how we do command and control in warships and the like.”
“But then, you know, sometimes the system breaks.”
The book is a not-so-subtle critique of the modern U.S. military. For one, Singer doesn’t believe we’re going to clear up the “fog of war” through what the Pentagon calls “network-centric warfare.”
“That is, we’ve grown used to the idea that we will have absolute information dominance,” he said. But he points out that the U.S. doesn’t have this kind of dominance right now in Iraq — where Islamic State isn’t crashing America’s sensors and computer networks.
“In a future battle of high technology, much of the technology will negate itself,” he added. “So there’s an irony that in a world of robotics, the Internet, satellites, that the fight could play out like the battles of World War II.”
In Ghost Fleet, the Directorate destroys America’s satellites, blinds its warships and fighter jets with electronic noise and clogs its communications networks with malware. This creates a “digital fog” that makes war just as confusing as America’s historical naval battles with Japan.
Early in the book, an F-35 pilot scrambles to defend Hawaii. His jet’s computer systems go haywire from the Directorate’s electronic attacks. His radar detects phantom targets that don’t exist, and his GPS places him over Maui when he’s actually over Oahu. The automated tasks he came to rely on can’t be trusted — or they just fail completely.
The Joint Strike Fighter has “trouble getting out of its own way, electronically speaking,” the pilot thinks to himself.
America’s pilots have to learn to fly without GPS, and sailors have to once again practice celestial navigation, skills that the military has let lapse. Pressing his point, Singer points out to me that the U.S. Naval Academy — in the real world — has begun teaching celestial navigation again.
The book raises some interesting questions. For one, the U.S. finds itself fighting World War III without a major manufacturing base — Detroit isn’t at the center of the economy anymore. Instead it’s Silicon Valley billionaires and multinational corporations such as Walmart.
“In some ways they’re going to be coordinated, and in other ways they’re going to do their own thing,” Singer said. “And I can guarantee you that it’s not being weighed in our plans, whether it’s our plans for cyberwar or the Pacific.”
What happens when Walmart’s shareholders — many of them not Americans — decide they don’t want to support a U.S. war effort? What happens when a tech billionaire decides he wants to take part?
One of my favorite scenes is when that scenario translates into a plausible depiction of manned space piracy. To be sure, it stretches credulity a bit. But Singer and Cole don’t let realism get in the way of a good technothriller.
The future U.S. military in the book is also a more diverse place, such as regarding gender and sexual orientation, at the command levels. But the authors present it as simply a matter of fact, much to their credit.