Peter W. Singer and August Cole want you to know their book, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, is a work of fiction, not prediction.
Let’s hope they’re right.
To be fair, speculative fiction has long portended the future of conflict. A mysterious rogue submarine prowled the ocean’s depths in Jules Verne’s classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea—written over four decades before German U-boats would terrorize Allied shipping during the First World War. Today, military planners turn to Max Brooks’ World War Z, hoping to glean lessons from a worldwide zombie apocalypse which might prove useful in responding to other, more likely disasters.
For Singer, a strategist at the New America Council, and Cole, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, the mid-21st Century is a world of robots and space-based lasers, where human beings interact seamlessly with computers. But America’s growing reliance on information technology—seen as one of its greatest strengths just ten years ago—quickly becomes its strategic Achilles’ heel. After reeling from a crippling cyber-attack and the loss of its GPS satellites, the US is all but blind to a combined Chinese-Russian blitz on its military facilities in the Pacific. American aircraft carriers, Littoral Combat Ships, and F-35 stealth fighters fare poorly in the initial attack—the latter of which is knocked out of commission as Chinese hackers take control of the aircraft’s microprocessors, most of which were made in China.
Suddenly, the US—once the undisputed high-tech superpower—is forced to rely on low-tech means to save the day. In a plotline reminiscent of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, one of America’s secret weapon is a fleet of rusty, late-20th Century warships, communicating with light signals to avoid being detected through electronic sensors—the eponymous Ghost Fleet.
Ray Bradbury once said that science fiction was one of the few places the “philosopher may roam just as freely as he chooses.” So it is with Ghost Fleet, which forces readers to ask serious questions about the utility of many of the Pentagon’s big-ticket weapons systems, as well as the geopolitical trends which may shape the next century.
Spoiler alert: The Pentagon’s pet projects, including the F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship, don’t fare well. Instead, coming to the rescue are a fleet of icebreaking ships and a swarm of drone fighters. Unfortunately, the former is a hard sell for a nation in which nearly a quarter of Americans do not believe in climate change, while the latter seems to be the red-headed step child of the Air Force.
But more important than the weapons is the profound impact technology has on culture, particularly the organizational culture of the military. P.W. Singer, in particular, has opined on the rise of the “tactical generals”, and the propensity for each advance in information technology to tempt senior military leaders to increasingly micromanage their troops. Worse yet, recent training exercises have made it painfully apparent that troops have become so reliant on the constant information stream, they’ve become paralyzed without it. The men and women of the Ghost Fleet are able to make the tough decisions without being “puppeted from afar”, as one character eloquently puts it. But would we be able to do the same?
Ghost Fleet is an immensely fun page-turner in the vein of Tom Clancy: big on action and amazing technology. Though, at about half the length of a typical Clancy novel, it comes at the expense of characterization. (Female readers may roll their eyes that the book—which, of course, includes the obligatory femme fatale who dabbles in the world’s two oldest professions—fails the Bechdel test.) But for military enthusiasts looking for a quick summer yarn, which, incidentally, may spark off a conversation inside the DC Beltway, I can’t recommend it enough.
Speculative fiction occasionally presages the future in unusual ways. Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor, which reads very much like Ghost Fleet, pitted the US against Japan in a battle for the Pacific. Though that scenario has, mercifully, not come to pass, the book’s ending—in which a Japanese pilot deliberately crashes a passenger jet into the US Capitol building—eerily foreshadowed the attacks of September 11th seven years before they occurred.
Who knows: a Ghost Fleet may indeed sail someday.
Ghost Fleet is published by Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. It can be found on Amazon.com for $18.66 in hardcover.