Small Wars Journal

The Ghost of Conflict Yet to Come

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The Ghost of Conflict Yet to Come

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War

By Peter W. Singer and August Cole

416 pages

Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (June 30, 2015)

10: 0544142845

13: 978-0544142848

Reviewed by David Isenberg

When it comes to military affairs and fiction the military techno-thriller has long been a reliable staple of the genre.  For many years it is was the preserve of a handful of writers such as General Sir John Winthrop Hackett, Dale Brown, and, best known, Tom Clancy.

But Hackett and Clancy are dead and Brown is not getting any younger, so who else is picking up the torch?

Happily, a forthcoming book seems to be up to the challenge. Ghost Fleet by Peter W. Singer and August Cole will be published this month and for those who enjoy the military-techno fiction that is linked to geopolitical trends, and, even more importantly, is able to extrapolate ongoing technological development into the not so far distant future it is definitely worth the read. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, the book can be considered the Ghost of Conflict with China Yet to Come.

Singer, a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and now a Senior Fellow at the New American Foundation and  August Cole, non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and director of its Art of Future Warfare project, have teamed up to produce a plausible account of how the United States and China might go to war.

This, of course, is what some might call a big war, but one understands, as it unfolds, is that it really the sort of non-nuclear “limited war” that once upon a time academics like Henry Kissinger used to write about.  But even that sort of limited war is too big for what unfolds here. And as such it is more than just a good piece of fiction; it also holds important lessons for the current small wars of the present and future.

And in this particular techno thriller case it is especially true. As I write this review, a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal notes that the U.S. Navy has developed a working prototype of a rail gun that uses electricity to fire projectiles at high speeds with great precision at incoming enemy missiles and aircraft. Already, the Navy can accurately launch projectiles at distances over 100 miles at speeds over 3,000 miles an hour.

This is a felicitous development as the protagonist of the book is a mothballed Navy ship, the USS Zumwalt, whose save the day system is a rail run. Note to readers: there actually is a Zumwalt. It is a guided missile destroyer and has an integrated power system, which can send electricity to the electric drive motors or weapons, which may someday include a railgun or free-electron lasers.

Of course, reality is always more difficult than fiction. Originally 32 ships were planned, with the $9.6 billion research and development costs spread across the class, but as the quantity was reduced to 10, then 3, the cost-per-ship increased dramatically. As of January 2009, the Government Accountability Office) found that only four out of 12 of the critical technologies were mature.

Still, considering all the coverage in recent years devoted to America's pivot from Middle East to Asia this is a timely book.

Of course, it should be clear, that only a lunatic would think it is in the interest of either the USA or China to be at war with each other. That said, there are a lot of loons in both countries and both China and the USA are currently taking steps to beef up their military capabilities in the Pacific. As I write this Jane's Defence Weekly is noting that according new satellite imagery analysis China's first runway in the Spratly islands is under construction.

Without giving too much away, the book starts, shades of WWII, with a Chinese attack on Pearl Harbor and ends with the liberation of same by the United States. The fun, of course, is reading the details of how it all unfolds.

The book is particular noteworthy, considering that neither of the authors, have previously written fiction.  But both have extensive experience writing about military affairs and it shows. Like all good writers in this genre they know that details, whether the intricacies of military culture or the eccentricities of Silicon Valley billionaires, matter and they nail them all accurately.

For example, as a Navy vet, I was pleased to see their description of the finger of a retired chief petty officer having a "permanent crook from decades of carrying his coffee with him eighteen hours a day."

The book, in the best tradition of techno thrillers, covers lots of territory, geographically, politically, culturally, economically, militarily, and, most important, technologically. That last characteristic, clearly owes a lot to the work of Singer who, in recent years, has become quite well known for his work on the impact of current and future technology, such as drones and other robotic systems, and cybersecurity issues.

The best of the techno thrillers have always had one thing in common; the ability to take current, or not very far distant technology, and integrate it into plausible scenarios as to how things might unfold in some international security conflict or crisis.  And in this regard the authors have clearly done their homework very well. It is very hard to think of a recent technological development that isn't mentioned here.

State sponsored malware and offensive cyber capabilities? Check? A technocratic elite running the show in China? Check.  Successors to Google Glass widely used? Check. Artificial stimulants commonly used by military personnel? Check. Sensors of all kinds constantly sucking up data for later analysis? Check. A reference to the original Star Trek series serving as an intel warning from Russia to the US? Check. And that is just in the first forty pages.

Not much later space based lasers are humming, armed drones and quadcopters are attacking, sabotaged microchips, and the sinking of U.S. carriers by supersonic cruise missiles (a scenario long thought plausible).

To appreciate how plausible all this is you simply need to remember that there is not a single technology described in the book that doesn't already exist, either operationally or in an R&D stage.  Yes, in the plot some of the systems are clearly more advanced that they are today but that is just a matter of time. All of what is describes is here today; just less developed in some cases. Just see the twenty two pages of end notes for confirmation.

Like the best writers in this genre, the authors have just imaginatively extended today's trends a few decades forward.  As they say in the intelligence world, they just connected the dots, and have done so in a very entertaining manner.  In that regard, the use of private security contractors, an issue that Singer is extremely well known for, as space privateers bears mention.

The bottom line is Singer and Cole have crafted an eminently readable novel, which is both highly entertaining and sobering. If you have ever wondered how today's tech trends might affect future conflicts there is no doubt about it; you will want to read this book.

About the Author(s)

David Isenberg is the author of the book "Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq." His blog is the Isenberg Institute of Strategic Satire. He previously wrote the "Dogs of War" weekly column for UPI. During 2009 he ran the Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers project at the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo. He also worked at the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).  He is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat. He is a US Navy veteran.