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Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War by P.W. Singer and August Cole. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, 404 pp.

Arguing for one’s ideas regarding tomorrow’s warfare through narrative fiction is a time-honored tactic among defense futurists. William Scott, Michael Coumatos, and William Birnes’ Space Wars and Counter-Space novels are relatively recent additions to the genre dealing with Air Force topics. Perhaps one of the best known examples is Hector Bywater’s 1925 novel The Great Pacific War, which was remarkably (though not perfectly) accurate in describing World War II in the Pacific 15 years later. What is not as well-known is that Bywater, a top naval writer of his time (and spy, but let's not stray), wrote a nonfiction book in 1921 called Sea Power in the Pacific that described much of his views. Presumably concerned with the lack of readership of his factual tome, Bywater couched his argument in a fictional story. History would tend to validate Bywater's strategy. The Great Pacific War is over twice as popular on Amazon as Sea Power in the Pacific.

It appears that P. W. Singer is following in Bywater’s footsteps. Singer’s 2009 Wired for War is a well-regarded nonfiction work in defense robotics while his position as a strategist at the New America Foundation, certainly qualifies him as a top defense writer. With Ghost Fleet, he and cowriter August Cole—an Atlantic Council nonresident senior fellow—grapple with how robotics and drones will change the battlefield of the near future.

However, Ghost Fleet is not only about drones (though they abound), Singer and Cole tackle many other issues such as deep-sea mineral exploration, the demise of the US dollar, the collapse of the Middle East and the global oil market, piracy, cyber war among national and private hackers for both espionage and destructive purposes, 3-D printing, space warfare, space tourism, Chinese microchips (and US reliance upon them), the utility of many modern weapons systems (the F- 35, the US Navy DD(X) program, and others), the patriotism of companies publicly traded around the world, and the relative decline of the United States as a global power, among others. The authors confront these issues through a hypothetical “world war” (in reality, a Pacific war) between a Russia/China alliance and the United States for control of Hawaii and the greater Pacific. Presumably intending to gain control of a deep-sea mineral bed of immense wealth in nominally US sovereign waters, China’s real ambitions are not described much more deeply than a war necessary to secure China’s “manifest destiny” in the world.

Unfortunately, this mechanical rationale for the next war is symptomatic of the book’s clunky storyline. China’s main strategist and “villain” is an admiral and connoisseur of Sun Tzu, but he is depicted as little more than a willing Isoroku Yamamoto (complete with his own Yamato-esque battleship with a very unimaginative name), following Japan’s playbook almost to the letter—with the exception of actually conquering Hawaii. The insurgency in Hawaii takes center stage in the middle third of the book, interspaced with cataloging the preparations stateside to launch an inevitable US counterattack. The characters are wooden and not well-developed, and the conclusion is difficult to follow and ultimately unfulfilling. The story is not bad, but neither is it very polished. However, in didactic fiction the story is simply the carrier of information.

Does Ghost Fleet deliver on its message to enlighten readers about modern warfare? Here the book earns a qualified “yes.” Singer and Cole describe a great deal of new battlefield technologies on the tactical level, plausible uses of those technologies, and the documentation necessary (over 20 pages worth) for readers to learn more about the real-world basis of their wonders. The authors’ depiction of America’s weakness in space defense and industrial policy (the one managed by the belief that whether America produces computer chips or potato chips is irrelevant) is very strong. Their use of different types of combat robots is also to the level one would expect from a national expert. Unfortunately, they also whitewash what may become a critical problem in twenty-first century American warfare.

The authors appear to go out of their way to savage military decisions they don’t like, but are completely “politically correct” on social issues, and ham-fistedly so. A Chinese-American female character (the only one who can get America’s superweapon to work) is convinced that the United States is going to put her in a concentration camp, and, sure enough, one of the handful of white male characters assaults her because he’s convinced that she’s working for the Chinese. Singer and Cole could have at least introduced that possibility, especially since ethnic Chinese spies are not unknown today for stealing defense and industrial secrets on China’s behalf. (Where are those footnotes?) Instead, they treat the reader to such inspired dialog as when one Navy chief scolds a white male sailor: “If we win, it’ll be because of her. If we die, it’s because of ass-hats like you!” In the real Pacific War, Japanese-Americans were interned in camps, and a largely homogenous American people fought for national honor after a sneak attack. In this fictional Pacific war, an invasion and occupation of an entire US state engender no sizable ethnic tensions beyond (stupid and racist) white male enlisted sailors, and most young Americans care about the war only because China jammed most of the internet. This contrast is perfect fodder for serious exploration, but the authors do not touch these themes at all! Many readers will probably find the book’s social preaching tedious and the unexplored dilemmas a lost opportunity.

Ultimately, Ghost Fleet is a decent book, fit as a novel for a long plane flight or a summer day at the beach. There is good stuff inside, but the packaging is a little weak. Readers should not be surprised if they can remember an interesting technology they might want to read more about but not be able to recall any character’s names when they finish. Only time will tell if Singer and Cole are as successful with World War III as Bywater was with World War II.

Maj Brent D. Ziarnick, USAFR
Peterson AFB, Colorado

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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