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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, 416 pp. 

Ghost Fleet is a must read for those interested in the future of conflict. Imaginative and thoughtful, the authors have drawn together a diverse set of evolving trends in modern warfare—from “hybrid war” to cutting-edge technological developments in cyber, directed-energy, and unmanned systems—and woven them into a scenario of great power conflict in the near future. This is the first time the authors, both senior fellows at two of America’s top think tanks, have tried their hand at fiction, and it works. Peter Singer is a strategist for the New America Foundation and consultant to the US military, intelligence community, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Hollywood, and readers may be familiar with his nonfiction works, Wired for War, Corporate Warriors, Children at War, and Cybersecurity and Cyberwar from his time at the Brookings Institution. August Cole is an Atlantic Council nonresident fellow and former defense industry reporter for the Wall Street Journal. The authors present an extensively footnoted vision of future warfare in all modern domains—space, cyber, land, air, and sea—within a mostly-plausible geopolitical context. Not shy to attack any of the military services sacred cows, the authors show how today’s advantages—aircraft carriers, forward bases, the F-35 Lightning II stealth fighters—can all be eroded with asymmetric means. What is it like for America to lose its forward bases in Japan, its carriers, Guam and Hawaii, and its confidence in the cybersecurity of its systems and to lose air and space superiority in the first move? Singer and Cole present a vision that casts America as the insurgent fighting in the man-down position, and one specific vision of an Air-Sea Battle. What is it like for the perceived weaker power to lose alliances and have to find new ones? Singer and Cole present a clever geostrategic acumen that shows just how fast alliances and agreements can shift. The book presents a post–Communist Party China, where the Presidium, an alliance of military and business leaders rule China and seek to extend its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) into the Mariana trench near Guam, where the country’s deep-sea exploration has discovered a vast oil deposit. Forming a temporary alliance with Russia, the Chinese seek a limited war to push the United States far into the Pacific and then negotiate a new status quo where they will have gained the extended EEZ.

The war begins in space with a reverse-engineered laser that takes out US satellites, followed by a surprise airstrike on US bases in Japan. Missiles descend upon America’s ships and subs. Meanwhile, from disguised containerships in Honolulu’s ports, missiles, mines, and small drones sortie forth to destroy the sleeping fleets and airfields. All communication is jammed, while tanks and troops roll off the container ships to invade and occupy Hawaii (principally to hold it in trade for the extended EEZ). A lone Marine pilot tries valiantly in his F-35 to stave off the swarm of quad-copters and tanks and save a fellow Marine’s life before a hidden compromise of his system hardware makes him easy prey, leaving his fellow Marines to retreat to the jungles. In the fray, one US ship escapes and the captain becomes the central character around which the book is woven. The United States is now in a position of strategic surprise and shock. It has seen its major fleets and aircraft in the Pacific wiped out, loses confidence in any current weapons systems, and finds it has no allies either in the Pacific or Europe anxious to come to its aid. It must decide whether to capitulate or regenerate and fight, and it chooses the latter. While a band of insurgents cause trouble for the Chinese occupation in Hawaii, within the continental United States, the Navy begins to restore some of its mothballed reserve fleet, kludging together old systems with new technology such as lasers and a rail gun. Meanwhile, the highly internationalized US private industry self-nationalizes, creating a deep manufacturing and logistics chain, while Silicon Valley begins their own innovations to attack and upset the Chinese confidence. The United States shows itself agile in an interest-based foreign policy that finds new allies to give it some freedom of action and critical equipment such as diesel submarines and then begins its countermoves to regain the initiative. The elements of cyber war, space, mercenaries, low-tech insurgency, high-tech special operations forces, kludged-together Navy and Air Force come together in an Air-Sea Battle and assault on the occupation forces in Hawaii, where chance and skill decide the match. Above, a battle is waged by privateers and mercenaries for the command of space. The book includes a cast of interesting characters. Included is a gorgeous surfing serial killer; a Star Trek-loving Russian spy; a rather likable Chinese general, who peppers the text with some of the best (and best-applied) aphorisms of Sun Tzu; and a flamboyant tech billionaire who becomes a privateer, marshaling the forces of Silicon Valley, anonymous hackers, Blackwater-style mercenaries, and commercial space vehicles to retake space and cyber. The storyline mainly unfolds through the eyes of two female American resistance fighters in Hawaii, the aforementioned Navy captain, and the latter’s estranged noncommissioned-officer father, as they move first one way and then another across the Pacific as a progress maker for the war. The choice of the authors to give the naval commander the central role gives the reader a steady timeline against which to observe both the fast and slow process of generating air, space, and cyber power—slow in acquisition, modification, and set-up and lightning fast in effect.

The book is fun and entertaining. As a scenario of future conflict, it offers a range of interesting interactions and some important lessons for the strategist and practitioner. Ghost Fleet is a wonderful inoculation against surprise.

Lt Col Peter Garretson, USAF

Air Command and Staff College

"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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