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A Techno-Thriller That's Not Just for the Beach in August

Charlie Dunlap
Tuesday, August 18, 2015, 7:18 AM

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War

By Peter W. Singer and August Cole

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2015)

Reviewed by Charles J. Dunlap, Jr.

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War

By Peter W. Singer and August Cole

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2015)

Reviewed by Charles J. Dunlap, Jr.

What should convince busy national and international security law professionals to read a contemporary novel – and, unless we’re sitting on a beach somewhere in August, a pop military-adventure techno-thriller novel, at that? After all, shouldn’t we devote our free brain cells to all the non-fiction articles, books, and blog posts constantly demanding our attention in the never-ending battle to stay at least quasi-current?

Peter Singer’s and August Cole’s new thriller, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, about a high-tech war set in the near future is the proverbial exception that proves the rule. Singer, the thoughtful defense analyst who wrote the highly-acclaimed Wired for War and his co-author, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, have produced a very readable and often disturbing yet plausible – make that possibly plausible – scenario of a high-tech war set in the not-too-distant future.

To consider the book a “novel” in the popular sense is not quite correct. The authors use a fictional narrative more as a platform to discuss the very wide range of existing and emerging technologies that they weave into their story, and that discourse is well worth the investment of time for anyone interested in the “what’s next” in the security realm. An article in the (surprise!) Wall Street Journal a month ago (June 28, 2015) noted that among some DOD strategists and planners, the book is seen less as a novel than as a particularly imaginative and entertaining war-gaming scenario. And one with two important real world aims: first, to foster greater awareness of the national security and defense upsides and downsides of emerging technologies applied to war, and especially as these technologies intertwine with each other. And, second, to foster more, and wider, “push-the-envelope” discussions about what the next war might look like – large scale, interstate war among the Great Powers, not the counterterrorism/counterinsurgency, asymmetric wars against terrorists and non-state armed groups that the United States has fought since 2001. Naval warfare, particularly – in one pointed exchange early on in the novel, the threat of a trans-Pacific naval war is dismissed with the observation that China’s military has not fought a major, conventional war since the 1940s, prompting the tart reply (the justness of which I leave to others), “neither has the US Navy.”

Which is to say, as a war-gaming scenario, Ghost Fleet is not just about imagining new technologies in war; it is also about preparing to do more than merely fight the last war. The novel’s technologies do not emerge solely from Singer’s and Cole’s imaginations; the book contains more than 22 pages of notes referencing what seem to be hundreds of articles supporting the novel’s many depictions of advanced weaponry, technology and more. It is the kind of book that can educate and provide food for thought to a national security geek (not to mention the general public) as to some of the latest technical developments and their warfighting implications - and provide an excellent tool to research them, to boot. In lawyerly professional terms, it’s the sort of book that helps a lawyer understand the ‘client’s’ thinking.

So how plausible are the novel’s many devices, both strategic and technological? Your reviewer will try to avoid giving too much of the thriller away, while still assessing the story as war-game scenario. (But readers are warned: plot spoilers ahead.) The overall plot structure is not especially complex; it’s a techno-thriller, after all. A fictional entity called the Directorate has seized control of China and decides to wage war against the US, with the help of Russia. The purpose of and rationale for the conflict isn’t very clear or, for that matter, persuasive. Who really believes the Russians, with their declining population and a long border with China, would see it as in their interest to have the U.S. destroyed as a counterbalance to Chinese ambitions?

Be that as it may, the Chinese successfully invade Hawaii with forces that are mainly surreptitiously transported there via a couple of large automobile freighter and other merchant ships. Yes, militarily speaking, that is more literary license than a convincing expression of combat logistics, or even how the business of modern shipping operates. Ditto for the notion later in the book that America’s limited inventory of C-5 air transports would ever be used to deliver paratroopers in a contested air environment. And it doesn’t take a military historian to see the story’s deliberate parallels and multiple references to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the politics and strategic build-up to it in the years before 1941.

Moreover, one of the fundamental technological premises of the book upon which the plot is built is a questionable one--that virtually every chip made in China has been maliciously infected in some way, and that this sabotage is not detected by the US even in the technologically-advanced future America of the authors’ creation. The novel thus posits that the Chinese can disable virtually any system employing their chips. This necessitates the American military’s resort to the “ghost fleet” of mothballed Navy ships which were ostensibly built with good old US-made chips – or none at all.

In fact, there are lots of grounds for bona fide objections by military strategists, technologists, logisticians, and other specialists about this or that aspect of the story line. In the end, however, it doesn’t matter much because the book is actually about gizmos that science and technology might be able to produce. “Might” is a slippery word, however. Despite the book’s endnotes, it’s hard to know exactly when Ghost Fleet is about emerging technologies in our world and when it’s pure sci-fi.


The book's future technologies are not just gizmos and gadgets, however. In the world Singer and Cole create, humans are virtually addicted to “stims” – evidently lawful stimulants that enhance human focus and energy, seemingly without side effects. Likewise, implants (frequently computer chips but also biologics) are also standard (and virtual reality lenses are also prominent). Though it may be hard to fit into a book of this type, some discussion of legal and ethical issues suggested by this sort of human enhancement for warfighting purposes would have given the novel additional intellectual heft – especially since this debate is already underway, and sure to intensify in the years to come. Could you order a soldier of the future, for example, to take some tweaked form of amphetamines or Modafinil or some new future psychoactive drug -- or make its use a condition of participation in, for example, a special ops unit?

Though cyberwar makes an important appearance—intertwined as cyber-systems are even today with practically every other military technology--the novel’s dominant technologies are unquestionably drones and autonomous weapons systems. These include the aforementioned combat vehicles that rumble out of a merchant freighter onto the dock in Hawaii. Singer and Cole extrapolate–sometimes (but not always!) excessively so–from actual information and reports they identify in their notes. Readers would do well, however, to remind themselves that it is a novel, and in the real world many technical challenges for such weaponry remain unsolved, and may even be unsolvable. A question hovering over the whole novel, in other words, is the extent to which it is about technologies that are just-over-the-horizon – or speculative science fiction.

Additionally, no consideration is given to the possibility that the burgeoning anti-autonomous weapons ban campaign might gain traction. Perhaps the authors are assuming the obvious military utility of the weapons would result in their inevitable adoption, but past experience with weapons’ bans suggests that emotionalism can trump logic, and that could happen here even though many experts are concluding that autonomous systems are very likely to be more protective of civilians than human warfighters. The question goes unaddressed in the novel as to the likely actual effects of a politically successful campaign to enact a ban on autonomous systems – would, for example, a China willing to stealth attack the United States through cyber-surprise really give up the possibilities of autonomous weapons and abide an international ban, even if it did publicly support efforts through international law to handicap the United States with respect to autonomous technologies?


The book is also not really a militarily balanced one, in the sense of how the United States fights wars through combined services. Rather, Ghost Fleet is about how the Navy wins the war, essentially via decisive surface engagements – something that hasn’t happened in modern times (and likely won’t again). The Army has a scant presence. With respect to the Air Force, the book reflects old canards about the service supposedly being hostile to the book’s beloved drones. And, strangely, the Air Force’s pre-Chinese-chip bomber force is inexplicably absent.

A couple of distracting literary devices are included, one supposes, to make the book more commercial. One is a bawdy subplot about a beautiful civilian who uses her sexuality to trap and kill some Chinese troops who are part of the force occupying Hawaii, only to have it turn out that her lethal motivation has little to do with patriotism. The legal profession plays a minor role in a subplot involving letters of marque, private contractors, and space vehicles. The conduct of the contractors, interestingly enough, is remarkably consistent with international human rights law, though its applicability under the circumstances is not clear. Surprising as well is the fact that the belligerents - on both sides - mostly conform to the international law of war. The book makes a respectable effort to give the characters, well, character, but it only modestly succeeds. After all, it is a techno-action novel that jumps around the globe – and into space - with technology as its real stars. It does portray a resistance force in Hawaii led by a heroic female Marine who is eventually aided – aided, that is, not rescued -- by Navy SEALs. These are, no doubt, the sort of made-for-Hollywood (and politically-correct) details that make Ghost Fleet a potential summer movie blockbuster in a few years.

As with all such techno-thrillers, the real stars are not the human characters, but the technologies themselves. On that score, Ghost Fleet performs well. It’s a fun, quick ‘read’ that Lawfare readers can easily justify adding to their intellectual database, especially on Kindle on a beach in August … assuming the Chinese haven’t yet cyber-attacked Amazon and corrupted it!

(Charles J. Dunlap is a retired Air Force major general who is currently a Professor of the Practice of Law, and Executive Director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke Law School.)

Charles J. Dunlap is a retired Air Force major general who is currently a Professor of the Practice of Law, and Executive Director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke Law School.

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