A Novel About War With China Strikes a Chord at the Pentagon

U.S. military officers are reading "Ghost Fleet" as a cautionary tale on how to prepare for great power clashes in the digital age.

AT SEA - DECEMBER 7:  The future USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) is underway for the first time conducting at-sea tests and trials on the Kennebeck River December 7, 2016 in the Atlantic Ocean.The Zumwalt is the largest destroyer ever built for the U.S. Navy.  (Photo by U.S. Navy/General Dynamics Bath Iron Works via Getty Images)
AT SEA - DECEMBER 7: The future USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) is underway for the first time conducting at-sea tests and trials on the Kennebeck River December 7, 2016 in the Atlantic Ocean.The Zumwalt is the largest destroyer ever built for the U.S. Navy. (Photo by U.S. Navy/General Dynamics Bath Iron Works via Getty Images)

It’s on the desks of four-star generals and junior naval officers, and it has found its way on to the recommended reading lists for every branch of the American military. Ghost Fleet, a novel about a future world war pitting China and Russia against a complacent United States, has become fodder for training sessions and seminars at bases across the United States, as well as briefings for national security council staff at the White House.

At a time when commanders and intelligence officials are worried about retaining America’s technological edge against resurgent great power rivals — crystallized in Friday’s release of the Defense Department’s annual report on China — the book has captured imaginations and sparked debate inside the Pentagon. Ghost Fleet has landed at an auspicious time: After 15 years of grinding ground wars against elusive insurgents armed with homemade bombs, the U.S. military is both yearning to get back to its roots in high-end conflict and wondering how to counter old adversaries with new hi-tech tools.

An unabashed, 21st century update of the Tom Clancy thrillers that won a huge following in the 1980s and ’90s, the novel’s action ranges from space, where Beijing has disabled America’s satellite network; to cyberspace, where Chinese digital warriors have penetrated sensitive U.S. networks through the cell phone of a gardener at the offices of the Defense Intelligence Agency; to Japan, where Russian fighter jets and drones stage a terrifying air raid on American bases on Okinawa.

The geopolitical premise of the story is drawn in broad brushstrokes; the book’s meat, and the reason military leaders at all levels can’t put it down, lies elsewhere. In the not-too-distant future, the novel posits, China’s Communist Party has been ousted after cracking down on riots by urban workers. A “Directorate” of military officers and business magnates then launch a pre-emptive attack on Hawaii — with some help from Russia — to ensure control of a lucrative natural gas field discovered deep on the Pacific Ocean floor in the Mariana Trench. The U.S. troops left behind in occupied Hawaii take a page from their former enemies in Afghanistan and Iraq and organize an insurgency, dodging lethal, robotic quad-copters on mountain bikes as they plant explosives and stage ambushes.

What’s struck a chord among both soldiers, spies and scholars in the United States and overseas is the interplay of old and new weapons, how troops react to them, and how they could revolutionize warfare. Most importantly, the story games out just how America’s latest, high-tech revolution in military affairs could leave the country vulnerable to increasingly skilled foes.

The book illustrates “the potential vulnerabilities of the way we’re building the force today, and maybe that we need to be watchful about,” said Gen. Robert Neller, commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps and a big fan of the novel.

With its depictions of troops using medical stimulants to extend physical endurance and Google glass-like goggles, Neller says Ghost Fleet offers a fresh look at how warfare could look in the very near future. “If you haven’t been thinking about this, it kind of opens up the aperture and makes you realize that the future is here. It’s not five to 15 years from now.”

Over the years, other books about war have become “must reads” for Washington’s strategists and decision makers. During the height of the debate inside President Barack Obama’s administration over the war in Afghanistan, opponents of a troop surge cited Gordon Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster to bolster their argument. And during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus and other proponents of a retooled counter-insurgency doctrine sought inspiration from The Centurions, the 1960 novel by French writer Jean Larteguy set during the France’s war in Algeria.

Previously, other fiction writers have helped shape public and official thinking about wars before they’d begun. A pair of H.G. Wells tales predicted elements of World Wars I and II. “Invasion literature,” including The Riddle of the Sands, was an English staple as the British-German naval race heated up at the turn of the 20th century. 

Ghost Fleet, which debuted last year, was written by a military analyst and non-fiction writer, Peter W. Singer, and a former Wall Street Journal defense reporter, August Cole, and will come out in paperback later this month. Unusual for a work of fiction, it’s loaded with nearly 400 footnotes meticulously documenting the real-world roots of the fictional fights.

“It’s fiction, but it’s grounded in hardcore research. Our rule was every single technology, every single trend had to be pulled from the real world,” Singer said.

The book’s account of crippling attacks on U.S. satellites and computer networks, malware infecting the military’s supply chain and Chinese long-range missile assaults — as well as robotic craft operating in tandem with manned vessels or aircraft — reflect the real-world worries and priorities of Defense Department officials.

The Pentagon’s No. 2 official, Robert Work, who has read the book, has repeatedly warned that America’s high-tech superiority could erode without crucial investments in research and development in cyberwar, space, missile defense, and other new technologies. The latest Pentagon report on China stresses that the U.S. technology edge is steadily eroding, even as China makes great strides in creating its own version of “net-centric,” IT-heavy warfare. Meanwhile, even as Ghost Fleet features an eccentric Silicon Valley billionaire coming to the rescue of the U.S. war effort, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has made high-profile appeals to tech firms to work on joint projects with the Pentagon.

But unlike the often mind-numbing non-fiction reports generated inside the Pentagon or at think tanks, the novel allows officers and analysts to discuss some uncomfortable scenarios in a more free-ranging way.

“If it had been presented as nonfiction, a lot of people would have deemed it unlikely or unthinkable,” Cole told FP.

Yet the co-authors said the novel is not meant to stir up fears of an imminent war with China, but instead to provoke fresh thinking in Washington about how to build a military force for the future.

“As we make clear in the book, the story is a work of fiction, not an act of prediction,” Cole said. “Neither of us want a war with China or Russia. We want to avoid that. But you can’t avoid it if you don’t squarely address it. In a sense, the bigger risks for the U.S. are believing that a conflict in the next decade is not possible because of Pacific trade ties, or assuming that we will automatically prevail militarily in a conflict with China.”

If fiction turned to fact and the U.S. found itself in a conflict with China, the four-star admiral at the center of the storm would be Adm. Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command.

While Harris has been a blunt critic of China’s assertive tactics in the South China Sea, calling its massive island-building operation a “great wall of sand,” the admiral has repeatedly said that he does not expect a conflict with China and doesn’t think Beijing is seeking one either. But he is clearly fascinated by Ghost Fleet.

“Just like people don’t read Moby Dick because it’s about whaling, no one should conclude that people are reading Ghost Fleet because it involves a war with China,” Harris told FP in an email.

“Rather, warfare novels like Ghost Fleet help us to question assumptions and prevent complacent thinking that inhibits innovation. How can we take action today to improve our war-fighting readiness for tomorrow?”

U.S. lawmakers and defense industry executives have often cited the threat of China’s military buildup as a rationale for an array of big-ticket weapons. And skeptics will likely view the novel as feeding the sometimes overheated rhetoric about China. But the authors are unflinching about the shortcomings of the American military and some of its high-profile weapons, castigating the F-35 fighter jet and Littoral Combat Ships as costly disappointments. And unlike a Clancy novel, the American-made weapons sometimes malfunction.

The book does not glorify the prospect of a global war, and there is death and destruction on all sides. Although the Americans eventually manage to bounce back thanks to a combination of Wal-Mart logistics, Silicon Valley pluck, and a makeshift fleet of retired warships called out of mothballs — hence the title Ghost Fleet — there is no triumphant ending.

The stealthy USS Zumwalt, the Navy’s new model destroyer that is now going through sea trials, plays a starring role in the story as one of the ships called out of retirement, along with its electromagnetic railgun. And one of the unlikely protagonists is not a soldier but a small robot dubbed “Butter” that crawls out of the ocean on eight legs. The black “lobster” bot sneaks up on a Chinese soldier at nightfall on an Oahu beach, knocking him out with a poisonous dart in the leg. That allows commandos to swim in unseen, part of an advance guard for a counter-offensive to liberate Hawaii.

The lobster bot scene was inspired by a bona fide nanotechnology project carried out by researchers at Northeastern University in Massachusetts. And the novel seems to suggest that devices like the black lobster — agile and innovative but also cheap and disposable — represent the way forward for a U.S. military that has often been too wedded to huge, expensive weapons that take years to build and which are often obsolete soon after they’re fielded.

Although the book has gained traction among military officers, it’s not winning any literary awards.  The authors say they weren’t out to emulate Jonathan Franzen, but rather fast-paced technology-driven thriller writers like Clancy and Michael Crichton.

Perhaps the highest compliment the book gets is within Pentagon corridors. When one U.S. Army general recently wanted office memos written with more flair, he instructed his staff to “ghost fleet” their reports.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy/General Dynamics Bath Iron Works via Getty Images