It’s back to world war again. Last month I reviewed 2034: A Novel of the Next World War. Now I’ll review Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War. What’s that, you ask? Both books have the same subtitle? Yup. Apparently world wars sell books. Since Ghost Fleet came first, it would be the 2034 authors and publisher poaching the subtitle. Originality, anyone?
Anyway, the same Foreign Service buddy who suggested I read 2034 suggested that I read Ghost Fleet, too. It’s one more of those books that is reputedly all the buzz inside the Beltway. This is because, as mentioned in my other review, every war-game simulation run shows the ChiComs winning and handing us our ass. This is basically the premise of Ghost Fleet, that we’re at a disadvantage in a confrontation with China, and the book takes us through the ensuing conflict.
Foreign Policy had this to say about the place the book held in the Pentagon in 2016:
“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 . . . 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.”
I guess that was a time when our military — for lack of a better word — leadership was more concerned with defending the U.S. against real threats than superfluous things like promoting Critical Race Theory, gender equity, climate change, and combating alleged white supremacy. It’s pretty startling the changes that have taken place just in the past nine months in that regard, though I think the seeds of those changes were planted long ago. And now, with the debacle of our shameful Afghanistan surrender and withdrawal, the threat to this country has never been greater in many decades, and yet it is more clear, to friend and foe alike, that we are less psychologically prepared to counter any threats than perhaps at any time in our history. So whether one accepts the premise of the book or not, it is clear that through our exhibited fecklessness and weakness the temptation to our enemies has been magnified exponentially and entirely through our own unforced errors.
The Future as Seen from 2014
Ghost Fleet was written in 2014 and came out in 2015, so there are some clear anachronisms in it. One thing that jumped out was the widespread use in the book of smart glasses that are based on Google Glass, and we all know what happened to that idea. Technology plays a big part in the book and in the war, as one might expect. But one has to question some of that technology. For instance, a Chinese teenage girl is depicted just flicking her fingers to manipulate smart rings on her digital joints and create dire situations half way around the world. Call me a skeptic, but I don’t see where finger flicks could be deployed with sufficient precision to accomplish their goals. I mean, I have a hard enough time getting my tablet to do anything with my fingers on the screen. These things might make for colorful visuals, but I don’t see them working in real life.
Some things, like our dependence on computer chips used in sophisticated military aircraft and machines that are made in China, enabling the planting of spyware and tracking capability in them, is plausible, though others more knowledgeable of such things than I am have pointed out how shielding and other safeguards would largely make such things ineffectual. Peoples’ movements are tracked in great detail by a network of surveillance cameras, to the point where one can hardly take a dump without being observed, and then deadly drones, called quadcopters, come in to take out perceived enemies. Not totally inconceivable, but stretched to a point that challenges credulity. These scenes frequently reminded me of the 2016 – 2018 TV series Colony, which featured an alien invasion of Los Angeles.
As in 2034, technological advantages held by our adversaries help tip the balance toward them. But the question has to be raised whether the answer is simply more technology, more dependence on technology, or whether being smarter about how that technology is developed, built, deployed, and hardened against infiltration is the better approach. Ghost Fleet is almost like a clarion call for those at the top to pour more trillions into high-end technology while it’s also a dire warning against such an approach. The money game is at the heart of Washington politics, but how much does it further expose us to our enemies? And what role should more low-tech approaches play, undercutting our adversaries’ dependence on technology?
One disturbing element of the book is how virtually everyone, on both sides, has become essentially drug addicts. They rely on “stims” and implanted “pumps” to enhance their performance, do their jobs, even stay awake. This seemed superfluous to the overall story line, but it’s far from the only superfluous element.
The Ghost Fleet
The book’s title, and much of its action, centers on the mothballed fleet of ships — the Ghost Fleet — that have been taken out of service and are moldering at various places around the country. Once the war has started, China (actually, an updated version of China, something called “the Directorate,” made up of a mix of business moguls and military brass who overthrew the former Chinese Communist Party following the collapse of Indonesia) and Russia have disabled U.S. communications and surveillance capabilities. The Directorate also invaded, in a sneak blitz attack, and holds the state of Hawaii, where much of the action goes on.
With most of the U.S. Navy destroyed, the Pentagon resorts to putting the Ghost Fleet into action. Especially a high-tech, but mothballed, destroyer known as the U.S.S. Zumwalt — an actual vessel, seen in the image above in its sea trials. Mounted with a new and powerful weapon called a rail gun, this is going to be our answer to the mighty Chinese fleet. And like the lead characters in a TV crime drama running between the bullets but never getting hit, somehow the Chinese don’t see what is going on with its refurbishment and refitting, and then the Zumwalt manages to survive every attack launched against it once sent out on the prowl.
While serving up much of the dramatic and personal action in the book, these two elements — that we’d ever tolerate occupation of a U.S. state without massive retaliation, and how so much reliance was put on a single obsolete naval vessel — further stretched credulity. Throw in an eccentric billionaire who manages to take over a previously impermeable Chinese space station, after the Russians had taken over the International Space Station by locking out the sole U.S. astronaut aboard, and a sexy serial killer whose cleverly murderous ways are directed at the Chinese occupiers in Hawaii while feeding her own homicidal desires, and you have a mix more colorful than plausible.
Additionally, as a former intel analyst, I have to question how the Chinese and Russians could gear up for their attacks without us seeing what they were up to. We can identify specific cargoes being loaded on ships from our satellite surveillance and humint capabilities (assuming someone was watching, which they would be, before our satellites were incapacitated), and that just didn’t compute to me. Or how the Chinese wouldn’t see what we were up to refitting the Zumwalt at Mare Island.
The book has been criticized on literary terms, and I have to say I frequently found the book annoying. There are so many locations, subplots, and characters to keep track of — switching between them every one, two, or three pages throughout the book — there were times I was tempted to throw the book down. Rather than building my suspense, that got to be too much and just irritated me. I wound up spending an inordinate amount of time flipping back in the book to see who a specific character was or what was going on in a given subplot. Also, the book comes to a screeching halt in the middle of the most critical action, implying somehow we had prevailed without filling in the details how we did, and that also annoyed me.
While the book is a novel — at 404 pages, a rather long one — it also has 374 end notes meant to document every detail in the book and intended to lend credibility to it.
I won’t argue that Ghost Fleet doesn’t raise some questions worth evaluating, or that it isn’t entertaining enough in numerous places. But I wouldn’t get my ideas on how a future war might start, be fought, won, or lost, from the book. Or any work of fiction. I’d suggest that our military and political leadership get their heads out of their reading lists and get back to looking in a hard-headed way at world realities. Not that I have much faith that they will.
Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War is by P.W. Singer and August Cole, an Eamon Dolan Book, published by Mariner Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2015 by P.W. Singer and August Cole.
P.W. Singer is a strategist at New America, a Professor of Practice at Arizona State University, and Principal at Useful Fiction LLC. He has been named by the Smithsonian as one of the nation’s 100 leading innovators by Defense News, as one of the 100 most influential people in defense issues by Foreign Policy to their Top 100 Global Thinkers List, and as an official “Mad Scientist” for the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command. Singer is the author of multiple best-selling, award winning books in both fiction and nonfiction, ranging from Wired for War to Ghost Fleet. Described in the Wall Street Journal as “the premier futurist in the national-security environment,” Singer is considered one of the world’s leading experts on changes in 21st Century warfare, with more books on the military professional reading lists than any other author, living or dead.
August Cole is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. He is the director of the Art of Future War project, which explores narrative fiction and visual media for insight into the future of conflict. His fiction writing tackles themes at the core of American foreign policy and national security in the twenty-first century, including the privatization of military and intelligence operations and the future of American power in the Pacific. He is also writer-in-residence at Avascent, an independent strategy and management-consulting firm focused on the defense and aerospace sectors. From 2007 to 2010, Cole reported on the defense industry for the Wall Street Journal.
Photo of U.S.S. Zumwalt by U.S. Navy and General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, via Getty Images. Used under Fair Use.