Ghost Fleet Reveals The Terrifying Future of Warfare

Illustration for article titled Ghost Fleet Reveals The Terrifying Future of Warfare

P.W. Singer and August Cole’s debut novel Ghost Fleet isn’t like any other Future War novel out there. One, they’re not your typical novelists, and two, it’s a novel that’s more realistic than anything else that typically has the ‘Military Science Fiction’ moniker attached to it.

Military science fiction has a long and distinguished history. Early ‘Invasion’ novels such as the The Battle of Dorking and War of the Worlds speculated on warfare in the late 1800s, while books such as Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s Forever War examined the role of the soldier in war. With their first novel, Singer and Cole have put together a book that’s more in line with the earliest wartime novels, and it’s a terrifying narrative that will almost certainly be read by every military officer with a growing amount of dread.


Cole and Singer aren’t your typical novelists: they each work Washington DC-based think tanks dedicated to international affairs Cole at the Atlantic Council and Singer at the New America Foundation. Singer has written several books that are well worth reading: Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, and Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know. Cole has written for the Wall Street Journal and has extensively covered the defense industry: if there’s anyone more qualified to write about the direction warfare is headed, it’s these two.


Ghost Fleet pulls in just about every trend and new technological development associated with military hardware and strategy and puts it to play. At some point in the relatively near future, China has come under a new government known as the Directorate. Tired of the excesses and corruption of the present Chinese government, their goal is to enhance China’s position in the Pacific, and begins to put long-planned strategy to work.

Ghost Fleet opens with an American astronaut being locked out of the ISS as Chinese Taikonauts, armed with an infrared laser, blow key satellites out of the sky. Russia is a nominative ally, and helps China launch a major assualt against US and allied holdings across the Pacific. Pearl Harbor is a literal icon as it’s taken over by Directorate ground forces, drones and armor. Taking advantage of its hold on US manufacturing, the country also works to cripple US technological resources: computer and phone systems are compromised, leaving the US at a major disadvantage when it comes to deploying some of its advanced weapons and systems.


In the aftermath of the initial, literal Pearl Harbor-style attack, the US works on figuring out how to respond. Cole and Singer fragment the narrative into a mosaic of actions: a ship’s captain tasked with leading a fleet of obsolete and high-tech ships out to the Pacific, insurgents in Hawaii drawing on what they learned in Afghanistan, Silicon Valley billionaires, Russian spies in China, Chinese Taikonauts in the Tiangong Space Station and more all come together as events unfold and build to a riveting conclusion.

In many ways, Ghost Fleet is the opposite of another book we reviewed recently, Tin Men by Christopher Golden. Where Golden’s book focuses on the actions of a small, robotic unit, Cole and Singer play it big: they look across the world as World War III erupts, and are more interested in playing with the bigger picture stuff than they are with the actions of a handful of people. For the most part, it works out well, even if the book is heavily laden with names, acronyms, new technologies and more.


What sets Ghost Fleet apart from just about every other military science fiction novel is its reliance on realism. All of the technology present in the book is fairly plausible - I’m pretty sure that I’ve seen examples fly past on P.W. Singer’s twitter feed. But more than just getting the technology right, the pair get how it works, and how it’s integrated into a wartime scenario. There’s a telling scene when one American insurgent talks about how she essentially got her military-grade hardware from a hunting store, and much of the technology that’s used isn’t too far from the end consumer. This is a telling point, especially in a day and age when you can pick up a drone off the shelf at your local store. More importantly, they take to heart the lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan when it came to how effective insurgents were against their better-equipped counterparts.


Above all, Ghost Fleet is a riveting novel, on par with anything Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton might have put together during their careers. The novel is lightning-fast, jumping between Hawaii, Washington DC, Shanghai, the Pacific Ocean and to Low Earth Orbit without missing a beat, and the pair focus in a handful of characters representing the action throughout, even if it’s a bit of a shallow look.

Cole and Singer essentially distill all of the major tech and military trends and put them to use in Ghost Fleet. While a future war might not actually play out like in this book, it’s real enough to be absolutely terrifying: the next iteration of warfare will be more complicated and weirder than we’ve ever imagined. It ain’t pretty.


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I haven’t read this book, so I’m not commenting on how good it is—it sounds like a fun read.

I’m dubious about the article’s conclusions, though. Historically, works of fiction have often predicted or anticipated future wars, described hypothetical battles which end up being similar to real battles, etc. But those works of fiction tend to get lots wrong, too. The Great Pacific War, for instance, written well before WWII, imagined a huge naval conflict between the US and Japan—-but didn’t anticipate the centrality of the aircraft carrier in the Pacific. (Neither did the belligerents during WWII, for that matter.)

I’d suggest the article throttle back on praising this book for showing us what future war will be like. Most wars turn out to be “more complicated and weirder” than imagined. A future war, blending cyber and stealth and space stuff, will have new stuff in it, sure, but that isn’t special to this high-tech age. That suggestion, to me, smacks of the same kind of hyperbole people use to describe the role of social media in modern insurgencies and terrorism—as though such organizations had no ability to communicate over distance or recruit before facebook. All generations think that their technologies are going to totally change warfare, and pretty much all generations are wrong. Wars change, but the changes tend to be changes of degree rather than type, and are highly incremental. (Take WWI. Viewed in isolation, or viewed against the Napoleonic Wars, WWI looks like a sudden leap forward, with planes, mass armies, indirect fire artillery, and violence against civilians. But viewed against the American Civil War, or the Boer War, or the Russo-Japanese War, or the Balkan Wars before WWI, the Great War instead is just a bigger, more developed war than its predecessors.)