Traveling Back to Look Ahead at the Future of War

The two of us didn’t meet until we were in our 30s, but both grew up on a similar diet of science fiction, techno-thrillers and sprawling war stories. We’d prepare for summer vacation trips by getting a stack of books from the library, that might range from Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and Herman Wouk’s Winds of War to William Gibson’s Count Zero and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Reading a classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle book on the beach might be followed by staying up late to cram in just one more chapter from Michael Crichton.

GIVEAWAY: August and Peter are excited to give away a free copy of their novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. (UPDATE: Katie won). 

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Column by August Cole and Peter Warren Singerco-authors
of GHOST FLEET (June 2015, Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin
Harcourt). Their debut novel was wildly praised by military
veterans and literary reviewers alike. August Cole is a writer,
analyst and consultant. He is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the
Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic
Council where he directs the Art of Future War project. Peter Warren
Singer is Strategist and Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation,
founder of NeoLuddite, a technology advisory firm, the author of multiple
award-winning books, and a contributing editor at Popular Science.
Connect with them on Twitter @peterwsinger and @august_cole.

When we decided to partner on a book exploring the future of war and technology, we kept coming back to that experience of the authors and books that captivated us. So we set out to write a book that wouldn’t just peer into the potential future, but hopefully take people on the classic summer time ride of a smart story you don’t want to put down.

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War explores the risk that the brewing 21st century version of the Cold War between the U.S. and China/Russia could one day lead to World War Three. The idea unfortunately isn’t as far-fetched as that once seemed. After Russian land grabs in Ukraine, NATO is now on its highest alert levels since the 1980s, while China’s regime newspaper just declared “war is inevitable” if the U.S. doesn’t change its policies in the Pacific. Indeed, a U.S. Navy P-8 patrol plane was recently chased away from a Chinese military facility in the South China Sea—eerily similar to an opening scene in our “fiction” despite being written 18 months ago. The hacking of personnel data and security clearance forms from the Office of Personnel Management is just the kind of cyberspying that helps establish backdoor network access and facilitates hardware hacks on America’s frontline weapons.

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The structure of Ghost Fleet reflected this idea of returning to the books we enjoyed. Rather than following one character or a single thread, the story follows multiple characters and settings, akin to the structure of Red Storm Rising, World War Z, Winds of War, or Game of Thrones. This allows us to cover more ground and play with more “what if’s,” as well as treat the war itself as a character. But here also, there was a point in this structure in how fiction can be useful in laying out the underlying truths: the novel lays out how a 21st century war between the great powers would be different than the wars of today. Battles will take place not just on the land, but also at sea and air (where U.S. forces haven’t had to face off against a peer power in over 70 years this summer), and in two new places since the last world war: space and cyberspace. So, to tell the story of the war, you have to spend time in those settings in a way that one character could not with a single journey.

But what makes Ghost Fleet perhaps something different is we’ve experimented with melding two classic book genres, the technothriller and the nonfiction book. Think of Ghost Fleet as a new kind of “novel,” where the story is backed by 400 endnotes that show how real it all is. Every technology and trend in the book, no matter how much like science fiction, is drawn from the real world and documented for the reader. The realistic scenarios and moments that we hope will thrill and chill were actually built through nonfiction research that included everything from unearthing DARPA contracts to sharing lessons from various Pentagon wargames that we organized. Moreover, we put facts to work for our fictions, including using the story to reveal real world concerns from new Chinese drone prototypes to how certain U.S. weapons have already been hacked. Similarly, we met with real people who would fight in such a war (from U.S. Navy destroyer captains and fighter pilots to Chinese generals and anonymous hackers), which not only improved the realism but also let us really get to know our characters.

Even the name reflects this approach. “Ghost Fleet” has a cool, ominous sound to it, but it is actually the real nickname of the National Defense Reserve Fleet. These are the old Navy ships kept in mothballs in places like Suisun Bay near San Francisco, just in case we ever need them again; they are the Navy’s version of the Air Force’s “Boneyard” of retired planes kept in the Arizona desert. Those dusty warplanes get their day too in our book.

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There is a real world policy question of just why we keep these old ships around, which connects to bigger issues of whether a world war could happen again? But this then raises an uncomfortable issue: Could a future war go badly enough for America that it would actually need to bring back these faithful old ships and planes? Answering these questions also led us down often overlooked narrative pathways when planning for future conflict, like how would the old military equipment, and the old sailors who best know it, relate (or not) to the new generation of “digital-native” sailors?

Fiction and nonfiction can be both entertaining and helpful in thinking about the unthinkable. It can be useful, particularly in Washington. We’ve been able to talk about the real world lessons from a novel with groups that range from 600 Navy officers at the Naval War College to Congressional lawmakers and their staffs to the Defense Science Board. We shared early versions with readers who ranged from 4 star Navy Admirals (for the military side) to one of the inventors of the Internet (for the technical side), to the writer of HBO Game of Thrones and producer of The Hunger Games (for the entertainment side). The result is perhaps the strangest ever Venn diagram of blurbs and reviews. But hopefully the mix of genres and fans is one that entices people to check it out, whether they are a military officer looking for future-war insights, or someone just looking for a fun read with a beer in hand at the beach. Or maybe both.

(This piece was adapted from an essay that appeared on John Scalzi’s blog.)

GIVEAWAY: August and Peter are excited to give away a free copy of their novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. (UPDATE: Katie won). 

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