A Conversation on the 'Next World War'
Strategist, futurist and debut novelist Peter W. Singer recently spoke with RealClearDefense about Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, which is available in stores today. Singer co-authored the near-future thriller with August Cole, a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. A transcript of this conversation is available below.
Who is the intended audience of Ghost Fleet, and what do you hope readers take away from the book?
PWS: A really kind early review by an Army officer described that Ghost Fleet was the kind of book that could be useful for soldiers, sailors, and policymakers, but also that it could be “the perfect companion to a cold beer in a beach chair.”
I hope it turns out to capture that duality. Indeed, that idea of being fun but also purposeful was what drove us in everything from the character selection to the strange, but hopefully useful, idea of the novel coming with some 400 endnotes. These references backstop the story, showing where the ideas come from, but also situate it, showing how the technology and trends may seem like fiction, but are all drawn from the real world.
What is the “Ghost Fleet (pictured above)” as referenced in the title of your new novel?
PWS: Like the book’s concept, the Ghost Fleet is a real thing, but also I think an incredibly cool thing. It’s the nickname for the National Defense Reserve Fleet; the old retired ships that are kept at places like Suisan Bay. It is the Navy’s version of the Air Force’s famous “Boneyard” of old warplanes in the desert. The starting point for us was the real world question of why we keep these old ships and planes around? The answer is, “just in case we ever need them again.” Which, of course, raises the next questions: Why might we ever need them? What kind of war could be so big, so different from today, and maybe go so badly, that we would need to mobilize these wonderful old warships and warplanes? This, then, opened up a narrative candy store of more questions, such as how might the old and new guard of digital and pre-digital weapons and warriors interact (or not)?
Your previous works – Cybersecurity and Cyberwar (Oxford University Press, 2014), Wired for War (Penguin, 2009), Children at War (Pantheon, 2005) and Corporate Warriors (Cornell University Press, 2003) – explored technology and warfare in a non-fiction format. What inspired you to weave new ideas on similar topics into a fictional narrative?
PWS: Through my nonfiction work on the above I’ve done consulting in various fictional endeavors, whether it be organizing wargames for the Pentagon to aiding entertainment world projects like Call of Duty. So I both saw the utility of this kind of deep dive exploration of potential future worlds, as well as got the bug, so to speak, to try my hand at it. That was much the same experience for my co-author August, who used to be a defense reporter for the Wall Street Journal, where he broke stories like the Chinese hack of the F-35 fighter jet program. We wanted to explore the “what ifs” in a whole new way. We also realized that we shared much the same summer book reading list as kids growing up – Tom Clancy, Herman Wouk, Arthur Conan Doyle, William Gibson, etc. The idea of trying to replicate that reader experience for a new generation was exciting.
As a warfare strategist, does the narrative format of Ghost Fleet (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) allow you to “evaluate every aspect of America’s Pacific battle plan, its preparations against cyber attacks, and other future threats (Task and Purpose)?”
PWS: Gosh, that was an insanely great review, and all the more meaningful coming from a veteran’s outlet like T&P, but not sure I could say we hit “every” aspect. So won’t try that. But what we did was choose a format that follows multiple characters in multiple locations, or “domains” in military speak, rather than the standard narrative of following just one character on one journey. There was both a storytelling and nonfiction side for this choice. The storytelling side is that it matched some of our favorite books in this space, whether it is my personal favorite Tom Clancy novel of all, Red Storm Rising, to other books we loved from World War Z to Game of Thrones to Winds of War. You get multiple viewpoints and hooks of reader engagement, and you can treat the war itself as a character. But it also allows you to explore how a war between great powers in the 21st century would be different than the wars of today, for the very reason that it would likely play out across various domains, not just on land. In turn, it allows us to engage many of the various debates out there, from COIN theory to the future of naval warfare to conflict in cyberspace.
You’ve written an engaging, ‘near-futuristic’ war-thriller packed with cutting edge technologies. Yet you also pay homage to the works of master military strategists Sun Tzu, Carl von Clausewitz and Alfred Thayer Mahan. Why was it important for you to balance high technology with classic military theory?
PWS: One of the enduring lessons of war is that new technologies matter, but old lessons can still hold true. Too much of the thinking on war, heck politics in general, is that it takes an either/or approach. For example, the technology in war debate often frames the choice as either new technologies don’t matter and leaders/thinkers deliberately ignore the very real changes in the world around them, or they wildly overstate how everything has changed and you get silly ideas like the Rumsfeld-era concepts that the “fog of war” can be lifted. Technology matters! Whether that something new is a stone or an autonomous drone, the world is a very different place. Both the capabilities and questions of everything from tactics to law and ethics are different than a generation earlier, and often of a class not even imaginable a generation earlier. However, there are enduring aspects that come from the fact that war involves people, and thinking people at that. We bring all our intellect, values, flaws, and downright deviousness into the fight, again, whether it is a world of sticks and stones or space conflict and drones.
Contemporary media outlets report on a future war involving China, Russia and the United States as if it were all but inevitable. How do you respond to critics who might suggest Ghost Fleet heightens this sense of alarmism over prospective confrontations between eastern and western superpowers?
PWS: I certainly don’t think war is inevitable. But, like it or not, and to be utterly clear, I certainly don’t like it, there are real risks of great power conflict today, either their choice or mistake, that were not there a decade ago and future trends bode very worse. A conflict between great powers was very recently unthinkable, and now is quite thinkable, dangerously so for too many. And it is a conflict that would be very different from the wars of today and could go very badly for all parties, including my country. Indeed, I hope that the book helps lay out that risk, and, by illustrating and clarifying the dangers, as well as mistakes that we are making right now that risk a successful deterrence, helps make such a conflict less likely. This is one book of mine that I don’t want validated in the real world.
Its not just that I don’t agree with the proposition that we are being dangerously alarmist with Ghost Fleet, but even more, if critics do want to argue that, I would instead urge their efforts might be more fruitful in other places. For example, while I am a private citizen, who wrote a novel, and don’t think war is inevitable, China’s official regime newspaper wrote, “War is inevitable” if China didn’t get its way in the region. Or, is the problem a fictional book about the risks of a world war, or a real arms race in the region that involves literally hundreds of billions of dollars of spending and new defense strategies targeting the other being released by both the U.S. and Chinese militaries?
Is the risk from a book that warns of the dangers of war, or arguments in China’s regime newspaper by military officers that, “We must bear a third world war in mind when developing military forces, especially the sea and air forces.” Or that many officers [in China] have begun to lament what they call “peace disease,” the experience of never having served in combat? Or, similarly, the opening scene of the novel involves a U.S. Navy P-8 plane on a patrol flight being angrily ordered away by a Chinese military officer. We wrote that scene 18 months ago. It happened in reality last month. Again, is the problem the fiction or the people and trends in the real world trying to turn it into prediction?
What books are currently on your nightstand?
PWS: It’s an e-reader, so it has everything from Martin’s Game of Thrones series to Hornfischer’s books on World War II naval battles. E-readers for bedside and airplane rides, paperback for poolside. But right now, I’m reading Augustus by Adrian Goldworthy. It is a history book that explores how an 18-year-old boy became ruler of much of the known world, and along the way ended a republic that had endured for centuries. It is a fascinating period of history, and, of course, links back to the mix of fiction I love, from Shakespeare’s plays to HBO’s Rome.
What projects will you work on next?
PWS: Wrestling with everything from some writing on what social media means for warfare, to helping to build out New America’s new cyber security project to, most difficult of all, teaching my son how to tie his shoes. It’s a lot like writing: try, try, try again and then hopefully, at some point, it all comes together.