By P. W. Singer and August Cole – This gripping thriller about what the next world war might look like has captured the attention of Washington policymakers and defense industry insiders alike. Singer is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan Washington, D.C., think tank, and Cole is a former defense industry reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
Unlike so many other speculative fiction outings, this one is based on technologies already plausibly “in the works,” and the authors provide 374 endnotes to backstop the action and interfere with readers’ ability to sleep peacefully at night. Ghost Fleet is a novel of the post-Snowden world, in which the techniques the U.S. National Security Agency used on others are turned back against the Americans.
The story begins at the International Space Station. Russia and China have declared war against the United States, and a U.S. Air Force Colonel, on a disastrously timed space-walk, becomes the unwitting point of the spear. Oblivious to the political developments taking place on the blue globe spinning below, he finds the ISS reentry hatches sealed against him. “Goodbye, my friend. I am truly sorry. It is orders,” says his Russian cosmonaut colleague.
It’s the initial action in a war fought not solely, but significantly, in cyberspace. Takeover of the ISS enables the analogous Chinese space station, Tiangong-3, to systematically knock out every communications satellite that U.S. armed forces depend on. It soon becomes apparent that not only the satellites are down, all local-area communications networks are compromised, because military suppliers have been using low-cost Chinese-made computer chips in their planes, ships, and communications equipment by the unidentifiable thousands, and these chips are insecure, tiny moles. Only the mothballed planes and ships destined for the scrapyard–the Ghost Fleet–are now safe: “The 707 passenger-jet derivatives did not have a modern chip anywhere, unlike the new KC-46s, which had turned out to be missile magnets like all the other Chinese-chipped gear.” This new top-to-bottom vulnerability of the military, which has become overly confident in the security of its communications systems, shows in brilliant and devastating relief.
This is a multiple point-of-view novel, with short scenes from many locations involving numerous protagonists, though most of the action takes place in the Pacific, San Francisco, and Hawaii, where “The Directorate”—comprising Chinese military, along with Russian elements under their command—has established an important outpost. At the story’s heart are the trials of the USS Zumwalt, an oddly designed, mothballed ship recalled into action after much of the modern U.S. fleet is destroyed—again at Pearl Harbor. The Zumwalt’s newly appointed captain, Jamie Simmons, is challenged militarily and by relations with his estranged father, retired chief petty officer Mike Simmons. Like the vintage tin cans—seagoing and aerial—rescued for the U.S. counterattack, retired military personnel are called back into service, and by some inevitable cosmic sense of humor or irony, Mike is assigned to the Zumwalt.
Other principal characters include: a Hawaiian woman working as a freelance assassin who is tracked by the omnipresent surveillance drones and a live Russian operative; a small team of surviving Marine insurgents harassing the Chinese forces on Oahu; a Russian who attempts to aid the Americans and ends up in a neuroscience laboratory nightmare; Sun-Tzu-spouting Admiral Wang, captain of the Chinese battleship Admiral Zheng He; and a wealthy Brit-turned-space-privateer. Other non-state players also emerge, providing a level of DIY unpredictability.
The epigrams for the several parts of the book come from Sun-Tzu’s advice to warriors, and the one for Part 3 is “All warfare is based on deception.” The levels of deception between the Chinese and Russian “allies,” between the antagonists, and arising from the inability to rely on secure communications is paranoia-inducing. Meanwhile, the roles of drones and robots escalate, which is great when they’re yours.
If you are a fan of techno-thrillers, like I am, this novel is the ultimate: fast-paced, high stakes, well-grounded, and, one may hope, consequential. International readers may be disappointed that the book is so US-centric—a casualty of “write what you know” or a realization that there’s already so much going on, we have to stop somewhere?! The book doesn’t come to a too-tidy conclusion, either, and that is also sadly realistic. The authors use it to explore in a vivid way what might happen and what we should be thinking about before it comes to pass.