If the United States and China ever got into a shooting war, it might look a lot like "Ghost Fleet," a new book co-written by Washington think-tankers. Set up as a novel told from the perspective of, alternately, a Navy captain, a U.S. Marine-turned-insurgent and an occupying Russian official, among others, "Ghost Fleet" explores how our military's reliance on digital technology is both an asset and a liability. I spoke last week to co-author P.W. Singer, a researcher at the New America Foundation who studies the future of warfare. Here's an edited transcript of our conversation. The book comes out June 30.
What would you say "Ghost Fleet" is all about?
It is a novel that explores a scenario that is now fictional but could unfortunately be real: the risk of a great power war in the 21st century, the risk of a U.S., a China, a Russia going to war. Except that it's backed by 400 endnotes documenting how every single technology in it, every single trend, even some of the things that characters say, are drawn from the real world. We went around meeting with various real-world people — from U.S. Navy ship captains and fighter pilots to Silicon Valley venture capitalists, to Anonymous hackers, to Chinese generals.
The war begins with a surprise attack by China against the United States involving all manner of cyberattacks and even attacks from outer space. Could such a war really happen?
The scenario is realistic, but it's also not a work of exact prediction. It's still a novel.
If it's a work of fiction, what are some assumptions you make about how the future's going to play out?
Our rule was, "No teenage wizard hormones, dragon's blood or ancient alien technology." So every single technology in the book, every single trend had to be drawn from the real world, no matter how science-fiction-seeming it might be. It can't be dreamware; it can't be vaporware.
What makes the story interesting is how much doesn't go to plan.
New technologies give you new capabilities but also new vulnerabilities. As we've seen from the Office of Personnel Management hack and the Edward Snowden files, the United States has incredible offensive capabilities. But to say we're living in a glass house is to insult glass houses. Last year the military's weapons tester found that every single major weapons system had cybersecurity vulnerabilities. And those were just the things we found! Not the things we didn't know of, which is the essence of cyber.
Cyberwar is not just people stealing James Bond scripts or Social Security numbers — it could be something way worse.
In the book, you discuss a number of new, game-changing technologies for the military. Can you give an example?
The U.S.S. Zumwalt is under construction right now in Maine. It's this new ship that breaks all the old rules -- from what ships are built out of to how they operate. It's a ship that's basically a 21st-century version of a battleship that's made of different materials to be stealthy. The ship is highly robotic: A ship of its size a generation ago would've needed a crew of 1,200. I met with the captain; he will lead a crew of around 130. And that's because robotics will do everything from run the engine room to being the firefighter. The ship is powered by millions of lines of Linux code. It's the only ship in the fleet that's going to toss off so much power that it can mount this other new technology called the electromagnetic rail gun.
Things like automation and digitization make war more efficient, but they also expose us to more vulnerabilities. In reading the book, there's that constant tension. And I couldn't figure out if you were saying, "We should really be careful with this technology, otherwise it could come back and bite us," or "This vision of war could be really good for the military."
It's both. Typically in discussions about technology, it takes these two different extremes. It's the Goldilocks problem. The reality is, we're not going to be able to help ourselves.
We redefine what is normal and necessary based on our familiarity with the technology. GPS is a great illustration. It starts off as a technology the military doesn't want. It's not useful. Then it's, "Okay, it's useful, but it's only going to be used by bomber planes." Then it makes its bones in the Gulf War when tanks use it, being able to drive into the desert where Saddam thinks they'll get lost. Now you and I use it to avoid 30 seconds of waiting in traffic.
And what the book plays around with is, what happens when these incredible capabilities get pulled out from underneath us?
When you go to the Pentagon and have these meetings, do you feel like the military is rushing headlong into this technological future?
The military's so big and so diverse. You have parts of it that are pushing boundaries — the science and research.
The DARPAs. You have other parts of the leadership that's not just trying to pump the brakes, it's literally trying to time-travel back to the past. You can see this debate play out in unmanned systems and robotics, where you have some parts of the military pushing fast on it and other leaders saying, "Oh, we've got a fighter pilot shortage!" We have these culture wars going on everywhere inside the Pentagon.
In 2009, you wrote "Wired for War," about the coming drone revolution. And drones play a big role in this book, as well. What did you get right then? What did you get wrong?
It's funny to go back to that period and think how things have changed. When I set out to write that book, a lot of people thought I was writing science fiction. I remember meeting with a senator and having to explain that there wasn't a person in the cockpit of a Predator drone. Now it's a pop-culture meme.
That's how much has changed. In trying to sell that it was important, I probably undersold how important it was.
There's a lot in the book about space. There are space-based weapons. And there's space-based combat. Do you see the Outer Space Treaty, which bans the weaponization of space, becoming irrelevant in 25 or 50 years?
Space is a domain now that is integral to everything from commerce to communication to everything a military would want to do in conflict. Every great power has not only carried out programs designed to fight in space and deny it to the other side, but in the last year have ramped up those programs. The Pentagon [last week] announced the creation of a fusion center that's going to bring together information so it can better deal with Chinese and Russian threats in space.
So this is not theoretical.
Yeah. And the weaponry and the players that might be used there range from anti-satellite missiles to directed-energy. It was once a science fiction of "Star Wars." Then it was a science fiction of Reagan's Star Wars, because the technology wasn't ready. Now it's becoming effective.
So to answer your question: Would a treaty hold? I hope it would, because space is the one domain we've not fought in. Yet.
The book is pitched as a novel of the next world war. But it's really focused on a localized conflict in the Pacific. When I think "world war," I think of multiple actors, multiple theaters. Are there other sides of this that you're going to explore?
We could do that. But to your bigger point of, is this truly a world war or not — there's a fictional choice and a nonfictional choice. The fictional choice is that there are only so many places you can tell the story and not utterly drain the reader. We chose certain storylines and paths that — you know, one of the other reactions we got was, "Wow, you're not telling the story of the president." We thought it would be more informative to tell the story of a Navy captain or an insurgent behind enemy lines.
So in the canon, there may be other flashpoints in this conflict that we're not necessarily getting a view into.
In the real world, there are political and military leaders that think this conflict would be "short" and "sharp" and always working out for their side. Second, that it would be geographically limited. We explore both how conflicts could very quickly get out of control, because the technology would be global. You can't operate in cyber conflict without crossing borders. And that also points to a way that war could be different. It could redefine the homefront in a whole new way.
If you think war is going to be easy, it'll be likelier to happen. And it's not just among leaders. Polling in China — 74 percent of Chinese think they'd win a war with the U.S. There's a term that translates as "peace disease," which is what Chinese military officers have started to lament having. The idea of, "I've never served in combat, and that's a bad thing." These attitudes are very reminiscent of the attitude before WWI.
There are echoes of the Cold War, but these are intellectual muscles we haven't exercised in generations. We're pulling the bumper-sticker version of it where you see people use terms like "deterrence" and "offense-defense." And they'll use it in a discussion related to cybersecurity, and we'll go, "Whoa, there's an entire literature on this that's contested — and you're pulling this as if it's a bumper sticker."
You can see this after the North Korea (or not) Sony breach, where people were saying, "Aha! Cyber-deterrence has failed, so we need to demonstrate an equal capability to restore deterrence."
It's actually a totally different game. Multiple parties that range from state governments to cyber militias to hacktivists to criminals. Acts of cyberwar won't necessarily happen when you're at cyberwar. The OPM breach is a classic case of espionage — preparing the battlefield. It's not an act of war, but it's the kind of thing that sets you up well for a war.