Ghost of a Chance

Review: P.W. Singer and August Cole, ‘Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War’

China's Harbin (112) guided missile destroyer takes part in the week-long China-Russia "Joint Sea-2014" exercise at the East China Sea off Shanghai in May 2014
China's Harbin (112) guided missile destroyer takes part in the week-long China-Russia "Joint Sea-2014" exercise at the East China Sea off Shanghai in May 2014 / AP
• July 31, 2015 5:00 am


Most first novels, it has often been observed, are disguised autobiographies. Only in Washington do you get first novels that are disguised policy briefs.

Ghost Fleet, the work of two D.C. think-tankers taking their first hack at fiction, is an exercise in imagining what a near-future war between China and the United States would be like. It comes complete with an acknowledgements section that opens with the observation "Writing a book is a team effort" (not the case, I think, for most decent novels) and finishes off with 22 pages of small-print endnotes.

These facts should tell you everything you need to know about what the experience of reading Ghost Fleet is like, and ritual demands that I now administer a very firm smack on the wrists of Messrs. Singer and Cole. Their prose makes a general attempt at invisibility, but this attempt often fails. This is sometimes due to a lack of precision ("distant" booms cause characters to "hit the deck") or confusing metaphors ("The problem with high walls, though, was that someone could use an unsuspecting gardener to tunnel underneath them") or, frequently, plain limpness, the kind of jargon-heavy underwriting that will be familiar to those who have read Tom Clancy. Of a Chinese air attack on a Marine Corps base in Japan, we read:

The two planes passed each other at less than a hundred meters. At the imaginary point of their crossing lines, the MiGs dropped four KAB-1500S thermobaric bombs, each weighing just over thirteen hundred kilograms. [Is that a lot? Best check the endnotes…] The bombs opened to release a massive cloud of explosive vapor, which was then ignited by a separate charge. It was the largest explosion Japan had experienced since Nagasaki, and it left a similar mushroom cloud of smoke and dust hanging over the base as the jets flew away.

Those four KAB-1500S’s may indeed have moved the earth, but the description of their carnage here surely does not. Clancy’s influence—the authors acknowledge their debt to him, along with other writers it may have been better not to mention, such as Herman Wouk and John le Carré—isn’t restricted to the prose. The authors adopt Clancy’s technique of rotating the narrative point-of-view, his affection for cliffhangers, and more broadly, his fascination with the technical side of war and espionage.

I should just come out and say that I have a weak spot for Tom Clancy, all of whose books—well, all of those he actually wrote, before writing became a "team effort" for him, too—I read while still in high school. And so I find myself with a weak spot for Singer and Cole, too. They have adopted all of Clancy’s faults, to be sure—beyond what I’ve already described, there are the clichéd protagonists, the risible coincidences that put the loved ones of said protagonists at risk, the plot twists that are not in the least bit twisty. But they have adopted his strengths, too, and Ghost Fleet is a very creditable Red Storm Rising for the 21st century.

What makes the book quite readable for the general public—and necessary reading, I’d say, for those with an interest in national security—is the driving act of contrarian imagination behind it. Singer and Cole have worked very hard to describe what the opening rounds of a not-so-far-off war in the Pacific would look like, and for America, it does not look pretty. China’s Communist party has been overthrown and replaced by mixed regime of the military and business oligarchs called the Directorate. When these men launch a surprise attack—their reasons involve a dispute over natural gas on the ocean floor—they achieve nearly instantaneous dominance in space (thus ending, for example, the ability of the American military to rely on GPS), bomb Japan using tactics borrowed from the Doolittle raid, block the Panama Canal, and seize Hawaii with an amphibious assault. Swarms of helicopter drones released from moored Chinese cargo ships in Pearl Harbor systematically destroy American aircraft on the ground, while volleys of cruise missiles overwhelm the countermeasures of Navy ships, sinking almost the entire fleet. American submarines don’t escape, either—new technology allows the Chinese to spot the radiation of their reactor plants from space.

New technology is at the heart of China’s success—and of America’s defeat. One of the most harrowing sequences in the book comes early, when the pilot of an F-35 can’t seem to shake an incoming missile despite all of the expensive, state-of-the-art countermeasures at his disposal. Turns out, the authors explain, that the F-35’s computer systems had grown so complex that no one noticed the tiny homing antennas for missiles buried deep within, hidden in microchips manufactured by Chinese contractors.

Having lost most of the Pacific, American forces spend the second act of the novel—a very, very long second act—discarding their most advanced gear, all of which has become vulnerable to hardware hacks from China, and determining what innovations will be necessary to retake Hawaii. Old ships have to be brought out of retirement (hence the title) and discarded technologies, like the electromagnetic rail gun for which the authors have an obvious affection, have to be revived. Diesel submarines are borrowed from the Polish navy in return for nuclear weapons—Europe is in no position to object, as NATO dissolved within the first few days of the war. Meanwhile, a brutal insurgency gets underway on occupied Oahu, organized by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who call themselves the North Shore Mujahideen. Their efforts come complete with suicide bombings.

I will leave the pleasures of the climactic third act to interested readers—Space privateers! Robot ships!—and offer only this critique of the instructive fantasy that Singer and Cole have concocted: they are far too optimistic. Totally off the table in their novel are the two most significant factors of any future war between the United States and another major power: American domestic politics and nuclear weapons. As for the nukes, Singer and Cole engage in a bit of vague hand-waving, and suggest that both sides essentially agree to duke it out without using WMDs because both fear total destruction. This is naïve. To switch theaters, Putin has of late been quite open about the place that nuclear threats and weapons play in his nation’s military doctrine, and it is by no means out of the question that our adversaries believe that a limited nuclear strike, carefully executed, might provoke not a devastating and suicidal counterstrike, but rapid submission from a cowed American population.

Which brings us to domestic politics. Chinese and Russian military planners are very well aware that democracies are uniquely vulnerable to foreign manipulation. Witness the effort put by Moscow into weakening the legitimate claims of the Ukrainian government, or current Russian efforts to suggest that the independence of the Baltic states is itself illegal. Singer and Cole spend very little time on the kind of information war that would surely accompany anything like what they are describing, but propaganda’s role will be key. It is distressingly not at all beyond the bounds of possibility that some future Chinese regime might decide that Hawaii is better theirs than ours. But they won’t forget to pretend that their efforts are legitimate and, if they are wise, to hold their strike for a time when America’s leaders are the sorts that, deep down, think American possession of Hawaii is nothing more than an illegitimate imperialist holdover—by definition, a Chinese conquest can be no better or worse.

All of which is to say that Singer and Cole’s long second act, when the United States licks its wounds and prepares for a counterattack, is very unlikely to happen in real life. If our enemies are serious, there will be no second act.

Published under: Book reviews