Technology’s dilemmas: Are we wired to respond?

(originally posted on

What’s the premise of Ghost Fleet?

The book is a look at what would happen if the brewing cold war with Russia and China ever were to turn hot. It is framed in terms of that scenario but the research for it is really about wrestling with what are the key technologies and trends that might shape future wars. It ranged from gathering information on the latest Chinese unmanned systems prototypes to U.S. Navy electromagnetic railgun, to vulnerabilities that are being baked into the Joint Strike Fighter, to interviews with the people who would fight in such a war, from U.S. navy ship captains, to fighter pilots, special operators, Chinese generals, and Anonymous hackers.

To borrow from Homer Simpson’s comment on alcohol, is technology the cause of, and solution to, all of the military’s problems?

It has become fashionable recently for leaders to argue that one of the lessons of the last decade of war is that, as one U.S. military four-star put it to me, “technology doesn’t matter in the human-centric wars we fight.” That assumes a definition of technology as something that is exotic and unworkable. I like to paraphrase musician Brian Eno, who essentially said, technology is the name we give to things that we don’t use every day. If we use it every day, we don’t call it technology any more. Whether it is a stone or a drone, it is simply a tool that we apply to a task.

I think the fast pace of technologic change is our biggest challenge right now. Technology has encapsulated everything from Moore’s Law, when we’re talking about computing power chips, to the Law of Accelerating Returns, which considers technology’s impact on everything from business to battlefield rifles. And we see that its advance is not linear, it is exponential; it’s not additive, it is multiplying upon itself. What we are seeing are all sorts of new technologies coming at us faster and faster with greater and greater power, and that is particularly hard for organizations that are conventional in their form and design – and sometimes their thinking – to adapt to.

There is a vast array of technologies that are game-changers, but while that gives you capabilities that you could not have imagined a generation earlier, it also serves up dilemmas you wouldn’t have imagined either. Those dilemmas are everything from questions of tactics, doctrine, organizational design and recruiting, to law and ethics.

This technological change cuts across every service silo, every government department. Is there a culture change required as well? Is new thinking needed to understand how/where these technologies can best be applied?

Absolutely. We wrestle with that in the book. In cyber conflict, for example, who is the ideal cyber warrior and in what kinds of units will he or she be organized? Is it classic military command where somebody is trained up through the military? Or is it a 17-year-old hacker who is in a cyber militia? What will a group like Anonymous do in this conflict space? Or, if you are looking at small unit tactics, how will an individual rifleman operate? What is the proper size of their unit? How about for an a counter insurgent: is it always going to look the same as it is right now?

Is the current defence industry organized and structured in a manner that it would actually be effective and useful in a major state-on-state war? In the U.S., we turned to Detroit to serve as the arsenal of democracy in the last world war. Could our current defence industry fill that role? Or would we turn to Silicon Valley? And in turn, how would Silicon Valley respond?

We could go on and on. We assume stability in our own structures, in our current technologies, or in what our adversaries are trying to do to us. But that is not set in stone.

I’ve had a vision of a poor colonel trying to herd a room full of Sheldon Coopers, all of whom think they are much smarter than he is and are all questioning his orders.

That is not just a theoretic or funny question for the future. We are wrestling with this right now. How do you design your Reserve system for cyber? The U.S. model, which is essentially to take a new capability and put it into an old box? We’ve taken the National Guard Reserves and said, ok, now you are all cyber. Or is it the Estonian model where they have in essence a militia for their cyber defence corps? Is it the fuzzy proxy actor model that China has with its cyber militia? These are real questions right now that are uncomfortable to talk about.

What do robotics and artificial or machine intelligence do to the speed of decision making? Militaries insist there will be a man in the loop when it comes to unmanned or semi-autonomous systems but does that man, in fact, become the weak link because he can’t make decisions fast enough to respond?

It both exponentially speeds up, but also time still matters. Let me explain that Buddha sounding statement. In whatever domain of conflict you care about, the OODA loop (observe, orient, decide, act) is shrinking to almost infinitesimal scale. In cyber conflict, for example, the speed is digital speed and the human role is moved into a managerial one. It is the same when we look at something like air defence: 30 different nations have systems that are somewhat autonomous in that they automatically shoot down incoming rocket or mortar fire. When you have speed combined with the diversity of data that is coming in, the model of the commander on a bridge of a warship receiving information and delegating responses – a model that has been the way of naval warfare for hundreds of years and it is equally the vision of the Starship Enterprise – that, frankly, may not be possible in real conflict moving forward.

This also has a legal edge to it. The positive role that lawyers have played in putting in a series of deliberations for rules of engagement when it comes to airstrikes and use of artillery, that has worked because we have had the luxury of time in most instances. The other side has not contested us in the air, at sea, in space or in cyber space. We may not have that luxury moving forward.

The point is, yes, the speed is picking up, but the shear mass of data flows coming at you mean that the human role will certainly change and it may move all the way up to commanders.

That’s not to say time doesn’t matter. When we look at corporate experiences with cyber breaches, what determines their success or failure, what determines the cost of the breach, is shaped not by what happened in the moment of the breach but by the decisions they made months and weeks beforehand and in the days afterward in how they dealt with the breach.

In cyber, where there is not an obvious smoking cloud over a blown up building, sometimes your best response may be, to quote the famous military theorists Taylor Swift, “shake it off” and act like it didn’t hit you and leave the other side in question, or study the weapon that they’ve sent, close up your vulnerabilities, learn from that weapon, and then deploy it back. In cyber there is a back and forth of generations of technology, so you want to control the pace of that. So, yes, the decision cycle is being compressed, but there is still a human interaction that is often political or strategic in nature.

We’ve heard a lot in recent years about the strategic corporal. You raise the prospect of the tactical general who now has greater access to all aspects of the battlefield. What does technology of this nature do to clarity of command?

The strategic corporal is the idea of younger and younger troops making decisions that can shape the outcome of the war. The flipside that we don’t like to talk about is the tactical general. It’s the ability of the technology to allow leaders to reach down into the battlefield and not just monitor what is happening at a specific level, but actually make decisions – the shoot or not shoot decision. We have seen it in different ways in Iraq 2.0, Iraq 3.0 and Afghanistan. And we see it both from military and political leaders.

I recall a four-star proudly telling me that he personally decided what size bomb should be on a certain mission, whether to strike or not strike a certain compound based on what he saw in the Predator drone feed that he’d watched for multiple hours in his command centre. He was saying this to show that he was taking personal responsibility, that if something went wrong he would be held accountable, but there was also a little bit of, I’m smarter than everybody else. He wasn’t trained as a JAG or as a targeting officer, but even if he got it right, he’s doing someone else’s job and that person can’t do the general’s job. We’ve heard pilots in Iraq 3.0 say they have never been more frustrated in their careers because of how targets are being vetted all the way up to the level of the White House.

What happens when the network goes down and you have a generation that has been trained this way and there’s always someone above watching and taking over the decisions. What if it’s not like that?

Do you have a sense of what this technology is doing to doctrine, how it is being adapted to this environment?

Earlier today I actually met with a group from the British military wrestling with that very question. Everybody is wrestling with it, including the Russians and the Chinese. One of the lessons I have drawn from my work is that there are many echoes of the period surrounding the First World War. There were a whole series of science fiction-like technologies becoming real and being introduced into war, whether it was the tank, the aeroplane or the submarine, and they provoke all sorts of tough questions for everything from tactics to strategy, to law, to ethics, to doctrine.

Doctrine is not just about what you do, but who does it and what status do they have within that military. So the debate back then over armoured doctrine was not just about the best way to use the tank, it was about what it meant for horse cavalry and the infantry.

We have a similar process going on right now, whether it is with cyber warfare or with the introduction of unmanned systems. I would argue that the lesson from that period that will perhaps hold true is that the winner will not necessarily be the first to get the technology, or the one with the best technology, or the most of the technology; it will be the one who is able to package it together with the correct doctrine. Building and implementing new doctrine is messy and incredibly painful and you don’t know whether it has really worked or not until the worst possible moment.

Has the success of UAVs changed how commanders view this technology?

Yes and no. It is a technology that was once looked at as science fiction more than science experiment. Commanders once asked what it was good for and now it’s the most in-demand system for ISR and strike capabilities, whether it’s ground troops in Afghanistan or theatre commanders in the Pacific.

That said, I was recently chatting with someone who described a battle going on right now between manned and unmanned in future acquisitions, and he noted that manned is winning. He went down a long list of examples of the next generation of weapon systems, such as combat aircraft, where we had a choice and we kept choosing manned again and again. And the reason was not based solely on the capability of the system, but was invariably shaped by everything from organizational culture to big business, to promotions.

This is not unlike the debates in the 1930s over horse cavalry versus mechanized or battleships versus aircraft carriers. You also have Clayton Christiansen’s idea of the innovator’s dilemma, that the first generation of a technology, even when it is a game-changing technology, is invariably the worst of it and has a hard time displacing what is already there. That is the dilemma big organizations typically get caught in and why they get their lunch eaten by some upstart. The question is, is that going to be our militaries?

Is this generational change?

It may be generational but it also points to organizational structures.

In conversations you have had for your books, is there an emerging view as to how we should manage the ethics of robotics, of space or cyber?

I think at this stage we want to identify the technologies that are no longer science fiction – don’t deny them but don’t overplay them – so that we are scientifically informed. And second, we want to have a debate that is ethically informed – not the ethical version of the ostrich with its head in the sand as we saw with past generations of game-changing technology like atomic weapons. We can’t ignore the scientific, the technological possibilities or the legal and ethical aspects. But we have to remember that this debate is taking place within the realm of conflict where both sides get a vote.

I’m reminded that there are a lot of things that we say we will never do, yet we change our mind based on what other actors do or how we are doing in a conflict. I use the illustration of unrestricted submarine warfare. It was once a science fiction technology, then prior to WWI Arthur Conan Doyle writes a short story warning about the risk of an enemy conducting a submarine blockade of Great Britain. The Admiralty goes public to mock him for this outrageous, silly idea, saying roughly: no nation would choose to do this. In fact, if any captain did so their own navy would put them up against a wall and shoot them. Just a few months later, war breaks out and Germany conducts unrestricted warfare. And unrestricted submarine warfare is considered so against the norms of the day that it is the primary reason why the U.S. decides to enter WWI a couple of years later. Move forward to 1941 and the attack on Pearl Harbor: it took us five hours to change our mind on unrestricted submarine warfare. Five hours after the attack, the order goes out to the entire U.S. fleet: conduct unrestricted submarine warfare against the Japanese, and no one questions it.


Reading War With China

(originally posted on The American Conservative)

TAC: So I’m reading Ghost Fleet and suddenly there are all these headlines about China building massive islands in the South China Sea and (Secretary of Defense) Ashton Carter calling on them to stop. Tensions seem to be ramping up and the headlines seem to be cuing the book.

PS: It was very hard to engineer a geopolitical crisis just for the benefit of the book but it worked out (laughs). The book is a mash-up of fiction and non-fiction. It is both a novel, but also looking at the overall trends in technology and politics of the real world. One key issue we wanted to explore is how geopolitics is undergoing a shift. If you look at the 20th century, it was shaped by great power politics, both the world wars that we actually fought, and the one that we didn’t fight but defined the last half of the century’s politics, the Cold War.

After the Berlin Wall falls and then 9/11, that idea of a war between great states is off the table, it’s not even thought of. It’s all about terrorism and insurgency. Conflict doesn’t go away but it’s not about the big boys anymore.  It’s not even thought of.

But now the risks of a big war between great states is back on the table.

With Russia and China and the U.S., you not only have a new arms race but a massive amount of tension and it is scary. I don’t think war is inevitable but that phrase ‘war is inevitable’ was used in a Chinese newspaper just last week … there are some very dangerous [signs] here. What the book does, is that it takes these trends and says ‘What if?’

TACThe Navy especially has been talking about conflict with China for the last several years, in fact it seems to be what the military culture in Washington would prefer. As someone who works both in and outside the defense community here, were you in a sense reacting to that, or are you seeing something else when you wrote this?

PS: I have a track record as a sort of trend spotter. Over a decade ago I was writing about the rise of the private military companies and—five years ago—the rise of the robots in war … This trend is one that I see as both real, but misunderstood. If you look at the raw data, China is clearly rising as an economic, political, and military great power, and we see that in everything from its economy moving towards the number one position in the world, it’s military spending has essentially gone up a greater percentage than anyone else’s in this period. They built the most warships in 2013, the most warships in 2014, they are expected to build the most warships in 2015 and are planning for the most in 2016 and 2017. You sense the trend here.

But there is another trend, as these two great powers engage in an arms race. This added risk is revealed when you look at both China’s plans and U.S. plans. Both militaries are gearing up for something. That is the centerpiece of the new U.S. “offset” strategy, which is about buying a whole new generation of tech to deter or defeat China. And that is at the center of China’s more emboldened strategy, where it is redefining its thinking on “active defense” from close to home to global power.

The problem is that both of them have the notion that any conflict would be “short” and “sharp” in their words and would work out for their side. There are great levels of overconfidence, both inside and outside of government, noting for example polling in China that 74 percent of the public thinks their military would beat the U.S. in a war. This doesn’t just make war more likely, they can’t both be right! One of them has to be wrong and would lose, or it could be that both could be wrong and the war could be draining and long. From a U.S. perspective, I think we are looking at what we can do and not factoring in the other side looking at what we can do and then reacting to that.

…The difference of a World War III is it would see battles of different domains. And you would be competing against states that could have just as good gear as you do—or even better. That could be very challenging, which makes it entirely compelling from the fictional standpoint—and of course scary if there was a real war.

TACOne of the most compelling themes here is that our own technology—the sophisticated weapons systems, ships, planes, drones, communications—can be turned on us so easily by an adversary.

PS: The amazing networked communications, the command and control information domination that we have been able to put on the battlefield—they are strengths that could be turned into weaknesses. For example, we totally depend on GPS satellites. What happens when we don’t have access to that? We have that at play.

But we also have the “own goals” we might score on ourselves—an old soccer saying. We have spent not millions, but trillions of dollars on weapons system that might not serve us in actual great power war. We’ve bought weapons systems that we already know are riven with cyber vulnerabilities. Last year, the Pentagon’s tester found 40 major programs had vulnerabilities. Similarly, we are in the middle of buying warships that in the words of the Navy’s own tester are “not survivable” in an actual battle. We’ve bought a plane that is supposed to be a generation ahead of anything out there and we are seeing Chinese prototypes flying that already look like their twin.

TACSpeaking of scoring goals on ourselves, what does it mean when you are fielding fighter jets in which 78 percent of the microchips in it are made by the people you might end up fighting, which is raised in the book?

PS: That’s not a random number, it’s the exact number in the F-35, that we cite in the book from a DARPA presentation. The risk there is not just someone cuts off your supply line, but you’ve opened yourself up to a new kind of hack, a “hardware hack,” where the other side can literally back vulnerabilities into your systems that you won’t know are there until they activate. Oops, I just spoiled one of the opening scenes.

TACThere is a ton of technology here. I’m no techno geek—and I don’t mean to insult you here—but how much of the technology in Ghost Fleet actually exists and how much is of the “Star Trek” order, where it sounds perfectly real, but has little basis in reality?

PS: We came at it opposite of “Star Trek” in that many of the cool technologies in  “Star Trek” were actually imagined a way to solve production problems on the set. For example, the transporter was created because the prop of an actual shuttle craft would be too expensive to build for the original series. Our rule was everything in the book has to be inspired from the real world—it had to be a technology that is already at the research and development or prototype or even operations stages. It may sound fiction but it’s all footnoted in the index. No Klingon power packs or teenage wizard wands.

TACGhost Fleet is very Navy-centric, why?

PS:  There is definitely at the center, a Navy theme … that’s again reflecting the real world and the fiction that I love. We envisioned what would be different about a war with China is it would involve something we haven’t seen since 1945 and that is a battle between great powers … If you look at China, the military build-up has literally created a modern powerful and soon to be globe spanning Navy … If you look at the next generation of our warships, where are we sending all of them? The Pacific. Like it or not it is a reality. It is an arms race in the Pacific—the U.S. and the Chinese are in a looming Cold War, with nationalism raising the risks. Just as we are talking right now, Foreign Policy magazine released an article describing the U.S.-China predicament as ‘riding the tiger.’

Hopefully (the book) will to shape politics in a way so that the scenario doesn’t come true. That is a difference with the “Star Trek” series—you hope that it doesn’t come true.

TAC: All of this speculation about a U.S.-China confrontation, is any part of you concerned that it merely whips up the war hawks and helps the Navy and defense industry justify expanding their budgets? It might sound cynical but this is Washington, and the Pentagon is still smarting from sequestration.

PS: No, they don’t need my help in that. My concern more is us buying gear that weirdly isn’t that great for an insurgency fight in the Middle East or a great power conflict in the Pacific. We have a lot of what I joke are Pontiac Aztec defense programs, where you try to be all sorts of things simultaneously and end up being bad at all of them individually, the way the Aztec was supposed to be a sports car crossed with a van crossed with an SUV.

TAC: I never asked you about Russia’s role in all of this. Why Russia, and how do you think real-events shaped the U.S-China narrative in your book?

PS: There is an ever closer alignment between Russia and China, and even more so after Ukraine further isolated Russia from the West. Indeed in the last few months they’ve signed over 30 major agreements on everything from energy to cybersecurity and done joint military exercises not just in the Pacific but also in Mediterranean. The problem for Russia is that it is China’s junior partner, who doesn’t want to realize they are the junior.

TAC: Thank you for your time.

PS: Thank you.


How a future World War III could be a cyberconflict

(originally posted on Yahoo News)

Passcode: Your new novel, “Ghost Fleet,” looks at what a global war in the 2020s might look like. How do digital attacks, and defenses, fit into this? 

Singer:  Wars reflect the worlds and technology around them, so a war in the 2020s – heck, a war today – would see the digital side of conflict.

There might be changed coverage of it, whereby a witness with a smartphone might post online news of an attack before the president even knows the nation is at war. We may see true cyberweapons such as Stuxnet used in a battle scenario, not just espionage. And there may be hardware hacks, where the attack is on the very microchips that power our weapons and takes place months before its effect is ever felt.

The irony, though, is that all the digital warfare may have the end result of taking parts of the fight back to a pre-digital age. You may have cyberstrikes and drones, but because of the two sides also going after things like communications and GPS, you may also see their fleets fighting like its 1944 again, struggling first to even find each other. It’s noteworthy that this year the Naval Academy launched both a cybersecurity major – but also is having all the midshipmen learn celestial navigation. We’ve spent the last decade of war wrestling with a flood of data, and the problem could be the opposite: What to do when the spigot gets cut off.

Passcode: In your assessment, who are the main countries and/or players in a future global conflict – and what do their digital capabilities have to do with their chances at “winning” such a war? Are these countries you mention on track to achieving these kinds of capabilities? 

Singer: There are over 100 nations that have created some kind of military unit to fight conflicts in cyberspace, a la the United States’ Cyber Command. But just as there are over 100 Air Forces – and only few able to carry out an air war – the number of countries able to fight a sustained cyber war is much more limited. You’re talking less than 10, with the focus of the book being on the two big powers that have lined up against each other and are engaged in an arms race right now in both physical weapons like warships and now cybercapabilities: The US and China.

But it is not just the official states that matter. It could be China’s massive cyber militia tied into its universities. Or private companies that can play an active role in 21st century conflicts, including in cyberspace, which means you might see new versions of “Cyber Blackwaters.” Or hacktivist collectives such as Anonymous. In any case, they represent a very different kind of power than we saw the last time the great powers went to war, and one that could be the key to winning or losing.

Passcode: What does winning – or losing, for that matter – look like in a future cyberconflict? 

Singer: It’s a lot like any other conflict, using the tool to achieve your aims and preventing your foe from reaching their goals. What is interesting, and scary, about cyberconflict is how it allows certain trusted strengths to be turned into weaknesses, and how success or failure in this realm can decide winning or losing in other realms.

Passcode: People warn all the time about the potential of a “Cyber Pearl Harbor.” But countries have so far showed real restraint in the use of destructive – or potentially fatal – cyberoperations. Science fiction aside, what do you think are the realistic chances we’ll see a cyberattack of this scale in the future? What kind of scenarios would you predict have to happen for the cyberespionage and hacks we’re seeing today to escalate to that level?  

Singer: Cows killed more Americans last year than ISIS. And the hackers linked to the OPM breach only stole digital information rather than caused physical damage. But that doesn’t, however, mean that ISIS is not a real security risk in way that cows are not – nor that there will never be damaging cyberattacks. It’s simple: The reason there is no cyber war right is that there is no actual wars right now between states with cybercapacities.

The reason we have seen this restraint in cyber operations between say the US and China, or the US and Iran, is the very same reason they aren’t dropping actual bombs on each other: Because the two sides are not at war.

But if they did go to war, which could happen for any number of reasons, accidental or by choice, of course you would see cyberoperations against each other that would be of a different kind of scale and impact than we’ve seen so far. The first Cyber Pearl Harbor might happen from a a decision to reorder the global politics in the 2020s, or it could happen just because two warships accidentally scrape paint over some reef in the South China Sea no one can find on a map.

Passcode: Why fiction? Why the shift from nonfiction writing on cybersecurity into this realm?

Singer:  Fiction allows you to dial the timeline forward, to explore the “what ifs.”

So, to take the above, what if there was an actual war between the US and China? What would the cyber side of the conflict look like? Or, to use another example, as a journalist, my coauthor August Cole helped break the story of the F-35 fighter jet program being hacked. What is the impact of that? Or, Passcode has explored in detail the surveillance debate. What is the nature not just of our attack capabilities, but also our vulnerabilities? For example, one of the early scenes in the book looks at just that risk, how certain hacks from the Edward Snowden files that we’ve deployed against others could be used back against us – including even our own intelligence agencies.

Fiction is also fun. We had a great time building the cast of characters and the plots. One that was both informative and fun was to use the book to tell the story of the real history of Silicon Valley that most people don’t know – it started as a Navy blimp base! – and then play with the possible role Silicon Valley might play in a future war. This fun and informative mix, in turn, might make the real world lessons from the book more likely to be read by a wider audience. We hope.

Passcode: Your book is fiction but it also has hundreds of footnotes based on true events and technologies. What can analysts – and interested people – project from science fiction about real-life future conflicts in cyberspace?

Singer: We used the references to situation the fiction in the real world. Every single technology and trend in the book, no matter how science fiction sounding, is drawn from reality. This means everything from stealth warships to autonomous robotics to smart rings to brain machine interfaces. We’ll see these all in the real world and our conflicts.

But, for me, the best stories are the ones that explore broader human lessons and dilemmas, whether it’s the way that advanced technology brings new capabilities but also new questions to the issues of what is and is moral in war. I remember one time talking to a NASA scientist who said the best science fiction didn’t tell you how to build the bomb – it told you that if you build the bomb, you also risk getting “Dr. Strangelove.”


How Ghost Fleet Nails The Perfect Vision of World War III

(originally posted on IO-9)
io9: How did this project come about, and what were you trying to achieve with the book?

P. W. Singer: August and I first came into contact working in the national security business, he as a defense reporter and myself as a policy analyst. Along the way, we became friends and realized we both loved many of the same reading experiences growing up, vacations by the shore reading everything from Tom Clancy to Arthur Conan Doyle to William Gibson. We had a kernel of an idea that actually started from a point of curiosity in both the fictional and real world sense that then rippled into a series of questions: What are the risks of a world war in the 21st century, how would it be different or the same as the wars of today and yesterday, and, could you write a grabbing book about it that echoed back to the books we’d grown up loving? That led to the novel idea of writing a novel with endnotes, where it would read like a technothriller but be drawn from real world technology and trends in motion.

Our hope is to hit that sweet spot, to write a book that will be useful in laying out the issues and tech but also make some kid (or adult) on summer vacation stay up too late, racing to finish the book.

Given that this is a collaborative work, please tell us about the writing and research process. How did your differences in background and experience compliment each other?

Singer: It was a lot like one of the key technologies in the book, 3-D printing. We started with an idea, turned it into a design, then one would build it out and add content. Then the other would take the draft and layer on more content but also shave and change some of the design. Then back and forth, back and forth, adding, changing, and cutting, until this really complex structure was built.

August’s journalist background really aided in terms of honing in on a story, and finding ways to get to the heart of the matter rapidly. I think my background in big trend spotting, whether it be in tech or politics, was an aid. The wild card perhaps was also my work, not just with the Pentagon but with the entertainment industry, notably various scifi movies and TV and Call of Duty.

Our editor was someone I had worked with for my nonfiction book Wired for War, and his reaction to a particularly grand, cinematic scene in the book, was “I can really tell you’ve been working with Hollywood.” He’s a classic book editor, the best in the business of NYC publishing, so not sure if that was meant as a 100% compliment, but we took it that way.

Ghost Fleet reads like a scifi thriller and as a foresight exercise. But it could also serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy; how much of an influence could the scifi portrayed in this book have on the real world?

One of the amazing experiences with the book so far is how far it is resonating. I’ve been able to brief groups that range from the Defense Science Board to 600 Navy officers about the real world lessons from the book in areas that range from the future of war to autonomous robotics to 3D printing. Indeed, today I spent almost three hours with a group of U.S. Air Force officers at the Pentagon. And again, it’s a novel and the book isn’t even out yet!

Our hope, however, is different than the typical nexus between science fiction and the real world. It’s inspiring certain policies to be made, certain mistakes to be corrected, so that part of the book may come true, but, in so doing, help keep the overall story a work of fiction. That is, the best outcome of the book is that it helps keep its story of a future world war from ever happening.

The story portrays a conventional war between the United States and China. Given that we live in the atomic era, how plausible is it that the next big conflagration can avoid the use of nuclear weapons and assume the mode of a conflict reminiscent of the Second World War?

The nuclear version of a Third World War would make for a far less interesting and shorter book: War Begins, Big Bang, Everything Glows.

In all seriousness, the book explores the potential of a conflict and how the two sides’ plans interact, both now but also a decade out. Both militaries are planning for various contingencies, including a conventional conflict, just as the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. did. It is not just that leaders may not choose to go down the nuclear pathway, but, as we explore in the book, the cross with cyberwarfare raises new wrinkles for nuclear options, too.

Can you explain your choice to pit the U.S. against China?

Two words: Red Dawn.

If you want to do a realistic look at great power conflict, you have to place it between great powers. You can’t cop out like the Red Dawn remake and have it be something silly like North Korea.

I don’t think war is inevitable between the U.S. and China, but they are the two leading political, economic and military superpowers, both of whom have now military strategies focusing on the other and are engaged in a growing arms race in everything from fifth generation fighter jets to warships to cyber weapons. Oh, and statistically, great powers have gone to war against each other 73% of the time in history. So bottom line, the once unthinkable is very thinkable.

Tell us about some of the more fascinating and futuristic technologies portrayed in the book.

As one reviewer joked, it is more difficult to think of a new or looming tech that isn’t in the book! We gathered everything from DARPA contracts to visited consumer trade shows to documented Chinese military lab research. So the tech in the book includes the next generation of military gear, such as details on various future types of weapons like electromagnetic rail guns to warships like the Zumwalt, which a Navy Admiral joked would be the ship Batman would choose for himself to now not-so secret Chinese stealth drones.

It includes civilian tech like electronic ink tattoos to the future of VR and the smart rings that might soon replace your mouse and touchscreen. To tech that both the military and civilian world will be using that might range from where Google Glass eventually ends up to brain machine interfaces which has been used in everything from medicine to gaming, but will have a far different role in war.

A theme that runs through the novel is the use of older, legacy technologies and systems. A lot of what you guys talk about pertains to futuristic technologies, but all wars feature old-timey stuff as well. 

The next world war, like the last ones, will see all sorts of new technology that was recently science fiction make its debut. Back then it was things like the tank or atomic bomb, both of which H. G. Wells played with. In Ghost Fleet, its technology that ranges from autonomous robotics to AI battle management systems. But the story of tech in war is also evolutionary, a survival of the fittest, the best of last wars also stays in. So, there is also likely to be a role for IEDs, which was insight we gained from sessions with military experts. Or, another of our storylines follows a killer as they navigate their way through a city policed by all the latest high tech surveillance tools, from drones to DNA tracing. And yet they still figure out to how elude detection and kill in low tech manners.

Which of these technologies are poised to be the most disruptive? Which have the potential to make war more “humane”, and which are poised to do the exact opposite?

I don’t know if we can answer that yet, but there are definitely a variety of technology that is disruptive in everything from the next tactics used in battles to who can do the fighting. Take robotics for example. There is a scene in the book that looks at what a next generation dogfight might look like. For it we sought the guidance of U.S. Navy and Air Force fighter pilots. But it wasn’t just about what moves they might pull, but also exploring the very conflicted feelings they have about drones sharing the skies with them. Or will the ideal cyber warrior be someone at the NSA or a teenaged Chinese university student or a Silicon Valley geek or an Anonymous mask.

As far as “humane,” my own take is that war is, by definition, a human endeavor. No matter the technology being used, whether it’s a stone or a drone, war is driven by our human desires, and usually mistakes, and comes with truly awful human costs. Thus, what makes it human is what also makes it inhumane.

In your opinion, what’s the scariest scene in the book? 

The “interrogation” scene with the brain hack. It is spooky to me on so many levels, from the idea of a technology originally designed to aid people being used to cause pain in entirely new ways to how it plays with classic philosophical and science fiction themes like the manipulation of memories and a person’s sense of what is real or not. And, like everything else in the book, that scene may read like science fiction, but the technology used in it is all drawn from the real world.

Ghosts in the Machine

(originally posted on

What if?

Those two words form the foundation of the best fiction, when writers explore the dark corners of imagination and peer deep into the recesses of our greatest fears. No two words convey more brilliantly haunting images. From H.G. Wells to Asimov, from Ray Bradbury to Tom Clancy. What if?

With their new techno-thriller, Ghost Fleet, Peter Singer and August Cole take an unexpected twist on the classic Clancy formula, producing a book that is equal parts science fiction and science fact. But, unlike Clancy, there is no (spoiler alert!) happy ending. Heroes fight and die, machines rise and fail, and America finds herself at her most vulnerable in centuries.

The book is a ‘must read’, the kind of book you read in a day and relentlessly turn page after page. But the book isn’t nearly as interesting as the authors themselves. No two more unlikely writers have leaped to the top of the genre, yet they sit atop a veritable mountain of techno-thrillists. How did they get there? What was there inspiration?

Let’s find out for ourselves…

1) You’re a couple of think tank boy geniuses. Why write a book?

AC: A novel is one of the best ways to explore at the big ideas, complexities and grey areas that are overlooked. A good book is accessible too so you reach people who might never have thought about the issues we’re writing about, like the next world war. When the delivery of Ghost Fleet hardcovers hit my porch the other day, I stared hard at those boxes before I could even touch them. There was a lot more than books in those boxes for me. This has been a lifelong dream — to write something that could conjure the experience I had with Red Storm Rising a long time ago.

PWS: First, thank you for calling us “boy geniuses.” Does that mean we get characters in an upcoming Doctrine Man episode? I’ve written several nonfiction books, but we went the route of “fiction” (noting it still has some 400 endnotes to show how it’s all real) because you can move the dial forward and explore certain “what ifs” that you can’t easily in a traditional book. There are also certain truths that can be told via fiction. Finally, you might be surprised, but a novel is more likely to be read than a typical thinktank product, not just by people on the way to the beach, but even by senior leaders. It’s a lot easier for a staff officer to pass this one to the boss to read on the plane than say an edited volume of thinktank policy reports.

2) What were your literary influences on your writing?

AC: I had a steady diet of science fiction and thrillers as a kid. All that Asimov and Bradbury got mixed up with Tom Clancy, William Gibson. I really like Norman Mailer’s writing and John Le Carre’s characters are tailored with more care than Savile Row’s best artisans.

PWS: George RR Martin, the writer of Game of Thrones said, “All authors are readers first and all of us write the sort of books we want to read.” So, for me it was writers like Martin, Clancy, Herman Wouk, Max Brooks, Sir John Hackett, etc. That also shaped the decision not to follow a single character, but rather multiple characters in multiple locations, a la Game of Thrones, Red Storm RisingWorld War ZWinds of War, etc.

3) Okay, no kidding now. Who wrote which parts of the book?

AC: A lot of people think it’s odd to write a novel with two authors, but when you think about how movie scripts are written, teaming is common. It worked great for us, and we will do it again. The best way we can describe it is like 3-D printing.

PWS: A lot of people think it’s odd to write a novel with two authors, but when you think about how movie scripts are written, teaming is common. It worked great for us, and we will do it again. The best way we can describe it is like 3-D printing.

4) The Army was noticeably absent from the book. What did we do to you?

AC: The big challenge for this book was how much we did not get to show of our world. It sticks with me, and it’s not just a specific Army storyline that did not get to center stage. With a book like this you only get so many pages. The Army is indeed there in the future world, and you’ll be happy to know that it’s following Doctrine Man’s sage advice and those yellow safety belts are no longer necessary, but our camera did not follow them through our story.

PWS: There was a story line about a plucky Army officer, who secretly has a cartoon, but the editor chopped it for being unrealistic. I think it’s there, just not in the way you expect. The book explores today’s debates over counterinsurgency, just with the script flipped. So we engage with things like the difficulty of winning hearts and minds, or how technology isn’t a solution, but we also got to play with what have US troops learned in the wars of the last decade, including from the other side, and how might we use them back. Some of the insights for this for example came from discussions with Army officers recently back from tours in the sandbox.

5) Reading your book was like talking to Tom Clancy’s evil doppelganger. What made you focus on future tech gone wrong?

AC: We don’t think about this often enough. Doing so helps you work through problems before they happen. With a novel, you can reach a wider audience to raise awareness of uncomfortable truths — and hopefully inspire solutions.

PWS: There are a lot of assumptions baked in our strategy and technology today, notably that we’ll always be technologically ahead of the other side, and that everything will work the way we plan. Murphy’s Law, Moore’s law, and Clausewitz’s Law would beg to differ. This is a novel, but it explores how if we don’t watch out, we could be setting ourselves up for an epic fail.

6) On the subject of technology, are we mortgaging our future warfighting capability with trillion-dollar weapons programs?

AC: That’s a real risk. There was traditionally a lot of enthusiasm in defense circles for spending more and adding complexity to systems, even in the name of saving money, because we felt as a nation we could buy technological dominance. No longer. We might be better off with a cheaper and simpler approach that is more in line with commercial world development models or flat-out improv engineering pushed down to the user and operator level.

PWS: The problem may not be how much we are or not spending, but what we are we spending it on. There are a lot of Pontiac Aztec acquisition programs, which try to be all things to all people, and end up being overpriced and under performing. There is also a lot of what we think of as “new,” which are actually programs that date back to before the iPod, let alone the iPhone.

7) Speaking of technology, how do you see drone tech evolving over the next 25 years? Is the age of manned flight coming to an end?

AC: I gave Pete’s family a drone for Christmas. It hasn’t paid me a visit yet, but in a couple decades it might be able to. I see manned-unmanned operations as the paradigm that will emerge, even if we go through an ‘end of manned flight’ era.

PWS: It won’t be the end of manned flight, but the monopoly of manned machines is certainly over. You don’t have to wait for World War III for that; all the sides in the current Iraq fight have used drones, including ISIS. The future is the mix of manned and unmanned and also a wider range of uses and users. The book is a novel, but it’s been used in discussions with Joint Staff teams to the Defense Science Board, as it actually documents over 30 different real robotics programs that will likely play a role in the next war….just not always in the way people expect.

8) Two platforms figure significantly in the book, the F-35 and the LCS. What drew your focus to those two systems?

AC: These are important new systems that haven’t been battle tested yet, so we did that. The Pentagon has placed big bets on them too, financially and operationally. In a sense, the book can be seen like a red team exercise. They also help contrast with the wartime innovative approaches we highlight toward equipping and fielding that are nothing like our normal peacetime weapons buying process. You buy one thing, fight with another.

PWS: They feature prominently, but don’t spoiler alert on how they fare…

9) The F-35 has been called a fifth-generation fighter with fourth generation weapons and stealth. What do you think a true fifth-generation airframe would look like?

AC: Asking a writer how to build an airplane is a recipe for … success? I think about what I would want it to do first with a big task like that and that is to really understand the role of the fighter in our operations during the next 10–15 years. This touches on the role that design theory can have in the defense arena and I see a lot of possibility there. That might lead to optionally manned aircraft as a viable idea, though the economics of that approach seem daunting.

PWS: It might have a gun that works? A bigger issue for the “generation” discussion is that it was supposed to move us a generation ahead. But when August was at The Wall Street Journal, he broke the story on how the F-35 program was hacked multiple times. We’re already seeing its Chinese doppelganger, the J-31, take flight before the plane that was supposed to be a generation ahead serves in our forces. This isn’t to beat up on the F-35 or say that we shouldn’t buy it, but rather to understand that investment in generations may not deliver the same bang for the trillion buck.

10) There is a growing belief that the carrier is too expensive and too vulnerable for future warfare. How do you envision a future naval force?

AC: The aircraft carrier will endure, quite literally given the service life of our current ships in development, but we may see the mission set they own fulfilled by variations on what we see as a carrier. Could you have an autonomous ship operating a swarm-like air wing? Yes. It would be interesting to think of it like the small-sat paradigm emerging in space; there’s room for big satellites that cost billions, but smaller, distributed platforms can do many of those jobs for a lot less money and with more efficiency.

PWS: We’re committed to the carrier. Period. The Navy is not going to evolve away from it anytime soon. But I think we’ll see existing warships revolutionized in new ways. Think of the B-52 as a parallel, how a plane designed for strategic nuclear bombing is now doing close air support because of GPS. Especially with drones becoming smaller and autonomous, the “carrier” might also soon be anything from a Ford class aircraft carrier to an America class amphib to a Zumwalt class super destroyer (not the official class, but Star Wars parallel intended) to an LCS to a submarine.

11) A war with China sets the backdrop for the book. Do you think war with China is likely? Does China really want to fight us?

AC: This book is about destiny. For our characters, and our country, and with China. China wants to return to a position of global strength. As XI’s Chinese Dream shows, the Party wants this very badly. Our future China is a different China than today’s Party-led government and it wants this even more. It sees war opportunistically — as a fast-track to the world it feels the nation deserves.

PWS: I don’t think it is inevitable, but it is notable that the Chinese regime’s newspaper recently said “War is inevitable” if the US doesn’t change its policies in the Pacific. It may be posturing, but it does illustrate how a great power war, which too many think is an impossibility, is back in the realm of the possible, either by design or accident. It’s also notable that many Chinese officers lament what they call “peace disease” that they haven’t served in combat, while over 70% of Chinese public in polling believe they would win in a war against the US. Whether realistic or not, it is not good a good context for peace.

12) The Terminator reboot is just around the corner. SkyNet is already active. Should we be concerned with the evolution of artificial intelligence?

AC: Concerned but not fearful. This is a case where art is giving us a good head start on reality, so we should be able to figure this one out. Unless AIs are already writing all those sci-fi novels and video games and we just don’t know it yet.

PWS: AI will be designed by us, so it will have all our flaws. So the minute it tries to take over the world, I expect the software to crash like it does every time you hit save on an important memo. In all seriousness, one of the things the book looks at is the increasing integration of AI into battle management. We think of AI as Skynet, when it is really the decision aid software now used in Army command posts and on Navy bridges.

13) You’ve had the opportunity to work with and around some of the greatest thinkers of our generation. Who stands out as the most insightful?

AC: He’s going to flinch when he reads this, but it’s Peter Singer, heard of him? A genuinely good person while being prodigiously thoughtful and resolutely professional — a combination that is hard to find and a privilege to work with.

PWS: He clearly means the other Peter Singer, my nemesis (the other writer I am often confused with, who founded the animal rights movement). My dissertation advisor was Sam Huntington. We didn’t see eye to eye on various politics, but he was a master at drawing insights across various fields and drawing them out in a way that was both substantive, but also understandable.

14) Who were your greatest influencers in life?

AC: This is where you say your parents, but I mean it: My dad introduced me to the work of the photographer Robert Capa. My mom was a librarian and gave me a love of reading authors like Ray Bradbury. Steven Pressfield’s guidance and advice in his books on creativity, as well as his novels, are one of my biggest inspirations. I followed his plan: work hard, and harder yet. It worked. I am from Seattle but I think of the Texas wisdom from my former mentor at The Wall Street Journal, Lynn Lunsford, just about every day even though I haven’t worked in a newsroom with him for a while now.

PWS: He said parents, so I will say grandparents and wife. My grandfathers, for example, gave me by sense of history and sense of wonder and sensor of humor. When I look at the totems in my office right now, for example, there is a 1939 Jane’s Fighting Ships from when my grandfather served on one of the Lend Lease destroyers. My wife is my enabler, in the best possible meaning. She urged and supported me to explore these issues and take this risk, and also did various cool things like build our book website (she’s the true tech geek in the family).

15) What motivates you? What is your passion in life?

AC: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a diplomat. Specifically, since this was late years of the Cold War, to Russia. So I went out and learned Russian, getting picked up from some skate spot to go meet a Univ. of Washington grad student tutor. I was like 12. My original interest in journalism, writing, and conflict, and how to avoid it, grew out of that impulse and it carried me a long way. I have a lot of interests, as the bike tires and ski wax cluttering my basement reveals, but my sense of purpose in my different kinds of work I do is still tied to that original impulse.

PWS: I love to be fascinated. Whether it’s a new technology, new book, or TV show, or just new argument, it is the unexpected that engages me.

16) What makes you laugh?

AC: My kids are still trying to make sense of the humor I share with my wife, who grew up with two brothers so she knows how to laugh. She works in a tough field, so she needs comedy to help put some distance between her work and her home life.

PWS: Goodness, everything from my kids and the silly things they do to YouTube clips to TV shows. Silicon Valley right now, for example, just slays me.

17) What was your favorite comic or comic book as a kid? Why?

AC: The Watchmen really shook me, for its unflinching darkness. But I really liked Scout, another dystopic post apocalypse series, Strikeforce Morituri, about a force of human soldiers who got superpowers to fight aliens but a reduced lifespan, Rogue Trooper, about a futuristic soldier roaming a wasteland with his “deceased” former teammates uploaded into his gun and other battle kit.

PWS: I wasn’t a comic book kid growing up. I was more World War II history, technothrillers, and science fiction. So it was more likely to be John Keegan’s 6 Armies at Normandy, Audie Murphy’s To Hell and Back, Tom Clancy Hunt for Red October, Harold Coyle Team Yankee, or Heinlein’s Starship Troopers than Superman or the Flash. Does that make me more or less of a nerd? (DM’s Note: While I prefer to reserve judgment, these tastes in a child are probably harbingers of a Dexter-like adulthood.)

18) iPad, tablet, or old-fashioned books made from dead trees?

AC: All three. A time and a place for everything. The words matter the most.

PWS: iPad on the plane so that I don’t have carry so much, dead tree book at the beach, because of sun and sand.

19) Tell e about the last good book you read?

AC: The Peripheral by William Gibson; War Stories, a sci-fi anthology edited by Andrew Liptak and Jaym Gates; The Lion’s Gate by Steven Pressfield.

PWS: Augustus, by Adrien Goldsworthy. It’s a history book about how this young teenager rose to end a republic that had endured for centuries to become the first emperor of the Western World. It should be fiction when you pull back and think of the hugeness of that.

20) What’s next?

AC: Another book together!

PWS: A book about the next, next world war?

Exploring Cyber Weapons of the Future and World War III with the Author of ‘Ghost Fleet’

(originally posted on

VICE: Your book is about the next world war—how it starts, the very colorful cast of characters involved in it, and the terrifying consequences. What gave you guys the idea at the heart of the book? 
Peter Singer: The title of the book, Ghost Fleet , isn’t just cool, it’s the nickname of the real fleet of old “mothballed” ships we keep in the places like Suisun Bay near San Francisco. It’s the Navy’s equivalent of the Air Force’s “Boneyard” of old retired fighter jets in the desert. We grew fascinated by the idea of, Why do we keep these old ships around? What would ever cause us, in the real world, to have to bring them back into service? Well, the answer would be the kind of major war that we haven’t fought since World War II. That then offered up the idea of exploring that: Could such a major war happen again? What would a 21st century world war look like? Who would fight it, not just the nations, but the people?

Without giving anything away, one of the main “bad guys” in your book is China. How realistic is this scenario of a new Cold War of sorts between the US and China, especially one that escalates?
The scary thing is that we started on the project years back, so the idea of exploring such a “big war” between the “great powers” was a bit out there. Everything in both the policy world and the best-seller rack in the bookstore was Middle East– and terrorism-focused. Then the real world started catching up to our fiction, what with Putin and Ukraine and arms races in the Pacific.

Indeed, it’s not just the overall trends, but recently a US Navy P-8 patrol plane over disputed waters in China literally lived out the very second scene in the book, even though it’s a novel turned into the publisher months back! You can see these trends looming in everything, from the two sides’ military strategies that are sparking an arms race, to that gamesmanship the planes and warships are playing over disputed islands, to the rhetoric.

Just a short bit ago, a Chinese regime newspaper point-blank said that “war is inevitable” if the US didn’t change its policies. I don’t think it’s “inevitable,” but these are dark trends that I do think will shape geopolitics for the coming years.

This appears to be a unique and possibly unprecedented hybrid: a work of fiction but one that is “inspired by real-world trends and technologies” and one in which you did a lot of reporting and research (and even included footnotes).
Yes, we think it’s something new, the way it melds two classic book genres, the techno-thriller and the nonfiction wonk book. In that, it’s a risk, but it reflects our backgrounds and interests. It crosses storytelling influences from our work [as consultants] with Hollywood ( Call of Duty, Dreamworks, etc.) with nonfiction research from our journalist and defense-policy backgrounds. So the book was built from both imagination of various what-ifs to Pentagon war games that we organized.

Peter Singer talking to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus

A big key to both the fiction and nonfiction were meetings we had with the wide range of real people who would fight in such a war, from US Navy destroyer captains and fighter pilots to Chinese generals and Anonymous hackers.

Our hope was to build a new kind of “novel,” in the spirit of early Tom Clancy, where you can read it at the beach, but with the research to show how real it all is, including revealing everything from new Chinese drone prototypes to how certain US weapons have already been hacked, so that it can take a place in real-world debates. In fact, early copies of the book made their way into the hands of several senior military leaders—a few who read it at the beach!—and it’s already having policy influence, shaping debates/plans inside the Pentagon on everything from strategy to robots and 3D printing.

Check out the VICE News documentary on the uncertain future of amphibious warfare.

Some experts say that while the United States has spent trillions of taxpayer dollars in recent decades acting as the world’s police force, intervening in (and starting) numerous expensive and deadly conflicts, China has quietly been building economic and political ties to dozens of developing nations in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. Is China making itself stronger while the United States is overextending itself like other empires before it? And if so, what are the consequences?
If you are looking at this from the geopolitical side, who has been the “big winner” of the last decades? Well, it’s certainly not the US. We’ve expended a lot of blood and treasure but lost global standing. And while it’s hard to predict where exactly Iraq War 3.0 will end, it’s not likely to be another big security gain. I think there are a lot of the parallels to Great Britain and how it got into the Boer Wars with enthusiasm, but this supposedly “small war” becomes incredibly draining and Britain ends up just trying to figure out how to extricate itself without looking like it had lost. But all the while, it has this immense rival of imperial Germany. As Mark Twain put it, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

But it’s important to frame this from both sides. China’s growth economically, politically, and strategically also creates a dilemma and a contradiction in our global strategy. We keep asking China to step up and take on more of a global role and responsibility. But when and if they do, it drives threat perception. “China, why is it only us that’s policing the seas against Somali pirates?” China then sends warships off Somalia and then “Ah, China is extending its global reach!”

“The rule for the book was no alien space power packs and no teenage wizard hormones—only real tech already here or at the R+D or prototype phase.”

The book focuses a lot on 21st-century warfare, and how the next war will be fought not only on land, sea, air, and in cyberspace, but also in actual space. So… is this a good thing, or bad? Will the next war be a protracted one, or something with so much “shock and awe” that it will end badly, and quickly, for everyone?
That’s what would make any 21st-century conflict between great powers so different than the wars of today against ISIS or the Taliban. We would see battles in places other than just on the land, and maybe even with the other side having the same or even better technology, something the US hasn’t wrestled with for literally decades. But, in turn, it is these two new realms of battle that didn’t exist back in the 1940s, conflict in space and cyberspace, that could determine the winners or losers. Many believe that their side will have the edge here, but I think that is the danger for us all. The leaders in the two sides often use words like “short” and “sharp” to describe how they see any war playing out. So did the leaders back in 1914.

So describe the weapons that will be used. What’s already out there, and what did your sources (and imagination) tell you is next on the R&D horizon?
The rule for the book was no alien space power packs and no teenage wizard hormones—only real tech already here or at the R+D or prototype phase. That’s also why we had the endnotes, to show, no matter how sci-fi it might seem, it was all drawn from reality. There is just a wild range of cool/scary gear that looms for war, from the USS Zumwalt, a new, stealthy version of a battleship that is right now under construction in Maine, to the Divine Eagle, a (well, now not) secret Chinese drone shaped like a massive kite, which can hunt down stealth planes and ships… like the Zumwalt.

There’s also going to be a mix. All the old gear isn’t going away completely. We’re seeing the introduction of autonomous drones like the X47 that recently landed on an aircraft carrier. But the plan is for it to fly alongside manned jets. So what will a future dogfight look like, but also what does that pilot think about it? It’s not just things that are clearly weapons, but we’ll see all the varied “next tech” that’s going to be in the civilian world also be used in war, akin to what happened with the jeep or computers. Things like tattoos that use electronic ink, the next gen of Google Glass, or “smart” rings instead of computer mouses.

So what scares you the most?
For me, maybe the spookiest scene in the book was drawn from the real-world work on brain-machine interfaces. This kind of tech, where you connect your thoughts to software, has been used to help the paralyzed move robotic limbs, is being tested to aid veterans in recovering from PTSD (even changing memories), and is coming soon to video gaming. It will also be used to torture people in an utterly scary new way.

One of the story lines in the book is about how a murderer sneaks her way through a very high-tech world of the near future. Do you think crime will get easier or harder in our increasingly networked surveillance state? And what about someone’s ability to cover their tracks, or create fake ones?
There’s never been more surveillance and data gathered on us, not just in our online behavior but in the real world. They include high altitude drones that carry not one camera that can pick Waldo out of crowd from a mile overhead, but systems like Gorgon Stare that the military first used in Iraq that do wide area surveillance able to track 92 different Waldos at once. Or it might be tracking not just your visuals, but your very genetic makeup, such as rapid DNA readers, again first used by Navy SEALs and now coming to police departments.

It’s like the Panopticon and Orwell crossed with William Gibson. But despite all this technology, there are still workarounds, still ways to trick the system, to use the assumptions of machine intelligence, or even more so, the assumptions of its designers and users, against it.


Is War with China Avoidable?

(originally posted on Popular Science)

1)  What is Ghost Fleet about? What does it mean, “A Novel of the Next World War?”

Ghost Fleet explores what would happen if the brewing Cold War with Russia and China ever turned hot. What makes it different, however, that it smashes together the techno-thriller and nonfiction genres. Think of it as early Tom Clancy in inspiration, but with 400 research endnotes that document how all the tech and trends in it are real. The format is a lot like Red Storm RisingWinds of WarGame of Thrones or World War Z. Rather than following a single character, it follows a global cast of characters fighting at sea, on land, in the air, and in two new places of conflict: outer space and cyberspace.

2)  What does it have to do with Eastern Arsenal’s work on Chinese military tech?

The project was built off the research that we do in Eastern Arsenal on the next generation of Chinese military technology, but then explores the potential ramifications of these exciting technologies and trends. To put it another way: What would happen if the technology we’ve been writing about were ever to be used in a war?

The research for the book involved the same kind of technical combing of the latest in military tech and gear that we’ve been doing for the last few years with Popular Science, where the source might be anything from analysis of leaked photos of aircraft carriers under construction to trade show displays of the next generation of Chinese jet fighters.

Just now, we play them forward and ask what does all this amazing tech and trends mean? What could cause them to be used in a World War III? And how does this all stand in relation to the latest in US military tech and plans?

So the book not only documents where things are headed with new technologies on each side, from drones to electromagnetic railguns, but then explores how they might be used in the battles of tomorrow. And not just what is the potential of these technologies, but also what are the potential flaws or vulnerabilities, such as wrestling with the battlefield implications of equipment being hacked?

Then, both for the realism and the storytelling, we fleshed it out by drawing insights from those who might fight these battles. So, we met with people who ranged from US Navy ship captains to PLA generals to fighter pilots and special operations forces to hackers—the real world versions of the characters in the book.

3) But you write nonfiction books and articles. Why fiction?

In fiction you can move the dial forward, envision future worlds in new kinds of detail, and explore potential pathways in a way that is sometime difficult in nonfiction. This might be a global level. Eastern Arsenal has laid out how Chinese warship building is on amazing growth curve, not just in number of ships but also capability. By 2030, China’s Navy is planned to have 415 ships, which will range from 4 aircraft carriers (the last 3 indigenous built) to 99 submarines. What will this mean for the changing balance of power in the Pacific? What is that world like? Or, it might be at the operational or even personal level. Eastern Arsenal has documented that China is designing fifth generation fighters and a new generation of drones in parallel to US work on the same. So what happens in a fifth generation dogfight? What moves might the pilots use be used, how will they interact with their robotic wingmen?

By making it a fun read, it also hopefully leads to a wider readership. It has been exciting to see how the book’s meld of fiction and nonfiction has garnered it endorsements by a rather unique group that ranges from US Navy 4-star admirals to the writer of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

4)  The idea of a US-China war is certainly dark. Do you think such a war is inevitable? Some might even accuse you of war-mongering by writing about it…

No, a war between the US and China is by no means inevitable. And it most definitely is not something I hope happens, no more than say HG Wells wanted atomic bombs to destroy the world when he first wrote about them in World Set Free.

Indeed, if the book is wrestling with how we are seeing echoes today of the 20th century great power competitions, it is crucial to remember that the feared World War III never happened back then. The US and Soviets had plans for both nuclear and conventional war, and there were important fictional explorations of both, from War Day to The Third World War to Red Storm Rising, but it never happened.

Yet, it is also important to note that this was the historic exception; 73% of the time great powers have risen in history, war ensues. And the various sides know this, which is why we’ve seen the kind of arms race between the US and China that Eastern Arsenal has written some 120 articles about.

Let’s be clear, both the new overall US military “third offset” strategy and US Navy and Chinese military strategies have each other very much in mind. But part of what I also found fascinating along the course of this journey is the different attitudes towards talking about the risks of these trends. In the US, there is a kind of code against talking too openly about it. The head of the US Navy described it as “crossing a line,” and officers have lost their jobs for it. By contrast, the language you hear from Beijing is often the opposite. People’s Daily recently warned that “a U.S.-China war is inevitable…” if the US doesn’t change policies it disagreed with. Chinese military experts have been published in regime newspapers arguing that “We must bear a third world war in mind when developing military forces, especially the sea and air forces.” Officially celebrated strategy books describe that there is an “inherent conflict” between the US and China that will be the “duel of the century.” There is also a fairly vibrant Chinese military fiction library that explores war with the US. I’m not talking about one novel or story, but literally hundreds of them, read by millions of readers. The Last Counterattack, for example, is a notable one, written by a PLA officer.

So, like it or not (and I certainly don’t like), a great power conflict in the 21st century is a possibility and thus worth exploring, especially if you want to avoid it.

5)  Speaking of Air Sea Battle and the “Offset,” you seem to be using the book to say something about these? And the same about China’s new military white paper, which envisions a new kind of “Active Defense” crossed with power projection plans?

Yes, you caught me. It may be fiction, but the book helps show that there are various assumptions becoming baked into these two sides’ strategies that should worry us. On the US side, we have new plans to try to repeat the experience of the Cold War and “offset” China like we did the Soviet Union, by racing ahead with a new generation of technology. But the 21st century is not these halcyon days of Cold War strategy (that weren’t as great as claimed). China is not just a political and military rival, but it is also an economic one in a way that the Soviet Union never was. Its not just becoming the number 1 economy in the world, but doing so through integrating trade, investment, and outside ideas in a way the closed Soviet model never could. In turn, the US lead in not just economics, but also the sciences is not the same as it was say in the 1980s, let alone how dysfunctional our domestic politics and budgets have become, which is undercutting our national security strategy in a way unimaginable back then.

But let’s just stay on our topic of military technology. China’s tech gains are moving much faster in both quantity and quality than I think most US leaders and planners assume, which means China may be the one “cost imposing” on the US, the reverse of how many in the Pentagon might wish it. Indeed, that has been the goal of Eastern Arsenal, laying out this fascinating story of how China is pushing the boundaries in various areas from supercomputers to drones to hypersonics. The result is not just cutting edge capabilities, but also extending reach and capability in ways that all challenge various assumptions in Air Sea Battle concept and the Offset. There’s a real danger wrapped up in that for the US, which Ghost Fleet explores. What might happen if the Pentagon’s plans don’t work out the way we hope?

But there is another danger. Both militaries are gearing up for a fight, but they also both envision that it will be an easy victory for their side. Word like “short” and “sharp” are often used to describe their vision of how such a fight would go. That’s precarious in so many ways. Sun Tzu and Clausewitz would cringe at how some envision war being made perfect. At a broader level, it makes the prospect of such a war more persuasive (think back to the origins of World War I). Its not just the militaries that risk viewing it as enticing, but also something we can see in more nationalist publics. (For example, 74% of Chinese think their military would win in a war with the US.) Even more, it is not just the risk of war becoming seen as a more viable option, it is that both sides can’t be right! At least one side would pay the price for hubris. But, I think that they’re both wrong. If there is a lesson in both real war and the fictional version of Ghost Fleet, the best laid plans never come to pass…

6)  OK, let’s not end on a downer. What is most important tech from Eastern Arsenal to appear in the book? What is coolest?

The most important is likely the evolution of the DF-21 ballistic missile that is designed to target ships at sea at extremely long ranges. US strategy, not just naval strategy, but national level strategy, has been based on its carriers being able to go where they want and do what they want. If they can be brought under threat, well, that changes the game.

The coolest? While I want to say the robotic spiders, they are not so much the coolest but the scariest to envision being used in war. Coolest? I grew up loving naval history, so if forced to choose I’ll go with a ship: the Type 055 guided missile cruiser (CG). This is the next generation Chinese surface warship that we revealed was being tested and designed in a field in Wuhan, hundreds of kilometers away from the ocean. It looks to be a beast, the largest surface warfare ship to be built in Asia in over 70 years. In many ways it’s the parallel to the USS Zumwalt, which is on the cover of the book. These two monsters are the equivalent of 21st century battleships in our century’s new arms race between the US and China. So that means they could either be terrible investments of time, money, and energy, or the deciders of the next world war…