Peter W. Singer on Ghost Fleet, China, and Strategy
Image Credit: New America Foundation

Peter W. Singer on Ghost Fleet, China, and Strategy


Peter W. Singer is a Strategist and Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and the co-author of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, which imagines a conflict across land, sea, and cyberspace between China, Russia, and the United States. He recently spoke with Jack Detsch about how the book parallels the reality on the ground, and the prospects for great power conflict in the 21st century. 

Why did you decide to write a fictional story? Is this a way to unfreeze and unpack the assumptions that we’ve developed about China’s capabilities and American capabilities?

Fiction allows you to unlock and explore many different trends, assumptions, and technologies. It gives you the freedom to do things that sometimes can be limiting, particularly when you’re looking into the future.

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The book deals with a great power war in the 21st century. That’s something that obviously has not, and we hope, will not, happen. But it’s grounded in reality. Ghost Fleet has over 20 pages of endnotes that document every single technology and trend that you find in the story. That allows you to situate it in the real world.

Fiction can be fun, it can be entertaining, and that’s enjoyable for a writer, but it also allows the real world ideas in the book to get greater purchase, not just among the people who want to read it at the beach, but also with people in the highest levels of the military. The reality is that policymakers might sometimes be more willing to read a work of fiction than a think piece.

Why is it so difficult for strategists, even those who are thinking about a potential conflict with China, to imagine the range of possibilities that you present in the book?

I think it’s tough for policymakers to move outside of their context. That context might literally be the office or the cubicle that they’re in, where their day is spent servicing an incredibly filled inbox. That’s is the way the world is right now.

The utility of this kind of fiction is that it allows us to break free of those boxes, to examine certain trends, play them forward, and look at what the world might look like in the future.

Here’s a good illustration: China has built more warships and war planes than any other nation in 2012, in 2013, and in 2014, and it’s probably going to do so in 2015, 2016, and 2017.

The China of today is not going to be the China of 2020. We can use fiction to take technologies of today that might seem science fiction-like, and move them forward to figure out how they might be used in battle, and what the problems might be.

That doesn’t just relate to visions of war, but it also reflects questions of everything from geopolitics to China’s future itself. We have images and assumptions of China that don’t even match today’s realities, let alone tomorrow’s potential. China may be slapped with the “Communist” label, but it has produced more than 300 billionaires in recent years, and buys more Mercedes Maybach luxury cars than any other nation. In turn, it has various defense stocks trading on its stock exchange. Just like Mao imagined, right?

Fiction can also ask and explore particularly uncomfortable questions. Those could even be questions within your own bureaucracy, such as questioning why things are done in a certain way within an institution? Or it could be figuring out what it might take to do things differently.

Your characters often mediate upon the teachings of military classics, even in the heat of battle. What role will the works of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sun Tzu, and Carl von Clausewitz play on a 21st Century of battlefield?

One of the key lessons of the book is that for all of our incredible, advanced technology, the lessons of the old masters will still hold true.

Unfortunately, that’s something I think we’ve had to learn the hard way. In Iraq, there are many things that a Sun Tzu or a Clausewitz would have identified and taken into account differently.

In the book, there’s a combination of the old masters and visualizing the future of war. It’s common for Chinese military officers to go back to the lessons of a great master like Sun Tzu, much in the way that U.S. military officers frequently pull from Clausewitz.

What’s even more interesting is that in the real world, one of the most influential rising thinkers among Chinese navy officers is actually the American 19th century thinker Alfred Thayer Mahan, who advocated for a more powerful navy and a more global outlook, to reflect the rising power of the U.S.

That kind of thinking is taking purchase with Chinese navy officers, since it aligns very much with their worldview. So the references to Mahan and Sun Tzu are not fantastical, they reflect a certain reality.

In fiction, you can also play with the philosophical questions that these great thinkers were wrestling with. Just like the technology, we grounded it in the real world, giving ourselves a playground to explore new and interesting themes.

How did you go about deploying future technology in a fictional setting?

The book was built off of documented technology, from DARPA contracts to military trade show information, but it also reflected added layers of research that you might usually see for a non-fiction book.

We met with the various real world characters who might fight in such a conflict: both the expected players, like US Navy ship captains, Air Force fighter pilots, and Chinese generals, as well as the unexpected types, who might play such a role, like Silicon Valley venture capitalists or anonymous hackers.

An important scene in the book depicts a futuristic dogfight. We were able to meet with U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy fighter pilots who helped us with everything from the moves you might pull in a fifth-generation aircraft, to the human side of it, such as what the pilots might think about drones flying alongside them. Again, this isn’t weird, sci-fi speculation; that’s the U.S. Air Force plan for a future of mix-manned and unmanned vehicles.

In our day jobs, we also worked on a series of Pentagon war games that explored how game-changing technologies might be used in battle. So we learned from those experiences as well.

Drones, robots, and unmanned systems play a big role in the battles of Ghost Fleet. What does this say about how those technologies could spread across the Asia-Pacific in the foreseeable future?

Unmanned systems were very recently science fiction. They’re now a critical real-world consideration. That’s not just in terms of their use by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it’s proliferated so much that at least 80 different countries are now operating unmanned aerial systems, including all of the key players in Asia, especially China.

China has deployed various systems, most recently a drone base for operations over the East China Sea. It has at least three long-range drone programs under development right now. So the proliferation of this technology means that wherever a future battle takes place, it is highly likely that it will have some kind of unmanned element to it. We don’t even have to wait for the future world war for that to happen, it’s already happening in Iraq. In the fight against ISIS, all of the sides involved have used drones: the U.S., the Iraqis are flying Iranian drones, the Syrian government, rebel groups, and even ISIS has them.

We’re going continue to reframe how we think about and use robotics. One of the key technologies in the story is the U.S.S. Zumwalt, a real-life ship under construction in Maine right now that’s envisioned as a 21st century version of the stealthy battleship. It’s the only ship in the fleet able to generate the power needed for an electromagnetic rail gun. But also what makes it remarkable is how it’s highly robotic. A ship of its size a generation ago would have had almost 1,300 sailors, but the crew consists of just over 130 sailors. That’s because it’s so highly robotic, in everything from how the engine room is run, to the automated firefighting system, to the navigation, to literally the battle management system that you might use for command and control in a battle.

That also means that the captain of the ship is not going to be on the bridge of a ship in a battle, they’re going to be in the command center in the middle. It’s a two-story room with an upper deck, from where the officer can look down upon the crew. It’s more like a T.V. studio setup versus our traditional vision of how a Navy officer might conduct himself.

What do you hope your audience, both on the civilian and military side, will take away from the book?

I hope they find it to be a fun, entertaining read, but that they’ll also find it useful. I hope it will help readers understand certain trends and technologies, and maybe even inform decisions that keep the scenario of the book from happening. This is a work of fiction that we do not want to be a work of prediction. The problem is that the real decisionmakers have created these very worrisome moments that may be good for marketing but are a bit scary at a large level.

We wrote the opening scene of the book 18 months ago. It involves a U.S. Navy P-8 surveillance plane being angrily ordered away over the radio by a Chinese navy officer. That happened in reality just last month. As a writer, you have a very conflicted response to that.

So I hope it proves to be what we’re calling “useful fiction”: fun for people who work in these areas, but also for people who don’t. But in addition, it may be useful in helping to understand certain trends, and avoid certain pathways from happening.

Has it surprised you how quickly the real world has begun to resemble the fictional world of the book?

The book may just be coming out now, but the project started many years back, and it was a bit of a hard sell to the publishing world.

At that time, the media was focused on terrorism, insurgency, you know, things that are still here today, and the books reflected that. Everything was terrorism-focused, so it was a harder sell.

We think that the issues of a great power conflict are going to become more and more important. The real world has moved faster on the geopolitical front than I’m certainly comfortable with, from Russian land grabs in the Ukraine that have driven NATO to its highest point of alert since the mid-1980s to the tensions that have played out in the South China Sea.

Even this week, the U.S. military’s new strategy dealt with fears that the risk of the kind of interstate war is low, but in its words “growing.” The geopolitics of it have hit in a way that’s maybe good for the book, but not good for reality.

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