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Can Fiction Predict the Future of Warfare?

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Asia Defense

Can Fiction Predict the Future of Warfare?

Perhaps, but more importantly it tells us about how we want the future of war to look like.

P.W. Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet, a novel about what would happen “if the brewing Cold War with Russia and China ever turned hot,” is making the rounds among defense policy wonks in the United States (see: “Book Review: Ghost Fleet and the Future of Great Power War”).

As one of the book’s authors, P.W. Singer, noted in an interview, the work received “endorsements by a rather unique group that ranges from U.S. Navy 4-star admirals to the writer of HBO’s Game of Thrones.”

It will, in all likelihood, also receive great praise by all of those periodically dispensing Cassandra-like warnings about China’s military rise and affected by what I once called “The Gathering Storm Syndrome” – one can expect the book to top Randy J. Forbes’ summer reading list (see: “What Hawks Have to Say About the US Navy’s New Maritime Strategy”).

However, despite the fact it may be slightly guilty of threat inflation, the book poses an interesting question: Can fiction predict the future of warfare?

In order to adequately address this query, it may be useful to go back in time and review some of the works that came out the last time when technological progress far outstripped the imagination of military strategists and, as a corollary, tactics and strategy with devastating consequences: the years leading up to the First World War.

In order to do so, I am narrowly focusing on the Anglo-German competition prior to 1914. The historian Niall Ferguson, in his revisionist history The Pity of War – Explaining World War I provides a good summary of pre-1914 works of fiction that imagined the future conflict between the British and German empires.

In the Invasion of 1910, William Le Queux envisioned the invasion of Great Britain by a German army of 40,000 which comprised the occupation of London, as well as bloody guerilla campaign organized by a junior member of the British Parliament. The 1907 story When the Eagle Flies Seaward also talked about a fictional invasion of the British heartland by a well-organized German invasion force. In both works, the Germans are defeated at the end only at great human and financial costs.

The novels were meant to illustrate what could be the consequences of the German naval military buildup if the Royal Navy’s purportedly inadequate budget would not be increased.

A.J. Dawson’s 1907 novel The Message painted a darker picture in which Great Britain was successfully occupied by the Germans and forced to pay reparations and even give up a number of her colonies. The book specifically addresses the perceived danger of German sleeper cells and spies embedded within British society. One German character living in London explains:

There are in this country 290,000 young countrymen of yours and of mine who have served their time, and who can shoot…Clerks, waiters and hairdressers…each have their work assigned to them. The forts which guard this great city may be impregnable from without, but from within – that is another matter.

Another one of William Le Queux’s books, Spies of the Kaiser, struck the same tenor about a vast German secret spy network in Britain. In his introduction to the book If England Knew Le Queux notes:

That German spies are actively at work in Great Britain is well known to the authorities. The number of agents of the German Secret Police at this moment working in our midst on behalf of the Intelligence Department in Berlin are believed to be over five thousand. (…)Facts such as these, and many others, are being daily conveyed by spies in their carefully prepared reports to Berlin, as well as the secrets of every detail of our armament, our defences, and our newest inventions.

On the German side, Karl Eisenhart’s 1900 novel Die Abrechnung mit England (The Reckoning with England) depicts a great naval war between Germany and Great Britain out of which the former emerges victorious due to a new “Wunderwaffe” – the electronically powered battleship.  Attacking British naval hegemony, Eisenhart writes in the introduction:

The entire Navy had long yearned for the Day when they could take on the hated English; for they had brought on themselves immense hatred and an animosity like that which the French had experienced in 1813.

While there are countless other examples of fiction in the years leading up to World War I trying to imagine the future of war, I picked the examples above to illustrate three points.

First, most fictional writing on the future of war usually overemphasizes technical capabilities and the general power of the forces opposed to the author’s country not only because it generally makes for a better story, but more importantly because there always appears to be a subconscious desire to domestically play the role of Cassandra and point out the relative unpreparedness of a self-complacent established power vis-à-vis a more aggressive rising state with huge military potential. This is easiest done by either inflating the enemy’s size or by pointing out the devastating effects of a new (or secret) weapon system.

Second, most works of fiction are guilty of mirror imagining, i.e. they imagine a future conflict in precisely the way that most contemporary strategists and military planners in their respective country would like a confrontation to take place (in the case of Britain prior to WWI that meant decisive naval battles), despite ostensible attempts to see beyond one’s country’s strategic and military culture. In the contemporary case of the United States, the anti-access/area-denial and cyberwar hype is a good case in point: It is the precise form of warfare that American defense wonks are expecting because it is precisely the type of warfare in which the United States would excel at in the long-run.

Third, the power and influence of espionage rings and secret societies is often tremendously inflated. Again, for one thing conspiracies makes for a better story and cater to the subconscious fear of people of the unknown. But it also highlights a real strategic paranoia that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy (see the current debate on Chinese espionage activities: “What the US Gets Wrong About Chinese Espionage”) if one is not careful. Domestic witch-hunts to smoke out conspirators can undermine a country’s military preparedness, but excessive paranoia also has the potential to further poison bilateral relations between states locked in an economic and military competition. It can additionally lead to irrational conclusions fueled by the feeling of impotence (e.g., “death by a thousand cuts”) due to an alleged omnipresent foreign menace.

Interestingly, I.F. Clarke in his essay “Future War Fiction: The First Main Phase 1871 – 1900” notes that there is a correlation between the number of future war stories published and real crises:

At times of major anxiety–the Channel Tunnel panic in 1882, the Agadir Crisis of 1911, for instance–they appeared by the dozen; and the probable total for the period from 1871 to 1914 is not less than some four hundred stories in English, French, or German. Those languages point to a massive European interest in The Next Great War, der nächste Krieg, La Guerre de demain, as they called it in the cheerful language of anticipation. 

Ghost Fleet also fits this analysis neatly if one reflects on the deterioration of both Sino-U.S. and Russia-U.S. relations in the last couple of months. Additionally, Clarke points out that fictional war accounts written in the late 19th century were not only a reflection of uncertainty caused by technological progress but also exposed a country’s national interests to the careful reader:

(…) They were written as answers to serious questions prompted by the coming of the ironclad warship, by the introduction of the ram, and by the development of the destroyer and the submarine. And here again national interests decided the distribution of these stories. British writers dominated the field for the good reason that the Royal Navy was the first line of national defense for the United Kingdom. German writers were conspicuous by their absence. They had nothing to write about, since the new Reich did not start on a naval building program until the first Navy Law of 1898. The French were more interested in, and wrote more about, their army; and across the Atlantic (…) American propagandists were turning out preparedness tracts to present the case for the great navy that the United States did not have in the 1880s.

Consequently, Ghost Wars may yield a lot of insights about current U.S. national interests and strategic thinking, particularly since the book is written by an American scholar (just to focus on Singer) solely educated at elite U.S. academic institutions, firmly embedded in the American think tank and D.C. bureaucracy bubbles. As a result, one can expect Chinese and Russian intelligence analysts to pour over this work.

Whether Ghost Fleet adequately describes a potential future confrontation between the United States, China and Russia is something – unlike the literary examples prior to World War I discussed above – that we will hopefully never have to put to the test. Meanwhile, I do recommend you give Ghost Fleet a read, even if you do not work for a foreign intelligence agency.