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This is What World War Three Might Look Like

We talked to author and security analyst Peter Singer about why the next war will be so much scarier than past ones, and whether there's anything we can do about it.

Peter Singer speaking at the US Naval War College about real-world lessons from his new book, ' Ghost Fleet'

It's not like you need to make a bunch of stuff up to write a techno-thriller about how we're headed for the next World War. There's already that one Cold War with Russia, which was once thought to be over but in recent years has been heating up again. And there's another, with China, that's accelerating and could cause some serious problems on a global scale.

Throw into the mix all of these crazy nontraditional actors like the Islamic State, and all of the super-sophisticated military hardware and software that's out there, and you've got all the ingredients you need for a good suspense novel.

But to write something really terrifying, futuristic, and also entertaining and plausible, you'd have to do what Peter W. Singer and August Cole did. First, you'd have to spend a decade or so gaining expertise as an analyst and journalist, respectively, steeped in the minutiae of war, cybersecurity, and terrorism.

Then you'd have to spend a few years traveling the world and interviewing dozens of people who would be actual players in the next war, and ask them how it might happen, what it would entail, and whether any of us would survive it—or even want to.

The new book that emerged from their efforts is Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, a novel that reads like science fiction but bristles with rich detail about how the next World War could be fought.

It won't be fought just on land, at sea, and in the air. This one, they write, will take place in cyberspace and even outer space, where trained soldiers will do battle not only with one another, but with teenage hackers and stealth drones and other weapons—hands-free, eye-tracking virtual reality shooters and tiny military robots, for instance—that seem right out of a fever dream.

Add the long-mothballed warships from the navy's "ghost fleet" and a serial killer who is carrying out her own vendetta, and you get a book that the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, Admiral James Stavridis, calls "a startling blueprint for the wars of the future [that] needs to be read now!"

We reached out to Singer to ask him what he's learned doing all that field research, why the next war will be so much scarier than past ones, and whether there's anything we can do about it.

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.

Check out Ghost Fleet's official website, where you can buy the book, out Tuesday, June 30.

Peter Warren Singer is strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, founder of NeoLuddite, a technology advisory firm, the author of multiple award-winning books, and a contributing editor at Popular Science.

Josh Meyer is an award-winning journalist and author specializing in national security and terrorism issues. A former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, he works at the Medill National Security Journalism Initiative in Washington, DC, and is co-author of the 2012 book The Hunt For KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Follow him on Twitter.