World War III Will Be Less High-Tech Than Anyone Imagines

'Ghost Fleet' is a sci-fi novel about World War III based on fact.

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Jun 30 2015, 3:47pm

Image: EG Douglas

Last year, the Naval Academy made two distinct changes in how it operates—one that's a natural progression in cyberwarfare, the other a clear response to how thoroughly we rely on that technology.

"First, they've created a cyberwarfare center and created the first class of midshipmen who will be cybersecurity majors," cybersecurity and military expert Peter W. Singer recently told me. "Second, they required that every midshipman learn how to do celestial navigation like they did back in the 1700s. We're preparing both for a world of cyberwarfare and, 'oh my goodness, what if I have to go back to navigating by the stars?'"

Singer and his coauthor August Cole explore that curious dichotomy in Ghost Fleet, a novel that rings as a startlingly plausible look at what would happen if the United States and China truly went to war.

When we talk about future wars now, we talk about drones and robots, enhanced soldiers, hacking and space capabilities, terrorism and insurgency. And all of those aspects of war are in Ghost Fleet, but unless you've thought deeply about how these complicated parts would play together, you're probably imagining something totally different than what these authors came up with. I know I was.

"We won't have the same kind of awareness and intelligence we have today. We won't know where we are and where the enemy is."

Total war in the near future is horrifying, sure, but it's not unrecognizable from what's come before. It's still a violent slog, and, yeah, the novel features space pirates and plenty of hacking. But in a sense, all of our technological capabilities end up canceling each other out, because the US and its enemies will immediately try to nullify them as soon as possible.

"These two big domains, space and cyberspace, they've helped enable us to be powerful, but they also open up big vulnerabilities because of how dependent we are on them," Singer told me. "With space, it's a domain through which our command and control, communications, GPS, you name it depend on. So what happens if you take that out? You get this fascinating story that is cool but also maybe a little more real. You have all this incredible technology: hackers, autonomous drones, but we won't have the same kind of awareness and intelligence we have today. We won't know where we are and where the enemy is."


To be clear, Ghost Fleet is a work of fiction, but it's unlike any novel I've ever read before. Every aspect of the book is footnoted. A scenario that plays out in the Pacific Ocean may have been simulated or war-gamed by the Pentagon, a Chinese space station's capabilities are pulled from the technical manuals describing it, hacks and their potential implications are drawn from real-world breaches we've seen before.

Singer has written two nonfiction books about war and cybersecurity before, and he serves as a strategist at the New America Foundation, one of the country's leading think tanks. He meets regularly with the Pentagon and with Congress to discuss the future of war, and, reading the book, you feel almost like you're getting an early preview into something we hope never happens.

"Fiction allowed us to explore certain worlds, certain scenarios, play out the implications of things in a way that's more difficult than nonfiction. With World War III, we wanted to play out the implications of certain trends that are happening now," Singer said.

Without giving too much away, does it sound at all implausible that China may have built hacking backdoors into the microchips that make up 70 percent of the total used in our military's fighter planes? Is it implausible that, if Hawaii were to fall to Chinese troops, the Marines would use insurgency tactics and build improvised explosive devices cribbed from the Taliban and al-Qaeda?

Ghost Fleet is a harrowing read told from the perspectives of a handful of those involved in the war—there's the Navy captain running an old boat that's free of Chinese microchips; the Marine insurgents in Hawaii; the Richard Branson-esque capitalist who wants to lend his expertise to the war efforts; a widow who's either a psychopath or critical to the war effort. The chapters come quick, and it's a bit hard to get a handle on what's going on for the first couple dozen pages. Stick with it, and you'll be rewarded with a thrilling beach read that'll simultaneously entertain you and scare the crap out of you.

There's the famous Albert Einstein quote: "I do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth—rocks!" It's a powerful one, but, here in 2015, we know enough to take a stab at guessing.

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