Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meets with Chinese Gen. Fang Fenghui, Chief of the General Staff, in Beijing, China, Apr 20, 2013.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meets with Chinese Gen. Fang Fenghui, Chief of the General Staff, in Beijing, China, Apr 20, 2013. DEFENSE DEPARTMENT / D. MYLES CULLEN

What Fiction Can Tell You About a Future War With China

Strategists Peter Singer and August Cole’s new novel offers a glimpse into startling real-life U.S. military vulnerabilities.

No one wants to think about what a war between the United States and China might look like — unless somebody can make it fun. A new novel born from real trends in military innovation attempts to capture and imagine exactly that.  

Every technology in the book, from rail guns to brain-based memory manipulation, is at least at the prototype stage of development in real life. “Ghost Fleet: A Novel Of the Next World War,” meticulously researched by its authors: Peter W. Singer, strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation; and August Cole, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, features some 20 manifestations of drone technology alone, as well as nearly 400 endnotes.  

So what does the technology of today teach about the wars of the future? Defense One put the question to Singer. Below is an edited version of that exchange.

Defense One: War with China doesn't seem to be something that many in Washington consider a strong probability right now, unless you’re having dinner with China hawk Michael Pillsbury. Yet it’s the very basis of your book. Is it something that you consider likely?

Peter Singer: The Chinese regime newspaper recently said, ‘War is inevitable,’ if the U.S. doesn't change its policies in the Pacific. You can find any range of similar quotes in the Chinese press saying, ‘We need the plan for the Third World War.’

This is not just the military. A poll was taken in China and they found that 74 percent of Chinese think their military would win in a war against the United States. Those are some scary data points. Now, I don't think that war is inevitable. That's a strong term. But it's very clear that there’ve been shifts in geopolitical trends. The 20th century was shaped in large part by great-power competition. I think that there are trends in the 21st century that show that great-power rivalry is back and will continue to be a shaping force, all the more so with China's rise.

They both have this assumption that it would be a short, sharp, war. We think they're both wrong.
Peter Singer, strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation

Defense One: Why isn’t this view more common view in Washington?

Singer: Fear of antagonizing China, having some kind of economic repercussion. Navy officers have been fired for talking about it. But it's not that the United States doesn't plan for it. It's not that we aren't engaged in an arms race with China.

When you cross both the U.S. and the Chinese plans, they both have this assumption that it would be a short, sharp war. We think they're both wrong. We think that kind of attitude makes war more likely, perhaps by allowing some crisis to spiral out of control. It wouldn't be easy for either side.

Editor’s note: Last November Capt. James Fanell, the director of intelligence and information operations at U.S. Pacific Fleet, was removed from his position and reassigned within the fleet after making public comments that China was preparing for a  "short, sharp war" with Japan.

Defense One: The book spans a wide variety of settings. From sea to space, there are battles everywhere. Cyberspace becomes the area where the U.S. heroes experience the most trouble and vulnerability. Why?

Singer: The term ‘cyber war’ has been used to describe all sorts of things that are not war. Stealing movie scripts from a studio and publishing embarrassing gossipy emails is not cyber war, despite the fact that that term was used by prominent Senators and the like.

We asked, ‘What would cyber warfare look like? What would happen when the gloves are off, and it's not minimal capabilities, but it's real players?’ Also, we've seen the rise of everything from private military companies to activist groups, like Anonymous. The military doesn't weave them into planning and assumes these outside players will affect the things that don't matter, so to speak. That's not going to be the case. I wanted to play with that.

Defense One: You went out and actually talked to people in the field that would occupy some of these positions or jobs in the book, people that I think most novelists wouldn't reach out to and most readers wouldn't necessarily have access to. How did those interactions shape the writing?

Singer: Sometimes you might, in journalism terms, have an interview. Other times, it's meetings that you're having with the person, and long, extended conversations that you're just kind of drawing nuggets from, and then other times you're attending something for another purpose, and you're drawing something from it. You're at a U.S.-China senior leader bilateral and you pick a up a nugget: ‘That Chinese general keeps making a specific historic reference,’ or ‘That Silicon Valley billionaire, look at what he drinks and how he walks,’ or whatever.

Defense One: One of the fairly persistent themes in the book is that every technology that the military invents or creates can be used against it, everything from surveillance malware to drones that fly in formation. Really, every weapon that the United States endeavors to foist upon its enemy somehow either backfires or winds up having more cost than value. To the extent that that examines a real threat, how does the United States fix that?

Singer: There are two big assumptions that guide a lot of discussions about U.S. military technology. One is that the U.S. technology edge is somehow permanent, when in fact if you look at everything from stealth jet fighters to hypersonics to robotics to drones, China is not just developing gear that looks like the twin, but is also pushing forward in cutting-edge fields. China has performed more hypersonic vehicle tests than we have. And who has the world's fastest supercomputer?

If there are parallels to the last Cold War, this is where it's different. The Soviet Union was a military competitor. As the Cold War advanced, it wasn't really an economic or science and technology peer. Its downfall was driven by the fact that it didn't have global trade and it didn't have any openness to ideas.

China is becoming an economic competitor in a way that the Soviet Union wasn't, a political model competitor, and China has an openness to technology that's frankly insatiable. That appetite has created huge problems. It's literally stealing technology.

In fact, many U.S. military systems run the risk of being Pontiac Azteks.
Peter Singer, strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation

The second assumption is that new technologies will somehow be perfect. In fact, many U.S. military systems run the risk of being Pontiac Azteks. The Pontiac Aztek tried to be all things to all people: sports car up front, minivan in the middle, SUV in the back. Instead, it was over-engineered, over-promised and overpriced. I could describe many a current defense program that suffers from that same problem, where the technology turns out to not be all that good either for small wars or, as we explore, for big wars. Then, on top of that, the Pentagon's own weapons tester did an examination of every single major defense program last year and found every single one of them had cybersecurity flaws.

Those flaws express themselves, going back to the first assumption, in terms of technologies that were supposed to give us a generational edge on a future battlefield. We've already lost that investment.

Those are the risks, not just right now, but more importantly, 10, 15 years from now. Again, there's this unwillingness to move that dial forward, where you see people saying — even the secretary of defense — ‘Oh, they can't match us right now.’

You're like, ‘Right now is already in the past. Look forward.’