Ghost Fleet: a book review

F35 on training flight. Wikicommons. U.S. Navy ID number ID 110211-O-XX000-001
F35 on training flight. Wikicommons. U.S. Navy ID number  110211-O-XX000-001

P.W. Singer and August Cole have written a techno-thriller based on a Chinese invasion of Hawaii, in a strange replay of Pearl Harbor. As with Tom Clancy’s work, there are multiple points of view, moral black and whites, and the technology is at times as much of a star as the main characters. Yet this work creates a pessimistic twist to Clancy’s upbeat vision. In Ghost Fleet America’s reliance on technology makes the country so vulnerable to attack that it must draw (spoiler alert) on irregular warfare tactics that its armed forces learned fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is a contradiction within this work. At times some scenes come across as unrealistic, and the analysis of international politics seems simplistic. Some plot devices, (another spoiler alert) such as the discovery of new resources leading to a surprise invasion, are so common in the genre as to be exhausted. In contrast, the focus on technology is all too convincing, and this detailed look at possible scenarios for future warfare (the book has extensive endnotes) is fascinating. The work is also carefully plotted, and the climax is deftly handled.

Some critics now question the United States’ over-reliance on technology. In the past, this argument suggests, the United States often relied on sheer numbers (attrition warfare) to overcome its enemies. The nation’s immense industrial potential allowed it to outproduce its enemies, who would be ground down by the United States’ quantitative advantages in both manpower and machines, as Paul Kennedy described. Since the 1960s, the United States has increasingly stressed the importance of advanced technology, whether it be sensing devices to track the Viet Cong in Vietnam, or the adoption of a common fighter for all U.S. services after the millennium. Is this always the best strategy, and what are the cons to this practice? This book builds a whole series of warning signs that have led people to question this approach to war. The website War is Boring recently released a military report that the old F16 outperformed the new F35 in a dogfight. There are internet rumors that a Patriot battery in Germany was hacked, although the German government has denied this. There are also rumors that the Chinese military has hacked and stolen the plans for key U.S. military technology, including the F35. If so, perhaps they might want to rethink the value of this, based on the recent test reports describing its performance. In the novel, the United States’ reliance on technology is both a strength and an Achilles’ Heel. At the same time, the book suggests that as a technologically advanced country, the U.S. is unusually vulnerable to a cyber attack. It is these descriptions of cyber attacks that are particularly interesting and disturbing. These sections of the book have a cyberpunk feel, which perhaps echoes the influence of William Gibson (Neuromancer), and work well.

This book is engagingly written and insightful. It does have some weaknesses. At times the violence can be a little cartoonish, and the dialogue between male military characters comes across as unnecessarily macho. Do all sailors always work so hard to prove their manliness? Still, this work is an intriguing read, which depicts a fascinating vision of the future of conflict. If you are looking for a light read on your way to the beach, or are a fan of Tom Clancy, this book should probably be in your suitcase.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University


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