Is War With China Avoidable?

Ghost Fleet author Peter W. Singer answers some frequently asked questions
Ghost Fleet Peter W Singer Ray Mabus

1) What is Ghost Fleet about? What does it mean, “A Novel of the Next World War?”

Ghost Fleet explores what would happen if the brewing Cold War with Russia and China ever turned hot. What makes it different, however, that it smashes together the techno-thriller and nonfiction genres. Think of it as early Tom Clancy in inspiration, but with 400 research endnotes that document how all the tech and trends in it are real. The format is a lot like Red Storm Rising, Winds of War, Game of Thrones or World War Z. Rather than following a single character, it follows a global cast of characters fighting at sea, on land, in the air, and in two new places of conflict: outer space and cyberspace.

2) What does it have to do with Eastern Arsenal’s work on Chinese military tech?

The project was built off the research that we do in Eastern Arsenal on the next generation of Chinese military technology, but then explores the potential ramifications of these exciting technologies and trends. To put it another way: What would happen if the technology we’ve been writing about were ever to be used in a war?

The research for the book involved the same kind of technical combing of the latest in military tech and gear that we’ve been doing for the last few years with Popular Science, where the source might be anything from analysis of leaked photos of aircraft carriers under construction to trade show displays of the next generation of Chinese jet fighters.

Just now, we play them forward and ask what does all this amazing tech and trends mean? What could cause them to be used in a World War III? And how does this all stand in relation to the latest in US military tech and plans?

So the book not only documents where things are headed with new technologies on each side, from drones to electromagnetic railguns, but then explores how they might be used in the battles of tomorrow. And not just what is the potential of these technologies, but also what are the potential flaws or vulnerabilities, such as wrestling with the battlefield implications of equipment being hacked?

Then, both for the realism and the storytelling, we fleshed it out by drawing insights from those who might fight these battles. So, we met with people who ranged from US Navy ship captains to PLA generals to fighter pilots and special operations forces to hackers—the real world versions of the characters in the book.

Ghost Fleet
Ghost Fleet

3) But you write nonfiction books and articles. Why fiction?

In fiction you can move the dial forward, envision future worlds in new kinds of detail, and explore potential pathways in a way that is sometime difficult in nonfiction. This might be a global level. Eastern Arsenal has laid out how Chinese warship building is on amazing growth curve, not just in number of ships but also capability. By 2030, China’s Navy is planned to have 415 ships, which will range from 4 aircraft carriers (the last 3 indigenous built) to 99 submarines. What will this mean for the changing balance of power in the Pacific? What is that world like? Or, it might be at the operational or even personal level. Eastern Arsenal has documented that China is designing fifth generation fighters and a new generation of drones in parallel to US work on the same. So what happens in a fifth generation dogfight? What moves might the pilots use be used, how will they interact with their robotic wingmen?

By making it a fun read, it also hopefully leads to a wider readership. It has been exciting to see how the book’s meld of fiction and nonfiction has garnered it endorsements by a rather unique group that ranges from US Navy 4-star admirals to the writer of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Ghost Fleet

4) The idea of a US-China war is certainly dark. Do you think such a war is inevitable? Some might even accuse you of war-mongering by writing about it…

No, a war between the US and China is by no means inevitable. And it most definitely is not something I hope happens, no more than say HG Wells wanted atomic bombs to destroy the world when he first wrote about them in World Set Free.

Indeed, if the book is wrestling with how we are seeing echoes today of the 20th century great power competitions, it is crucial to remember that the feared World War III never happened back then. The US and Soviets had plans for both nuclear and conventional war, and there were important fictional explorations of both, from War Day to The Third World War to Red Storm Rising, but it never happened.

Yet, it is also important to note that this was the historic exception; 73% of the time great powers have risen in history, war ensues. And the various sides know this, which is why we’ve seen the kind of arms race between the US and China that Eastern Arsenal has written some 120 articles about.

73 percent of the time great powers have risen in history, war ensues

Let’s be clear, both the new overall US military “third offset” strategy and US Navy and Chinese military strategies have each other very much in mind. But part of what I also found fascinating along the course of this journey is the different attitudes towards talking about the risks of these trends. In the US, there is a kind of code against talking too openly about it. The head of the US Navy described it as “crossing a line,” and officers have lost their jobs for it. By contrast, the language you hear from Beijing is often the opposite. People’s Daily recently warned that “a U.S.-China war is inevitable…” if the US doesn’t change policies it disagreed with. Chinese military experts have been published in regime newspapers arguing that “We must bear a third world war in mind when developing military forces, especially the sea and air forces.” Officially celebrated strategy books describe that there is an “inherent conflict” between the US and China that will be the “duel of the century.” There is also a fairly vibrant Chinese military fiction library that explores war with the US. I’m not talking about one novel or story, but literally hundreds of them, read by millions of readers. The Last Counterattack, for example, is a notable one, written by a PLA officer.

So, like it or not (and I certainly don’t like), a great power conflict in the 21st century is a possibility and thus worth exploring, especially if you want to avoid it.

Ghost Fleet

5) Speaking of Air Sea Battle and the “Offset,” you seem to be using the book to say something about these? And the same about China’s new military white paper, which envisions a new kind of “Active Defense” crossed with power projection plans?

Yes, you caught me. It may be fiction, but the book helps show that there are various assumptions becoming baked into these two sides’ strategies that should worry us. On the US side, we have new plans to try to repeat the experience of the Cold War and “offset” China like we did the Soviet Union, by racing ahead with a new generation of technology. But the 21st century is not these halcyon days of Cold War strategy (that weren’t as great as claimed). China is not just a political and military rival, but it is also an economic one in a way that the Soviet Union never was. Its not just becoming the number 1 economy in the world, but doing so through integrating trade, investment, and outside ideas in a way the closed Soviet model never could. In turn, the US lead in not just economics, but also the sciences is not the same as it was say in the 1980s, let alone how dysfunctional our domestic politics and budgets have become, which is undercutting our national security strategy in a way unimaginable back then.

What might happen if the Pentagon’s plans don’t work out the way we hope?

But let’s just stay on our topic of military technology. China’s tech gains are moving much faster in both quantity and quality than I think most US leaders and planners assume, which means China may be the one “cost imposing” on the US, the reverse of how many in the Pentagon might wish it. Indeed, that has been the goal of Eastern Arsenal, laying out this fascinating story of how China is pushing the boundaries in various areas from supercomputers to drones to hypersonics. The result is not just cutting edge capabilities, but also extending reach and capability in ways that all challenge various assumptions in Air Sea Battle concept and the Offset. There’s a real danger wrapped up in that for the US, which Ghost Fleet explores. What might happen if the Pentagon’s plans don’t work out the way we hope?

But there is another danger. Both militaries are gearing up for a fight, but they also both envision that it will be an easy victory for their side. Word like “short” and “sharp” are often used to describe their vision of how such a fight would go. That’s precarious in so many ways. Sun Tzu and Clausewitz would cringe at how some envision war being made perfect. At a broader level, it makes the prospect of such a war more persuasive (think back to the origins of World War I). Its not just the militaries that risk viewing it as enticing, but also something we can see in more nationalist publics. (For example, 74% of Chinese think their military would win in a war with the US.) Even more, it is not just the risk of war becoming seen as a more viable option, it is that both sides can’t be right! At least one side would pay the price for hubris. But, I think that they’re both wrong. If there is a lesson in both real war and the fictional version of Ghost Fleet, the best laid plans never come to pass…

Ghost Fleet Peter W Singer Virtual Reality

6) OK, let’s not end on a downer. What is most important tech from Eastern Arsenal to appear in the book? What is coolest?

The most important is likely the evolution of the DF-21 ballistic missile that is designed to target ships at sea at extremely long ranges. US strategy, not just naval strategy, but national level strategy, has been based on its carriers being able to go where they want and do what they want. If they can be brought under threat, well, that changes the game.

The coolest? While I want to say the robotic spiders, they are not so much the coolest but the scariest to envision being used in war. Coolest? I grew up loving naval history, so if forced to choose I’ll go with a ship: the Type 055 guided missile cruiser (CG). This is the next generation Chinese surface warship that we revealed was being tested and designed in a field in Wuhan, hundreds of kilometers away from the ocean. It looks to be a beast, the largest surface warfare ship to be built in Asia in over 70 years. In many ways it’s the parallel to the USS Zumwalt, which is on the cover of the book. These two monsters are the equivalent of 21st century battleships in our century’s new arms race between the US and China. So that means they could either be terrible investments of time, money, and energy, or the deciders of the next world war…

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