Small Wars Journal

Ghost Fleet: Low-Tech Strategies for Fighting High-Tech War

Wed, 10/07/2015 - 8:12pm

Peter W. Singer and August Cole want you to know their book, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, is a work of fiction, not prediction.

Let’s hope they’re right.

To be fair, speculative fiction has long portended the future of conflict.  A mysterious rogue submarine prowled the ocean’s depths in Jules Verne’s classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea—written over four decades before German U-boats would terrorize Allied shipping during the First World War.  Today, military planners turn to Max Brooks’ World War Z, hoping to glean lessons from a worldwide zombie apocalypse which might prove useful in responding to other, more likely disasters.

For Singer, a strategist at the New America Council, and Cole, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, the mid-21st Century is a world of robots and space-based lasers, where human beings interact seamlessly with computers.  But America’s growing reliance on information technology—seen as one of its greatest strengths just ten years ago—quickly becomes its strategic Achilles’ heel.  After reeling from a crippling cyber-attack and the loss of its GPS satellites, the US is all but blind to a combined Chinese-Russian blitz on its military facilities in the Pacific.  American aircraft carriers, Littoral Combat Ships, and F-35 stealth fighters fare poorly in the initial attack—the latter of which is knocked out of commission as Chinese hackers take control of the aircraft’s microprocessors, most of which were made in China.

Suddenly, the US—once the undisputed high-tech superpower—is forced to rely on low-tech means to save the day.  In a plotline reminiscent of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, one of America’s secret weapon is a fleet of rusty, late-20th Century warships, communicating with light signals to avoid being detected through electronic sensors—the eponymous Ghost Fleet.   

Ray Bradbury once said that science fiction was one of the few places the “philosopher may roam just as freely as he chooses.”  So it is with Ghost Fleet, which forces readers to ask serious questions about the utility of many of the Pentagon’s big-ticket weapons systems, as well as the geopolitical trends which may shape the next century.

Spoiler alert: The Pentagon’s pet projects, including the F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship, don’t fare well.  Instead, coming to the rescue are a fleet of icebreaking ships and a swarm of drone fighters.  Unfortunately, the former is a hard sell for a nation in which nearly a quarter of Americans do not believe in climate change, while the latter seems to be the red-headed step child of the Air Force.

But more important than the weapons is the profound impact technology has on culture, particularly the organizational culture of the military.  P.W. Singer, in particular, has opined on the rise of the “tactical generals”, and the propensity for each advance in information technology to tempt senior military leaders to increasingly micromanage their troops.  Worse yet, recent training exercises have made it painfully apparent that troops have become so reliant on the constant information stream, they’ve become paralyzed without it.  The men and women of the Ghost Fleet are able to make the tough decisions without being “puppeted from afar”, as one character eloquently puts it.  But would we be able to do the same?

Ghost Fleet is an immensely fun page-turner in the vein of Tom Clancy: big on action and amazing technology.  Though, at about half the length of a typical Clancy novel, it comes at the expense of characterization.  (Female readers may roll their eyes that the book—which, of course, includes the obligatory femme fatale who dabbles in the world’s two oldest professions—fails the Bechdel test.)  But for military enthusiasts looking for a quick summer yarn, which, incidentally, may spark off a conversation inside the DC Beltway, I can’t recommend it enough.   

Speculative fiction occasionally presages the future in unusual ways.  Tom Clancy’s Debt of Honor, which reads very much like Ghost Fleet, pitted the US against Japan in a battle for the Pacific.  Though that scenario has, mercifully, not come to pass, the book’s ending—in which a Japanese pilot deliberately crashes a passenger jet into the US Capitol building—eerily foreshadowed the attacks of September 11th seven years before they occurred. 

Who knows: a Ghost Fleet may indeed sail someday.

Ghost Fleet is published by Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.  It can be found on for $18.66 in hardcover.



Tue, 10/13/2015 - 10:23am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

Sorry...Neil DeGrasse Tyson, I'm not. The basic point is that the basic assumptions cheat. Technology works when the authors want it to, and doesn't when they don't. So it's not really a story about the pitfalls of high-tech, or the ability of low-tech alternatives to cope...instead, it's advertising. Of course, advertising and fiction are often related, but a good story-teller tries to be more subtle about it. :)

Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 10/10/2015 - 1:40pm

I wish I understood Warlock's comment but I don't understand any of it. Too technical :)

Who needs speculative fiction to see the problems with blind faith in technology--or any magic bullet?

Drones=robots=CIA fighting for its missionn vs. Air Force fighting for its mission vs. JSOC fighting for its mission in AfPak while the Pakistanis (and Saudis and Chinese and everyone else under the sun) got into our emotional ooda loop from day one.

Nothing's changed. Operation Evil Airlift is the basic primer for anyone dealing with the US: get to our decision makers as fast as possible and work the connections and fears that come with the US desire to act.

Technology and its advantages muted? Say it ain't so. It's not the future. It's the past and the present.


Fri, 10/09/2015 - 12:07pm

This is less about high-tech vs low-tech and more about "tech I like vs tech I don't". So in this case, we have adversaries conducting very sophisticated, tech-heavy precision attacks on carriers, but unable to employ the implied high-tech sensor and communications architecture to find a fleet of ships. Coordinated split-second cyber attacks devastate satellite constellations and render manned aircraft impotent, but the same capability is unable to cope with machines run completely by microprocessors and high-bandwidth datalinks. And our collective ability "to make tough decisions" avoids the effects of garbled communications (and resulting garbled understanding), so our operational and tactical virtuosity in coordinated, distributed operations is relatively unaffected.

That's's a work of fiction, and part of the fun for any author is redefining to explore new territory. But in serious speculation -- even serious speculative fiction, and *especially* serious science fiction -- the same set of rules have to apply across the board. Even good fantasy works that way. Cherry-picking the rules cheats the intellect -- maybe good for an afternoon on the beach or to kill time waiting in the airport, but doesn't encourage a return read to dig through the ideas behind the story.

Madhu (not verified)

Fri, 10/09/2015 - 11:04am

It's related:

"C]urrent conclusions about the value of health IT investments may be premature. Research suggests three lessons for physicians and health care leaders: invest in creating new measures of productivity that can reveal the quality and cost gains that arise from health IT, avoid impatience or overly optimistic expectations about return on investment and focus on the delivery reengineering needed to create a productivity payoff, and pay greater attention to measuring and improving IT usability. In the meantime, avoiding broad claims about overall value that are based on limited evidence may permit a clearer focus on the best ways of optimizing IT’s use in health care."

— Spencer S. Jones et al., “Unraveling the IT Productivity Paradox–Lessons for Health Care,” The New England Journal of Medicine, June 20, 2012…

Okay, military Design folks. Some of you are arguing against technoutopianism via a post modern approach and I am arguing against it from an empirical-it's-a-pain-in-my-ass approach. We have just been arguing past each other.

Madhu (not verified)

Fri, 10/09/2015 - 10:28am

Beware the techno utopia.

It's a theme across all of American society-or, more properly, its management classes- not just the Star Wars "jedi knight" loving American military.

It's a pain in my world too. Telemedicine only works if you have qualified people at either end of the connection but for all the money spent on digitizing information there somehow is never enough money to train or hire actual humans to man the connections.

I read an article about using tele pathology in Korea to send images to a specialist stateside. Military medicine publication. That's fine but what the article missed is that the person on the other end--I'd be that sort of physician--has a lot to do so it's just one more task in a busy day. How the logistics of that works is not fixed by a new computer technology. Actually, I could train someone (we have a fellowship program and the fellow rotates at the VA) and then you'd have someone on site and not have to rely on digital images....

Why are so many in our management classes in love with the idea that t if you just have the right digital technology, all ills of the world will be solved? I think it's the difference between people that write about things and those that have to implement the bright ideas.