Though a work of fiction, Ghost Fleet stimulates the reader’s thinking about a broad range of ideas and issues, encouraging open-mindedness and innovation. This is the type of thinking necessary for the success of the Royal Australian Air Force’s Plan JERICHO.
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Ghost Fleet has attracted extensive attention among military commentators since it was published in 2015, culminating in co-author August Cole’s presentation to at the 2016 Air Power Conference. While well-researched and very well marketed, the extent to which the book offers value to military professionals will ultimately be determined by the reader themselves.
The book’s overarching plot is not in itself particularly surprising. Set in the near future following a range of global socio-economic crises, the People’s Republic of China is now ruled by a military-industrial consortium known as the Directorate. Facing petroleum resource pressure, Directorate geophysicists discover gas reserves in the Marianas trench, within United States Exclusive Economic Zone protection. In coalition with Russia, the Directorate then mounts a surprise military attack on Hawaii and deployed United States Pacific forces, the rapid success of which leads to the collapse of NATO and redefinition of the world order.
Central to the success of the Directorate’s offensive was the integration of their use of their extensive space, cyber, and drone capabilities, coupled with other unconventional warfare techniques, which rendered the modern capabilities of the US and its allies impotent. The regularly quoted example of the tactics employed relates to the processors within US systems such as the F-35. These processors were designed in China to contain latent malware, then introduced into the marketplace to be eventually sourced by Defence contractors for use in the F-35 program. As the Directorate attack unfolds, the malware is activated to generate a homing signal for Directorate missile systems, rendering the JSF’s stealth features worthless.
From a purely critical perspective, the reader could be distracted by a focus on literary aspects: Is the plot unrealistic with respect to China’s attack even in the context set? Is the response of the other geo-strategic players artificially shaped to lead to the plot’s climactic battle for Hawaii rather than reflecting any likely shift in the global balance of power? Are the characters (on both sides) somewhat stereotypical in their morals and motivations? In a similar manner, a military reader could also be distracted by the validity of the strategies applied by the protagonists, or the limited depth to which Sun Tzu’s and Thayer-Mahan’s strategic concepts are explored and explained.
Both approaches miss the real utility of the book – this piece of fiction is a platform to stimulate readers’ thinking about a broad range of ideas and issues. Singer and Cole themselves have been at the forefront of highlighting this intent, emphasising in a range of forums how fiction offers the opportunity to explore military concepts without any of the constraints of physical and technical realities. Critics might argue that this is nothing new for the military; fictional scenarios involving a potential adversary have been central to our professional development from the tactical to the strategic level in war-games throughout history. And while a key limitation of those war-games has historically been resource constraints, recent developments in live, virtual and constructive (LVC) simulations have partially addressed this issue, allowing far greater reality in training than had previously been the case.
The counter-argument in favour of fiction is that it doesn’t suffer the same tight controls as exercises and war-games, in which availability of people, funding, time and technology still provide limits to what can be achieved, even with LVC. In writing Ghost Fleet, Singer and Cole were not constrained by a limited set of objectives defined and prioritised by a higher command and nor are their readers. They were free to raise ideas and concepts that some organisations may find unwelcome or confronting or from which some organisations might genuinely benefit; ideas and concepts that the reader can then choose to explore to attain a deeper level of understanding themselves based on which of these interests or appeals to them.
The prime example in Ghost Fleet is centred on Western militaries’ reliance on their technological edge. Singer and Cole ask what would happen if this were denied to them or if they found themselves at a disadvantage. In an Australian sense, given the F-35’s centrality to our concept of air superiority, its immediate irrelevance in the opening stage of this conflict cannot help but stimulate thinking. True, we could simply deny the likelihood of such a compromise, but the fact this is fiction forces us to consider what we might do in such a situation without the need to commit any resources beyond the open and innovative minds of our people.
This highlights an important aspect of Singer and Cole’s work. They have researched thoroughly the technologies described to show that the events they describe are at least possible in the future, even if we might find them implausible. From space-based systems to industrial sabotage planned years in advance, unconventional attacks using civilian-flagged merchant militia and extensive cyber-warfare, the Directorate’s attack provokes thought on the security and capability of our platforms and networks. This extends beyond the technological aspect to take into account a range of tactics, techniques and procedures developed in response to this attack. Denied the technological advantage they had assumed for so long, the US and their allies find themselves forced to innovate. Retired platforms with more secure, self-contained systems are recalled into service, while the remnants of US military forces in Hawaii mount an insurgency based on the lessons they had learned through the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns.
I would argue that this theme, of open-minded and innovative thinking, is the key takeaway from Ghost Fleet for Air Force. Plan JERICHO looks to leverage the technologies offered by the advanced platforms we will acquire over the next ten to fifteen years. However, JERICHO also challenges us to think about our operational concepts and the vulnerabilities of our organisation, rather than simply assume this technology coupled with our current paradigms will assure us victory. JERICHO demands that we ‘red-team’ the way we do business so that we can innovate and improve. Ghost Fleet provides an example of how that red-teaming can be achieved through fiction.
WGCDR Jason Begley is an Air Combat Officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. He is also a Sir Richard Williams Foundation Scholar and PhD candidate at the University of New South Wales. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.