[Book Review] Ghost Fleet: A Novel of The Next World War – Peter Singer and August Cole
Sat, 01 Sep 2018 || By Anggika Rahmadiani

Humans have a perpetual ambition to be a godlike figure. It can be seen on how humans face the transition from each civilization to another without any destructive and violent events happened - war. They are striving for perfection, and their inventive traits lead them to be an ex Machina. It’s reflected in the advanced military technology that states are racing up to deploy their most lethal weaponry to rule the world, even there’s a slight of hopelessness undeniably linger on it. These states' ironic overwrought and struggles with each other are well-pictured in the techno-thriller fiction from Peter Singer and August Cole: Ghost Fleet.

Ghost Fleet introduces you to whole new war terrains ever imagined in civilization, including the outer space and the cyberspace. Prepare to be shocked by a brand-new Pearl Harbor attack between US and China (Directorate, a post-Communist government under the joint military and business elites) with Russia’s help, taking place in the Pacific as Hawaii becomes the beginning of this battleship. It opens with a background of Southeast Asia’s conflict, when the Malacca Strait, between the Former Republic of Indonesia and Malaysia, becomes the main global interest where both of parties’ interests heavily lie within.

If you enjoy Christopher Nolan’s historical war-suspense movie, Dunkirk, imagine Ghost Fleet is a high-tech version of Dunkirk accompanied with the most comprehensive defense and scientific details – with almost 400 footnotes – brought to you exclusively from the hands of two US defense and security experts. Singer and Cole who smoothly narrate each side of the war; from the land, sea, air, cyber and the outer space. However, expect mainly for the heavy details of naval and outer space weaponry, drawn from the current unmanned submarine rail gun techs from the US to the anti-satellite missile attacks from China.

The futuristic war starts to escalate between the US and the Chinese Directorate in Hawaii when China takes down a US Navy Submarine by detonating the bomb under USS Coronado with protagonist Jammie Simmons as a captain. It’s followed by the China Army and Airforce’s attack in Hawaii as an unexpected attack. After the first attack successfully brings the significant loss to the US military, China continues to appear with numerous strategy plots as their turn to pay their consequence; surveillance to Russian military agent and several mysterious murders in their military. US’s effort to find an alternative to defend themselves and attack China back would be fascinating to see. It will involve a lot of unexpected characters, starting from an eccentric Australian billionaire, a former Sudan refugee and a Japanese-American marine professor. By giving a narration of numerous parts of society, Singer and Cole try to say one message to their readers, that war is our inevitable societal narrative.


Military Dependence on Technology: Potential Vulnerability

Ghost Fleet shows readers on how weaponry system that is being revolutionized in new realm and condition of war – mainly on how cyber weapons become a control tool over physical weapons – has brought the vulnerability to states. It is inspired by the US Stuxnet cyber-attack to Iranian’s nuclear power plant which spread the malware into their networked system in 2010. In Ghost Fleet, space is where the next world war begins with a little help from cyberspace. It is China’s cosmonaut and cyber militia that go hand in hand to take down US GPS system and the unmanned battle management system, The Automated Threat Enhanced Network Awareness (ATHENA). It’s being crashed by an anti-satellite laser shot from Tiangong Space Station to track down US nuclear-powered submarine and aircraft in Pacific.  

If the readers use the 300s endnotes that Singer and Cole give as a hint properly to learn more about security, readers will find out that the anti-satellite missile attack’s plot is based on the prolonged issue on US-Sino rivalry in the outer-space weaponization. The space race already begun since China launched their FY-1C anti-satellite missile test in 2007.[i] Until in the early 2018, it is known that Russia and China's counter-space weapon will be ready to launch their initial operational capability in the next few years as it stated in one of the notable points on 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment of The US Intelligence Community.[ii]

Unlike current hardware hack, in the book, when the malware packet being delivered by putting the malware file directly inside the device, China's cyber militia already goes beyond by using a long-range malware installation with fancy finger gestured use and double-step hacking technic by tricking the cyber-attacks identification. This is so that The Pentagon wouldn't realize the malware succeeded to randomize Americans' GPS satellite constellation and exploit their location signals, before it shut down completely.

This cyber-attack is China pulling the trigger of the next world war, causing a great amount of loss in the US as they already went beyond the military automation with almost all fleets accompanied with artificial intelligence. It's like shutting the US troops eyes and it made such an easy step for China army, navy and air force to attack them as they would be unprepared when the attack comes. This automation in weaponry could lead to vulnerable system as Gen. Robert Neller, commandant of the U.S Marine Corps said, “The potential vulnerabilities of the way we’re building the force today, and maybe that we need to be watchful about.” It became a moment when the US needs to readjust their strategy, by not heavily depends on technology and even to shift into deploying their obsolete navy fleet from late 20th century.  

Beside in the Ghost Fleet’s plot, US also has a real challenge facing location deception in military since the Iranian captured US stealth drone taking it down into automatic landing mode in 2011.[iii] This attack includes manipulating navigation by sending fake location, randomizing the GPS signal, and taking control of the GPS power. While the GPS spoofing can be used to protect national security, like how Iran used to protect their sovereign area by the US surveillance UAV, on the other side, it remains a potential vulnerability for any other military stealth fleet. Until recent time, the US military still gives their huge concern on the GPS vulnerability and is still finding their way for the more secure alternative of location technology, both in the Navy and the Air force.[iv]


Predicting the Next Cyber War: The Imagined Future World

Time dimension is also counted as a crucial factor on how Singer and Cole set the realistic livelihood and civilization progression on Ghost Fleet. This is shown when several characters in this book are based on true historical event, i.e.: A Silicon Valley’s data engineer, Daniel Aboye, pictured as a Lost Boys of Sudan, a group of displaced children from Second Sudanese Civil War that seek refuge in US and become a loyal citizen who wants to pay an homage to his country; or Mike Simmons, the oldest generation in this novel, a petty Navy officer who was deployed to the Gulf War when his children were at school-age. From these characters, we can throw a guess on what year Singer and Cole set the time background of this novel. It would be in the middle of the 21st century, around 2030-2050s.


On the tech side, the book illustrates America and China in a conducive partnership, as China is able to supply the microchips for all AI and IoT technologies, for both civilian or military uses in America. With these inevitable uses of IoT in daily life, it becomes another dependency complex during this era. People even drive with AI navigation and have kitchen connected with a communication system to ensure food supplies. But after the cyber-attacks launched by China cyber militia, even the toilet can’t flush as Beijing hold a command over their microchips. 

Singer and Cole describe citizens’ daily life to readers like one of Cyberpunk’s movie scene: people are having conversation with Viz Glass, the Ghost Fleet’s name for Google Glass which is predicted to be launch on 2020, giving their eyes access to unlimited mobilized vision, to scratch and collect data from internet only by a blink, and even to record moments.

The IoT technology in optical and augmented reality like Google Glass can change human lives radically, giving a fresh lease of life on social interaction. In the real life, Google Glass just launched their product when Ghost Fleet was on its progress in 2013. The fancy glass with the 60s eccentric forehead details failed to meet larger consumer meets. In 2015 Google Glass halted their production for public while it remains being used in several work aspects.[v] Their competitor, Intel, just launched Vaunt in 2017, an augmented reality glass, with normal looking glasses as an attempt to reach wider audience.[vi] 

In the book, the most astonishing yet disturbing plot arrives when the Chinese Directorate uses Braingate on their interrogation to know US’s next step on the war after Hawaii’s takedown. It is a neuroscience technology used to monitor how the brain’s signal works and to modify humans will and movement with electrodes wires. For instance, humans no longer have free will to act with their consciousness, to tell the truth or to act on several conditions, as it’s already being controlled by the wires.

Unlike other’s future tech appeared on Ghost Fleet that draw the real threat in current life, Braingate version of Ghost Fleet is only an improvised and misused version of brain-implant technology, under the same name, which is used only for medical purposes – to treat brain-paralyzed patients[vii]. Despite Singer and Cole’s brilliant imagination that Braingate can be used as an innovation in information operations –the more humane and pain-free methods of interrogation– Braingate is one of many disruptive technologies that is feared would be diminishing the human nature in the real life.


Continuation of Cold War Fiction Narratives

Ghost Fleet claims to be inspired by the work of Tom Clancy, Red Storm Rising, the well-known Cold War military science fiction that also imagines a World War III. The Cold War historical anecdotes would be found a lot in this novel when drawing the losing moment of the United States, which ironically reflected the US Cold War vibe as an unbeatable fleet around the world with the most advanced military troops. In the meantime, these anecdotes become a plot-twist as the US needs to admit their loss in war from China’s vast progression on responding to their high-tech military artilleries.

Despite all the packed and substantive details on military and technology, especially with Singer’s academic reputation as a prominent security and defense expert,

readers won’t see Ghost Fleet as a boring workpiece with unwitty authors trying to give a lecture about national security. As a fiction work, Singer and Cole put a decent portion of war-time drama so readers would feel entertained by how authors narrate the deliberated fears yet lingered hope within the people on wartime. With enormous numbers of characters, authors try to go personal to the readers by narrating about how it feels to be Jammie Simmons, a Navy ship captain dealing with family issues in the wartime; or feeling the agony of Carrie Shin, Honolulu’s local people that turn into an insurgent. This drama side goes along with an optimistic moment for the US to fight China back. With the awakening of USS Zummalt, known as Ghost Fleet, it’s a proof that how civilization let human back to their ancestors’ war tradition, to back fight on the sea again.

Readers can get bemused by how imaginative Singer and Cole are, such as when readers realize that the whole roots of this fictional fight start from a trivial fact of Star Trek’s character told by a Russian Army Officer! With this pop-literature side of Ghost fleet, it is understandable that science fiction has become the main attraction, with August Cole’s works as an editor of Atlantic Council’s science fiction collection, War Stories from Future.

We can sum up that Ghost Fleet’s way in imagining future world war draw heavily on real cyber threat, IoT technology progress and security issue faced by nations. Mainly, Ghost Fleet’s plot inspired by the new prospect of the outer-space battleship combined with the recent concern of military cyber vulnerability on GPS spoofing. While the rest, readers can check by themselves which Ghost Fleet moments that actually have the nearest connection with the current time and pick their favorite Ghost Fleet moment.

            To close the impression of this novel, we might recall the classic tactical war quote from Sun Tzu, from whom China’s Directorate military philosophy drawn heavily: “Use the normal force to engage; use the extraordinary to win.” Enjoy!


[i] Zissis, Carin. (2007). China's Anti-Satellite Test. [Online] cfr.org. Available at  https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-anti-satellite-test [Accessed on 25 July 2018]

[ii] Coats, Daniel. (2018). Statement for the Record: Worldwide Threat of The US Intelligent Community. p. 13 [Online] Available at: https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Testimonies/2018-ATA---Unclassified-SSCI.pdf [Accessed on 25 July 2018]

[iii] Rawnsley, Adam. (2011). Iran's Alleged Drone Hack: Tough, but Possible. [Online] wired.com. Available at https://www.wired.com/2011/12/iran-drone-hack-gps/ [Accessed on 25 July 2018]

[iv] Peck, Michael. (2016). The Pentagon is Worried About Hacked GPS. [Online] nationalinterest.org. Available at https://nationalinterest.org/feature/the-pentagon-worried-about-hacked-gps-14898 [Accessed on 25 July 2018]

[v] Farr, Christina. (2017). One of Google's Most Embarassing Flops is Turning into A Real Business. [Online] cnbc.com. Available at https://www.cnbc.com/2017/04/11/google-glass-becoming-surprise-success.html [Accessed on 27 July 2018]

[vi] Bohn, Dieter. (2018). Intel is Giving Up on its Smart Glasses. [Online]. theverge.com. https://www.theverge.com/2018/2/5/16966530/intel-vaunt-smart-glasses-announced-ar-video [Accessed on 27 July 2018]

[vii] V, Manjunatha. (2014). Brain Gate Technology. Presented on International Conference on Global Innovation In Computing Technology (ICGICT'14). Vol 2, Special Issues 1, March 2014. [Online] Available at http://www.rroij.com/open-access/brain-gate-technology.php?aid=48429 [Accessed on 27 July 2018]

Editor: Diah Ratna Pratiwi, M.Dev & Viyasa Rahyaputra, S.IP