Failure of new U.S. weapons systems may be more than science fiction
A war between China and America is a favorite subject of armchair military analysts. Why would it happen? How would it play out? Authors have written thousands of pages online and off trying to answer these questions.
That’s why Ghost Fleet, a new novel by national-security analysts August Cole and P.W. Singer, is fascinating. The book, set in the near future, is an account of a war between China and the United States written by two men whose day jobs are studying conflict and making policy recommendations.
If anyone could get this scenario right, it’s these two military experts. Though it is fiction, the authors have taken great pains to keep their storytelling realistic.
The novel particularly shines when the writers depict the failures of the Pentagon’s newest weapons systems. Over the past decade, U.S. taxpayers have poured trillions of dollars into fancy new weapons, such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Littoral Combat Ship, though defense experts warned of their many failings.
Lockheed Martin, the chief contractor on the F-35, attributes the planes many documented problems to its stage of development and promises that they all will be corrected by the time of deployment or shortly thereafter.
Ghost Fleet imagines a war that begins with the Littoral Combat Ship and F-35 and ends with the United States relying on a reserve fleet of older, but more reliable, weapons moored near San Francisco. The Pentagon’s newest toys fail so spectacularly that Washington must fall back on their old, less technologically dependent weapons.
The authors could be most prescient when describing the failings of recent U.S. military investments. They are less so when explaining why China picks a fight with the United States.
Cole and Singer are so used to citing their military research that they’ve done it in their novel. Ghost Fleet has extensive footnotes. Don’t believe a passage about an emerging technology? The notes direct you to the Pentagon press release about it.
Because of this, Ghost Fleet has a certain weight. Cole and Singer are so steeped in future wars that they depict the fighting — on the ground, in space and on the Internet –with an air of indisputable authority.
Killer weapons and legacy systems
The Pentagon’s current obsession with Swiss-army-knife-style weapon systems, which are able to do many different things, leads it to lose the first major battle against China in Ghost Fleet.
In the novel, China kicks off its assault on the United States with an epic redo of Pearl Harbor. Faced with a surprise attack, Washington’s fleet of fancy Littoral Combat Ships and hangars full of F-35s can’t fight off Hainan’s troops.
Part of this is due to the surprise attack, but much is due to the technology itself. The LCS and F-35s are largely untested weapon systems beset by ballooning budgets and horrifying problems. Worse, according to the authors, both rely far too much on computers.
The F-35, in particular, is considered by many weapons experts to be a laughingstock. Its gun can’t shoot because Lockheed has yet to write the software for it; the $600,000 helmet required to fly the plane has yet to work as intended, and, in at least one case, the jet’s engine has caught fire.
Despite these problems, the Pentagon is adopting the F-35 in all of its branches … and getting rid of battle-tested legacy systems.
Ghost Fleet shows us the consequences of a U.S. military-industrial complex focused more on selling expensive new systems than on building quality weapons.
Cole and Singer’s rendering of Pearl Harbor Two hinges on how shoddy the LCS and F-35 are. They’ve written a fictional version of the nightmare-scenario defense that many military journalists and analysts have long predicted would happen when the F-35 went to war.
Following a series of sophisticated cyberattacks, the fancy jets barely fly, don’t carry enough ammo to effectively engage the enemy and are easily destroyed by Chinese fighters.
In the end, it’s America’s ghost fleet that comes to the rescue. The Pentagon resurrects ships and planes retired by defense-contractor overreach and technological hubris. The old F-16s and A-10s still fly, and they’re ready and able to beat back America’s enemies.
They are simple weapon systems, particularly when compared to the F-35 and the LCS. Better yet, they use outdated and simplistic computers that China can’t jam or hack. In Ghost Fleet, the old planes are the best planes.
It’s vastly preferable to see the F-35’s failure in fiction than in real life, where real lives would be lost.
Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer, says its product is reliable and able. “Here’s the truth about the F-35,” the company wrote in a recent statement about the jet responding to media criticisms of the weapon. “The jet has flown to the corners of the flight test envelope and it’s meeting or exceeding expectations in performance. There are no insurmountable obstacles to successfully completing the development program on schedule in 2016.”
Ghost Fleet is full of wonderful moments. It’s got space pirates, drug-addled hackers out of a William Gibson novel and American insurgents fighting occupation in Hawaii. Cole and Singer make these fantastical elements work, and weave them into the story.
But there’s a problem. The reasons behind the conflict feel far-fetched. The motivations of the Chinese antagonists feel more like the schemes of a Bond movie villain than the inevitable outcome of current geopolitics.
There is a pernicious myth that the United States and China will never go to war because they are economically interdependent. But a closer look at history should worry everyone.
China and America are closely linked economically. China sold the United States almost half a trillion dollars worth of goods in 2014, and Beijing holds trillions of Washington’s debt in U.S. Treasury bonds.
But it’s quite possible that, as Ghost Fleet details, it is because of these economic ties — not in spite of them — that the two superpowers might come to blows.
The authors debunk the idea that economic interests would prevent another world war within the first 30 pages of their novel. One character explains that imperial Germany was Britain’s largest trading partner before World War One. Japan, he says, was America’s biggest trading partner leading up to World War Two.
The economic ties between Japan and America leading up to World War Two are more complicated than that. The island nation relied on U.S. oil imports to keep its military rolling. Washington, however, didn’t like Tokyo’s attempts to expand its territory into China.
Congress attempted to sanction and blockade Japan to cut it off from its military’s main source of oil — the lifeblood of its dreams of empire.
In Ghost Fleet, after a catastrophe in the Middle East, America becomes the world’s largest energy exporter. China’s Communist Party falls and a more militaristic, capitalist system replaces it. The two nominal allies expand their trading territory, and China imports most of its fuel from America.
Then, Chinese scientists discover a massive natural-gas deposit in the Mariana Trench. This new source of energy means China can divorce itself from its old trading partner.
Worse, the Chinese military establishment convinces the political leadership that China can no longer expand its trading territory without taking some away from its largest competition — the United States.
So China attacks America to assert itself as a global power and establish more control over the Pacific Ocean’s trade routes. It’s an elegant and fictional way to get everyone fighting.
But the world is far more complicated and chaotic.
According to the Pentagon’s most recent report on China’s military, Beijing’s goals are “defending … territorial integrity, securing China’s status as a great power, and, ultimately, reacquiring regional preeminence.”
These goals, especially the first and last, are key to understanding how a war between the superpowers might occur. The United States currently dominates the Pacific, but China has expanded rapidly to defend its increasing interests in the western Pacific.
It is there, in the waters off the Chinese mainland, that I believe we’ll see the event that starts a war between the superpowers. It will probably be something ridiculous.
Tensions between Washington and Beijing have escalated in recent years as China has asserted itself more and more beyond its borders. Beijing currently claims Taiwan and several islands scattered throughout the west Pacific as its territory, and it’s fielding more ships, planes and even building artificial islands to legitimize its claims.
Washington holds treaties with Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines, and the U.S. Navy aggressively patrols the waters in these regions, often coming right up to the perceived border with China.
If China ever invades Taiwan or pushes into the wrong island off the coast of Japan, the wronged country may go to war against Beijing. Such a conflict would test the value of a treaty with Washington and may drag it into a larger war.
As tensions rise, both sides might also perceive tiny infractions as aggressive behavior. Both Beijing and Washington claim it would never throw the first punch, but we may soon see a day where an act of war is as simple as a U.S. jet crossing into Chinese airspace, or a Beijing drone crashing in Japan.
The Chinese leadership in Ghost Fleet is aggressive and arrogant, ready to take what it wants at the edge of a sword. It begins the war for prestige and power. Often, wars begin for sillier reasons, and people later justify their actions as part of a larger scheme that never existed.
In 1969, a World Cup qualifying match sparked a four-day war between El Salvador and Honduras. The fighting wasn’t about soccer; the match just ignited existing tensions.
In 1914, a Serbian anarchist assassinated Austria’s archduke and set off a tidal wave of events that killed almost 40 million people. Wars often begin this way, when some small event pushes existing tensions to the fore.
The United States and China just need another decade of tension and the right spark. It won’t take anything as contrived as a vice admiral’s dreams of a dominant China.
Ghost Fleet is written by defense experts with a flair for fiction and a desire to document their sources. Their predictions of how and why the superpowers come to blows may not be plausible, but their vision of how the conflict would play out–in cyberspace and in the Pacific – seems so realistic that it’s frightening.