Imag­ined global con­flict full of energy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Justin Burke is a jour­nal­ist on The Aus­tralian and a grad­u­ate of the US Stud­ies Cen­tre at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney.

Justin Burke Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War By PW Singer and Au­gust Cole Houghton Mif­flin Har­court, 404pp, $US28

For all the ink spilled on the po­ten­tial for war be­tween the US and China — though to re­cast a maxim of Win­ston Churchill’s, bet­ter ink than blood — few have gone to the lengths of PW Singer and Au­gust Cole in imag­in­ing the gran­u­lar tech­no­log­i­cal de­tail of what such a con­flict might look like.

They are well qual­i­fied for the task. Singer has writ­ten sev­eral ex­cel­lent non­fic­tion works in the past decade, in­clud­ing Wired for War and Cy­ber­se­cu­rity and Cy­ber­war. Cole is a for­mer de­fence writer for The Wall Street Jour­nal. Both are at­tached to prom­i­nent think tanks in Washington, DC.

In Ghost Fleet — inspired by Tom Clancy’s 1986 novel Red Storm Ris­ing, which en­vi­sioned a war be­tween the US and the Sovi­ets — Singer and Cole have pro­duced a work of what they call “use­ful fic­tion”. (One pre­sumes they don’t mean to im­ply other fic­tion is use­less.)

A dirty bomb has gone off in Dhahran, Saudi Ara­bia, driv­ing oil prices sky high and throw­ing in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics into tur­moil. The US has be­come a ma­jor energy ex­porter to China, which has de­posed the Com­mu­nist Party for a tech­no­cratic al­liance of busi­ness and mil­i­tary fig­ures called the Di­rec­torate. The Chi­nese then dis­cover a huge gas de­posit in the Mariana Trench and launch a sur­prise at­tack across cy­berspace, space and sea to take con­trol of the Pa­cific Ocean west of Hawaii.

Energy in­se­cu­rity is a plau­si­ble trig­ger for this fic­tional con­flict, one shared with Clancy’s novel and sim­i­lar to the con­di­tions that sparked the Pa­cific War be­tween Ja­pan and the US.

Cer­tainly this novel can claim to be­ing use­ful, es­pe­cially in high­light­ing Amer­i­can com­pla­cency about its tech­no­log­i­cal vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties.

For ex­am­ple, when China ex­ploits the ubiq­uity of the mi­crochips it man­u­fac­tures via em­bed­ded back­doors for its hack­ers, the po­ten­tial chaos in ev­ery­thing from fighter jets and GPS to home ap­pli­ances is eye-open­ing. The story also fea­tures cred­i­ble ex­trap­o­la­tions of present tech­no­log­i­cal trends: it fore­shad­ows drones of ev­ery kind, Google Glass-like de­vices, stim­u­lants and the mil­i­tary use of elec­tric rail guns. (Help­fully, the au­thors pro­vide more than 370 end­notes.)

But as a work of fic­tion Ghost Fleet is less suc- cess­ful. The char­ac­ters are for the most part mil­i­tary pro­tag­o­nists (no stir­ring speeches from the White House here) who do not gen­er­ate more than mod­est in­ter­est in their fates. The Amer­i­can — and Chi­nese-Amer­i­can — char­ac­ters show some nu­ance, but the Di­rec­torate seems to be staffed with-two di­men­sional, Sun Tzu-quot­ing cut-outs. A huge amount of ex­po­si­tion takes place via di­a­logue, ren­der­ing much of it un­re­al­is­tic and caus­ing key plot points to be easily missed. Nonethe­less, it in­cludes some in­ter­est­ing as­pects for Aus­tralian read­ers: from the imag­ined im­pact on the com­mod­ity trade and the po­lit­i­cal dis­in­te­gra­tion of the In­done­sian ar­chi­pel­ago, to an ir­rev­er­ent Aus­tralian bil­lion­aire cum space pi­rate (who Singer says is a com­pos­ite char­ac­ter).

Pre­sum­ably the au­thors have at­tempted this pro­ject as a work of fic­tion to spread their mes­sage about Amer­i­can mil­i­tary hubris and tech­no­log­i­cal com­pla­cency out­side the DC belt­way.

But an al­ter­na­tive read­ing of this cau­tion­ary tale is pos­si­ble. As the US has achieved energy in­de­pen­dence in re­cent years, af­ter decades of anx­i­ety about its re­liance on oil ex­ports, it would do well to con­sider the in­se­cu­rity that other na­tions con­tinue to face, and con­tinue its com­mit­ment to Per­sian Gulf sta­bil­ity and open sea lanes. Tech­no­log­i­cal con­tests are fun to think about, but as Sun Tzu says, “to win with­out fight­ing is best”.

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