The Big Idea: P.W. Singer and August Cole

What happens when two authors with combined decades of experience working in and chronicling the defense industry attempt to plausibly devise a war scenario only a few years into the future? You might find the book has uncomfortable parallels with the real world. But of course, as P.W. Singer and August Cole might tell you about their book Ghost Fleet, perhaps that’s the point.


The two of us didn’t meet until we were in our 30s, but both grew up on a similar diet of science fiction, technothrillers, and big sprawling novels. We’d prepare for summer vacation trips by getting a stack of books from the library, that might range from Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising and Herman Wouk’s Winds of War to William Gibson’s Count Zero and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. A classic Sir Arthur Conan Doyle read on the beach might then be followed by staying up late to cram in just one more chapter from Michael Crichton.

Both of us would go on to become professional writers in the non-fiction world: August as a journalist working the defense beat at places like The Wall Street Journal, and Peter writing books on topics like private military contractors, drones, and cybersecurity. It was this work in the real world of DC policy that we met, as August explored topics like the story of China hacking our fighter jet programs and Peter writing books on the ramifications of cybersecurity becoming a new realm of battle.

But when we decided to team up on a book exploring the future of war and technology, we kept coming back to this summer reading list we had in common. So we set out to write a book that wouldn’t just peer into the potential future, but also try to take readers back to that kind of experience.

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, out on June 30, explores what would World War Three be like. The idea that the looming Cold War between the US and China/Russia could ever turn hot is fiction today, but a real risk in the years ahead. After Russian landgrabs in Ukraine, NATO is on its highest alert since the 1980s , while China’s regime newspaper declared “war is inevitable” if the US doesn’t change its policies in the Pacific. Indeed, a US Navy P-8 patrol plane was chased away from a Chinese military facility this month…which happens to be the opening scene in our “fiction” despite being written 18 months ago!

The structure of Ghost Fleet reflected this idea of returning to the books we enjoyed . Rather than following one character or a single story thread, the story  follows multiple characters and settings, akin to the structure of Red Storm Rising, World War Z or Game of Thrones. This allows us to cover more ground and play with more “what if’s?,”  as well treat the war itself as a character. But here also, there was a point  in this structure in how fiction can be useful in laying out the underlying truths: the novel lays out how a 21st century war between the great powers would be different than the wars of today. Battles will take place not just on the land, but also at sea and air (where US forces haven’t had to face off against a peer power since 1945), and in two new places since the last world war: space and cyberspace. So to tell the story of the war, you have to dance across the settings in a way beyond anyone character’s single journey.

But what makes Ghost Fleet perhaps something different is we’ve experimented with melding two classic book genres, the technothriller and the nonfiction book. Think of Ghost Fleet as a new kind of “novel,” where the story is backed by 400 endnotes that show how real it all is. Every technology and trend in the book, no matter how science fiction-seeming, is drawn from the real world. The realistic scenarios and moments that we hope will thrill and chill were actually built by using nonfiction research that included everything from unearthing DARPA contracts to sharing lessons from various Pentagon war-games that we organized. Moreover, we put facts to work for our fictions, including using the story to reveal real world concerns from new Chinese drone prototypes to how certain US weapons have already been hacked. Similarly, we met with real people who would fight in such a war (from US Navy destroyer captains and fighter pilots to Chinese generals and Anonymous hackers), which improved the realism but also let us really get to know our characters.

Even the name reflects this approach. “Ghost Fleet” has a cool, ominous sound to it, but it is actually the real nickname of the National Defense Reserve Fleet. These are the old Navy ships kept in mothballs in places like Suisun Bay near San Francisco, just in case we ever need them again; they are the Navy’s version of the Air Force’s “Boneyard” of retired planes kept in the desert. Those dusty warplanes get their day too in our book.

There is a real world policy question of just why we keep these old ships around, which connects to bigger issues of whether a world war could happen again? But this then raises an uncomfortable issue: Could it go badly enough that the US would actually need to bring back these faithful old ships and planes? Answering these questions also led us down neat story and plot pathways that are often overlooked when planning for future conflict, like how would the old gear, and the old sailors who know them, relate (or not) to digital age warships and sailors?

It has been rewarding to see how people are reacting to the project so far, which we think reveals that the mix of fiction and nonfiction can be both entertaining and helpful in thinking about the unthinkable. We’ve been able to talk about the real world lessons from the novel with groups that range from 600 Navy officers at the Naval War College to the Defense Science Board, as well as share early versions with readers who range from 4 star Navy Admirals (for the military side) to one of the inventors of the Internet (for the technical side), to the writer of HBO Game of Thrones and producer of Hunger Games (for the entertainment side). The result is perhaps the strangest ever Venn diagram of blurbs and reviews, but hopefully one that entices people to check it out, whether they are a military officer looking for insights into the future, or someone just looking for a read with a beer in hand at the beach. Or maybe both.

So that’s our big, but also classic, idea: that you can enjoy a novel, but also find the fiction “useful.”


Ghost Fleet: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the book site. Follow P.W. Singer on Twitter. Follow August Cole on Twitter.

22 Comments on “The Big Idea: P.W. Singer and August Cole”

  1. I recall “The Third World War” by General Sir John Hackett did a similar melding of fiction/fact in a NATO-vs-Warsaw Pact scenario. It was a good read, still on my bookshelf somewhere. I’ll buy this on too.

  2. Dear God, *please* let this not be another book along the lines of

    “America gets hit by sneaky foreign perfidy and suffers, America rallies in obvious relentless fashion which somehow failed to be foreseen by opponent and grinds down their forces, throw in bit featuring some individual heroic American soldiers/sailors pursuing improbably pivotal derring do, opponent’s political structure gets taken out to end book because contempt for foreign politics make for a good Deus Ex Machina and we couldn’t figure out a better end-point”.

  3. You know, with all due respect, when two individuals with significant connections to the defense industry and national security community write up the latest “yellow peril” combined with the swarming of the Slavs version of The Battle of Dorking, is it really news?

    The point being, I enjoy a good polemic as much as the next person, but the reality that China makes a boatload of money from trade with the U.S. – significantly more than the U.S. does from China, of course – which sort of raises the question of killing various golden geese.

    Especially those equipped with nuclear weapons.

    Likewise, when the authors, despite their obvious professional histories, never apparently manage to haul themselves down to the recruiting office despite being of age for said adventures in Southwest Asia over the past couple of decades, I sort of have to take what they have to say with a Gibraltar-sized grain of salt.

    The other point, of course, is how far off the beam the vast majority of “future war” writers tend to be – the Kaiser did not, in fact, land an army in Kent, any more than the Emperor got one ashore on Oahu (much less California, a la Homer Lea), and, of course, Ivan did not come rolling across the IGB.

    And compared to the Soviets, the Chinese are small beer….

    Of course, compared to the Germans and Japanese, so were the Soviets.

    Just once, I’d appreciate a future war writer who came up with – oh, I dunno – something that doesn’t rely on the standard tropes…

  4. As a former Electrician’s Mate on a destroyer I’m interested enough to check out how they think I’d be used in a call-up and how it would play out. If it’s written well enough I can overlook some well-worn plot points. At 51 I’m still young enough to do the job. Hell, I know enough Vietnam era guys who would love to get underway again.

  5. Andy – That’s interesting; we’re roughly the same vintage. Different rates, however.

    The deal with the “old salts aboard old ships save the day” is even that’s a trope; the Battleship movie (it was what was offered on a plane one trip; didn’t pay for it) had the same elements, this time with USS Missouri as the stage.

    And the Chinese/Japanese/Panasians/Eastasians etc have been “the next enemy” since 1899, roughly … other than the Japanese going nuts in 1931-45, it has yet to come to pass…

    At least it’s not the Islamofascist People’s Kaliphate, but still; resurrecting the yellow peril?

    Just once I’d like to see monomaniacal Canadian nationalist, or berserker Swedes, or the Masonic-Rotarian Alliance of Evil, or something … surprising.

  6. Just once I’d like to see monomaniacal Canadian nationalist, or berserker Swedes, or the Masonic-Rotarian Alliance of Evil, or something … surprising.

    Well, as a surprisingly large number of people have pointed out now and again, there’s one country which is (i) large, (ii) wealthy, (iii) militaristic, (iv) nationalistic), (v) with a dysfunctional political system, (vi) prone to using force to gain access to resources, and (vii) has a significant number of politically active people who can be referred to loosely as “neo-fascists”, But it’s considered rude to consider all these things in concert…

  7. Well, sure, but even “evil fascist Amerikkkka” isn’t exactly an unused trope, either…

  8. Yeah, but not really for very near future technothrillers of the Tom Clancy / John Hackett template.

    I vaguely recall one Nato vs Warsaw Pact tome from the seventies or early eighties which showed all the problems the Warsaw Pact forces would have, but still had them winning through sheer relentlessness. Can’t recall the name, though.

  9. PhonecianRomans

    You might be thinking of Red Army by Ralph Peters. Good book.

  10. Personally, I don’t mind Americans being default protagonists in American literature, not that I don’t appreciate a more nuanced view as well. As aforementioned, Red Army is exceptional for turning on its head the tropes of Cold War thrillers and considering the very real possibility that a Soviet invasion of Western Europe would’ve been successful.

  11. Except that – the Soviets making it to the Rhine or whatever – wasn’t exactly unthought of, either, however … There’s a reason NATO had TNF assigned sufficient to turn most of Europe into dust. Same reason the French had their deterrent, even though it was not officially part of of NATO C3I.

  12. “But this then raises an uncomfortable issue: Could it go badly enough that the US would actually need to bring back these faithful old ships and planes?”

    The other way around surely? Could it go WELL enough that the world is NOT blown up by strategic nuclear weapons and the US has the time to bring back these faithful old ships and planes to augment a Navy already more powerful than the next dozen or so navies in the world?

  13. “Just once I’d like to see monomaniacal Canadian nationalist, or berserker Swedes, or the Masonic-Rotarian Alliance of Evil, or something … surprising.”

    Me too! Let’s face it, people. Those wily Canadians have succeeded in lulling us into a false sense of security for two hundred years now. Them and their seductive maple syrup. Mark my words! Look north! Beware! (And see ‘South Park: The Movie’ for more details.)

  14. P.Ineapple,

    Of course NATO’s military and political leadership considered it, but most of the novelists of the era didn’t. Red Storm Rising, Team Yankee, The Third World War and so on.

    John T. Shea

    It’s true, our Navy is pretty awesome, but also brittle and spread entirely too thin. No potential opponent will have to face the entire thing at once and it is my understanding from those in the know, me being a dumb old Army artilleryman I can only claim educated layman status, that the number of escorts per carrier is now woefully inadequate to provide an air defense and anti-sub sphere against a determined near-peer enemy, (read China, Russia, maybe a few others in the future as our power continues to decline, and yes, I think we are in a period of inevitable decline).

    I’ve also heard the opinion from multiple SWOs and Naval Aviators that our training at those tasks is also horribly, horribly rusty. Such is only to be expected given the last fourteen years of war, after all how many Taliban/AQI Migs, subs and cruise missiles did we see? But that gap could still potentially bite us in the ass in a big way.

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