On page 55-56, the Chinese attack the Panama Canal by smashing a giant container ship into the locks. “Two ships ahead, the Xianghumen, a Chinese-flagged freighter, had turned on its engines. This was craziness. What was Xianghumen’s captain thinking, speeding up inside the transit zone? The canal master was screaming over the radio for the Xianghumen to acknowledge and stop. But there was no reply.”
After the Chinese freighter crashes into the locks, “crushing the doors inward,” a Filipino sailor watching it happen thinks : “[He] wasn’t sure how long it would take the Chinese companies that ran the Panama Canal Zone to fix this mess, but their investment had clearly gone down the tubes.”
This was the second moment where I was yanked out of the book, because the scenario is impossible on multiple levels.
The first problem is that ships are not allowed to enter Panama Canal waters under the control of their captains. A Panamanian pilot takes full control. The Xianghumen would have to start its kamikaze run several miles away from the locks, which would making smashing into them a pretty impressive feat of navigation. Moreover, it would give the game away hours before it crashed. The Canal Authority would mobilize tugboats to push the ship away.
Now, the story is set in 2024. So maybe the Chinese ship has some sort of ghost computer system that can seize control back from the pilot and start its run close to the locks. Still, there will be plenty of warning; ships do not accelerate quickly.
But that brings us to the second problem: it is goddamned hard to get to the locks. Look at the above picture. Better still, look at this video, which shows a ship clonking into the side of the canal as it approaches the locks:
How in the name of God is a kamikaze vessel supposed to navigate that entrance? Even now, ships cannot safely transit without being hooked up to those locomotives that you can see in the video.
Finally, we should point out that the Panama Canal has three separate lock systems. You would need three kamikaze vessels to crash simultaneously. That kills your robot scenario, since the Panama Canal Authority does the scheduling. Be hard to make sure that you have three ships in the right places at the right time.
The scene is just fantastically silly.
If the Chinese really want to knock the Panama Canal out of action, then they should send a commando team to blow the Gatún dam. (Or just hit the damn thing with cruise missiles, as was pointed out in comments.)
And it gets worse, because there is no reason to take out the Panama Canal in a hypothetical war. The Canal cuts the transit time from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but presumably the U.S. Navy will have the initiative in any counterattack. As Carlos Yu and I showed in our book, the Panama Canal had no substantive effect on anything in World War 2 other than the the marginal campaigns in the Aleutians and the timing of the Doolittle Raid. If the Canal had no strategic benefit in World War 2, why would it have one in World War 3?
The final nail in the coffin of my suspended disbelief was at the end, where the Filipino sailor wonders “how long it would take the Chinese companies that ran the Panama Canal Zone to fix this mess.” Chinese companies do not run the Canal. The Panama Canal Authority runs the Canal. Chinese companies do run some of the port facilities on either side the Canal. But those ports are a different thing.
Ghost Fleet admirably has footnotes, so I checked the ones for this passage. They footnoted “Chinese companies that ran the Panama Canal Zone” to an article in the Economist. Go read the article. Now come back. You will note that the Chinese interest the article cites is about the possibility of financing a fourth set of locks or building a competing canal in Nicaragua. How did they turn that into Chinese management of the existing canal?
It is a minor plot point, but it planted the skepticism that will blossom in this space over the next few days.