Novels about great power war have long held fascination, particularly since the world hasn’t really seen one since the Korean War ended in 1953. Red Storm Rising is well known, as is Red Army and the Third World War. All three dealt with a conventional European war against the Soviet Union during the 1980s. All wrestled with the specter of nuclear weapons and all got most of the technical stuff right. The best of the bunch is Red Army, in part for the characters, and in part because the author dared to have the United States lose.
All of those books, however, took place in what was more-or-less the present at the time they were written. Today, unlike the 1980s, the United States holds near-absolute military superiority. War is still possible, of course ... see, for example, Eric Harry’s Arc Light. It portrays an accidental war between the United States and the Russian Federation in the early 1990s. What makes Arc Light unique is twofold: it gets the politics and economics absolutely and it lets nuclear weapons out of the bottle without destroying the world. (I won’t spoil it by saying how; the book is worth reading. James should take a look at it for this series.) The war depicted was a great power war, of course, but it was accidental and it was not between peers.
So to consider what a modern great power war between peers might be like we need to move into the future. On this blog, Martin Skold discussed what a near-future great power war might be like. But that excellent discussion was heuristic and only tangentially touched upon operational or technological issues, let alone the politics. (Go read!)
And now we have Ghost Fleet, by P.W. Singer and August Cole! In it, China and the United States go to war in 2024. (The authors give away the exact year on page 48.) A real, genuine great power war. Both sides refrain from using nuclear weapons (for reasons I find plausible) and the conflict plays out over land, sea and space. It has gotten good reviews and it is a book that we really wanted to like.
But we have read it, and while it is a good gripping read ... we just cannot give it a thumbs up. The reasons are basically technical. The authors appear to get enough issues seriously wrong to make it impossible to keep our disbelief suspended.
Over the next few days and weeks Will Baird and Noel Maurer will be collaborating on a series of short posts pointing out the problems with the scenario laid out by the authors. We are doing this for three reasons. First, it is a fun bit of procrastination. (The book is well-written and fun to read!) Second, the book has gotten a lot of attention in policy circles ... and if we are right about the flaws, then that is a problem. Finally, we think we might be able to learn something. These posts aren’t intended to pan or fisk the book; rather, we think of them as opening up a conversation. Are we missing something? Do the authors know something we don’t?
We have divided the apparent errors into three types:
“That’s Not How It Works” technical problems that affect verisimilitude, but not the main plot.
“That’s Not How It Works” problems that don’t affect the plot, but are so major that they yank you out of the book completely. “WTF moments” is another good term.
Serious screw-ups that make whole sections of the book impossible as portrayed.
Watch this space.