Cyber Defense Review

Book Review: Ghost Fleet – Scary, Accessible, Entertaining and Plausible – The Future Implications of Cyber Attacks

By Dr. Aaron Brantly | October 23, 2015

Singer, P. W., and Cole, August. Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2015, 416pp.

When it comes to cyber Pearl Harbor metaphors, this book takes the cake. Providing a disturbingly realistic take on a connected future warfare scenario Singer and Cole immerse the reader into a world that lies just beyond the horizon. Their tale of interwoven fact and fiction is a quick and entertaining must read for all who would belittle the potential disruptive attributes of cyberspace and a networked way of war that has become increasingly pervasive from modern strategy and tactics down to acquisitions and manpower assessments.

Starting their story in a future that finds the United States in confusing geopolitical world recovering from economic collapse and war where the Chinese Communist Party has been replaced by an ominously named plutocratic-military junta called the Directorate. The novel’s focus is placed on the interconnectedness of systems that seem to be just within our current technological grasp. Viz glasses that are eerily similar to Google Glass have made all but the older generations of officers and enlisted crew digital dependents well beyond even our current generations of cell-phone toting youths. The dichotomy in the opening pages between a digitally immersed crew and a paternal non-digital XO sets a stage for the triumph of old fashioned strategy, tactical acumen and seamanship over the sterile vision of over the horizon conflict between naval forces and space assets floating high above.

The dialogue is fast paced and the story shifts effortlessly between differing perspectives within the novel. Frequently the reader is left wanting more detail, more description and deeper insight into each of the characters. Yet, with rare exception there is little time or effort spent on emotionally developing the characters or making the audience really yearn for their survival. The primary exception is the principal protagonist, Jamie Simmons, a naval officer who assumes command of his vessel when his captain is killed the opening conflict. Captain Simmons contends with competing pressures of being a son, a father and a husband. Yet, it is his relationship to his father that offers the most direct emotional juxtaposition of old and new and positions Captain Simmons as the bridge between the Alfred Thayer Mahan and Ender Wiggin.

The technical explanations in the book are excellent both in their relevance and their accessibility to the average reader. Even the concepts not discussed, such as why guns are not fired in space stations, provide a sense of accuracy and realism that is absent in less technologically attuned works. It is clear that the authors did their research. Yet, beyond the technical accuracy and the engaging plot, it is the interwoven references to current platform developments both for naval and air forces that stand out as stark warnings against existing military acquisition patterns. If the argument of the book could be distilled down, it would be that technology can be a significant force multiplier, but a careless dependence on technology alone increases risk.

Ghost Fleet is solid introduction through fiction to many of the potential future challenges faced in cyberspace. Whether or not all its prognostications on the integration of digital technologies into warfighting occur – individuals interested in a quick and exciting read and policy makers looking for a glimpse at a possible future have at their disposal an exciting and relevant tale.