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The Defense Wonks Who Just Killed the White Paper

P.W. Singer

(Morning Consult) – As Washington suffered through a muggy Monday commute, Peter Warren Singer was telling America’s top-ranking general about his novel.

He wouldn’t say exactly what he discussed with Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but it probably had something to do with World War III – something Singer specializes in, albeit fictionally.

With friend and co-author August Cole, Singer wrote “Ghost Fleet,” a thriller that imagines a shooting war between a weakened U.S. and an ascendant China. What began as an affection for Tom Clancy novels and defense wonkery is now in its fifth printing as dog-eared copies are passed along the corridors of power, from the Pentagon to Capitol Hill.

Usually, the currency of this realm is the white paper, a work of functional prose meant to inform without giving much thought to entertainment. Among the policy crowd, they are ubiquitous; if all the white papers in Washington were to spontaneously ignite, the city would burn to cinders in minutes.

“That’s part of why some policy papers are never really noticed to begin with,” Singer, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, said. “We don’t value good writing. They’re boring.” He laughs. “I can say that as someone in this space.”

“Ghost Fleet” opens with Chinese surveyors discovering a motherlode of energy in the Mariana Trench – enough natural gas to make China energy independent, beholden to no foreign power. With a petrol-dependent U.S. weakened by a global oil crisis, China seizes the Pacific with a devastating first strike, capturing the Hawaiian Islands and setting the U.S. Navy on its heels.

It reads like a defense pessimist’s nightmare, a rapid unfolding of worst-case scenarios: Lasers fired from Chinese space stations take down U.S. satellites and GPS, and Chinese hackers disable the Pentagon’s communications infrastructure, leaving tech-dependent U.S. forces blind, deaf and mute. American warplanes, built with Chinese electronics, fall from the sky when missiles home in on beacons hidden in their microchips. With their networked warships rendered useless by their vulnerability to hacking, the U.S. Navy goes off the grid and resurrects ships from the graveyard – the eponymous “Ghost Fleet.”

U.S. Marines stationed in Hawaii use Taliban-like tactics against their occupiers. Wal-Mart joins the war effort. Rosie the Riveter is a 3D printer. Maverick’s wingman is a drone.

For a military and policy apparatus that just spent the past 14 years waging ungainly, expensive ground wars, “Ghost Fleet” feels alarming. As well it should: Sifting through the 400-plus end notes, readers will find speculation rooted in current scholarship and journalism, not fantasy. As “Ghost Fleet” hit shelves on June 30, the Senate was gearing up to bring balance to a highly contentious cybersecurity measure, a debate that could be resumed as early as this month.

The most obvious comparison is Clancy’s military techno-thrillers: “The Hunt for The Red October,” “Red Storm Rising,” books in which militaries and their tools are the leading characters. Where Clancy’s novels feel like mil-geek smash-em-ups, August and Cole’s book is a geopolitical salon. Twenty years from now, will the U.S. be able to compete economically and militarily with China? When would these great powers collide, and why? And for the men and women fighting, what would that look like?

Ask the same questions on a K Street corner and the wonks would line up to answer it – because the future isuncertain, and the global security schema is changing, and policymakers do want to hear ideas. The difference between a white paper and a novel, Cole said, is that while a white paper can tell you what your adversary might do, a novel can put you in your adversary’s boots.

“It can put you into the character,” Cole said. “That’s red-teaming in the most authentic way possible.” (For those unfamiliar with military jargon, red-teaming means assessing your plans from the enemy’s perspective).

Then there’s the hardware. While Clancy’s odes to military technology could verge on erotic, Cole said character – the ability to craft human narratives and help readers make that empathetic leap – is equally important, if not more.

“Technical detail can devour a story, and when you’re writing for an audience that’s both knowledgeable and serious about the subject, you have to consider the balance between charter, tech and narrative drive,” he said.

Ultimately, Cole said, ideas can provoke, but there’s a difference between discussing warships as weapons platforms and putting readers in the steel-toed boots of a Navy officer who left his wife and children in San Francisco. There’s a difference between discussing the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan and the lessons you learn by stepping inside the rotted fatigues of a Marine officer as she leads her insurgent cell against Chinese occupiers.

“The way you make a story memorable is you create characters that people care about,” Cole said. “Technology plays a big role in ‘Ghost Fleet,’ but it’s not the entire story.”

“Ghost Fleet” could also be seen as a useful antidote for what Singer calls “best-case scenario planning” – the kind of thinking that assumes all of America’s best-laid battle plans will survive first contact with the enemy, contrary to the popular military aphorism.

“It allows the reader to see through the bull – and the bull is the high optimism, or maybe the paid advertisements, or the think tank pieces that are influenced by the defense industry,” he said.

“Ghost Fleet” has won admirers from the military, academic and literary communities: Just ask warrior-intellect and former Adm. James Stavridis, or the U.S. Naval Institute, or literary novelist Philipp Meyer, who called the book “simultaneously thrilling and terrifying.”

Beyond the big names writing blurbs on the cover, “Ghost Fleet” enjoys an influential fan club on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon. Singer said the advance copies of the novel were circulating among the brass early on, and before the book was even published, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, was inviting him to the Pentagon for a chat.

One day, Singer’s briefing a crowd of 40 House staffers at the behest of aides for Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) and Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), both members of the House Armed Services Committee; the next, he’s at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., addressing a crowd of 100 senior officers.

“Strategic thinking is a muscle that needs exercise like any other,” said Michael Hermann, a national security adviser for Langevin, “and having Pete and August come by was a great opportunity to think and discuss creatively, in a bipartisan way, beyond the bounds of the present policy debates.”

“Some of it’s word of mouth, passing from one flag officer to the other, from one congressman to the other,” Singer said. “The other thing is staff officers, when they’re putting together the reading package for their boss when they’re about to get on a long flight – it’s a lot easier for them to say, ‘Hey sir, you’ll enjoy this, and you’ll find it useful.’” He said one of his friends, an Air Force officer, witnessed two congressmen fighting over the last copy in a Barnes & Noble.

For Cole, “Ghost Fleet” is an accomplishment both professionally and personally. He had always wanted to write a novel, he said, and while he was traveling to Liberia – on assignment with the Wall Street Journal, under the influence of Stephen King’s “On Writing” and Alex Berenson’s spy thrillers – he decided to give it a shot. He quit his job at the newspaper and wrote “Ghost Fleet” between 5 and 7 each morning while his newborn daughter was still asleep.

Singer likens their process to a 3D printer: “One of us would take the book, add a layer, thicken it, but also change the design. Then the other would add a layer, and so on.” With each layer, the collaborators would gut-check the other’s thinking or help clear a creative logjam.

“That’s an advantage,” Singer said. “And it’s fun. Writing is lonely.”

Four years ago, Cole said, when he and Singer decided to write what would become “Ghost Fleet,” they worried readers wouldn’t believe them. Cole had just left his defense reporting gig at the Wall Street Journal, and he was all too aware of the possible future that approached – one in which America’s weapons were vulnerable to threats it wasn’t yet taking seriously.

But even as they wrote, Chinese hackers had already been combing through U.S. government emails for years. Engineers were making islands rise from the South China Sea then building military airstrips on those islands. When Singer and Cole in September 2014 they shared a moment of terror: What if the world outpaced “Ghost Fleet” before it appeared in print?

It very nearly caught up. In May, the Chinese Navy tried to warn off a U.S. Navy P-8 surveillance plane from one of its island fortresses; in the opening chapter of “Ghost Fleet,” a nearly identical scene plays out as a P-8 makes a low-altitude pass over a Chinese frigate floating in the Pacific.

“That really spooked us,” said Cole.

In June, just weeks before the book’s publication, the Obama administration disclosed a massive cyber theft of millions of government personnel records, with China as the “leading suspect,” according to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. It was so timely, Singer said, that several defense officials jokingly accused him of engineering a publicity stunt.

An unexpected joy of working on “Ghost Fleet,” Singer added, has been watching people encounter the quirks of America’s military. He said the book’s editor expressed incredulity over a section in which the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s lethality is neutered by a series of catastrophic malfunctions. Surely, the editor said, America’s premier fighter wouldn’t be hindered by a malfunctioning machine gun?

Singer and Cole – both of whom have covered the shortcomings of the country’s most expensive, most troubled and most delayed weapons system – were almost embarrassed to push back. Singer said some readers have expressed disbelief that a U.S. warship would even be named after former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (the USS Gabrielle Giffords, a frigate, launched in February this year).

“Ghost Fleet” is on its fifth print run, and Cole said he and Singer are mulling the possibility of a sequel; in the meantime, he heads up the Art of Future Warfare project at the Atlantic Council, where he presides over a flowering of creative thinking about conflicts to come.

Which may be the only way to think about future conflicts, Singer said.

“The whole enterprise doesn’t work if it’s not a fun read,” he said. “If it’s uninteresting, boring, if people don’t want to read it, it will die a quiet death.”

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