In late May, a former supervisor contacted me about an exciting new position he was helping to create conducting predictive cyber threat analysis, and in mid-June, I accepted a job offer to work for him. Moving from IT security implementation to IT security research & development was a huge intellectual challenge for me, and it's only been recently that I've been able to consider pursuing other intellectual hobbies, like blogging - or reading. The first novel I picked up was recommended to me by other security researchers: Ghost Fleet; it's only fitting that my return to blogging be about that novel.
While the plot of Ghost Fleet is very Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October-esque, it's better sourced and only a slightly less probable prelude to war for which Tom Clancy was famous. Ghost Fleet depicts a dramatic fight-for-survival scenario wherein an arrogant and complacent America is caught off guard by a virtual (and literal) Pearl Harbor attack by the Chinese. The U.S., now denied its ability to utilize satellites for precision guided munitions, encrypted communications, and Google Glass (called "viz" in the novel) is now in a fight for survival against a technologically superior enemy. Left to repel the invaders using guerrilla-style tactics and antiquated pre-digital technologies, America can no longer rely on its technological advantage that enabled the humble JDAM and the fearsome F-35.
In a few paragraphs, I'll outline the issues I have with the geopolitical assumptions that Ghost Fleet makes, but by and large, the premise is well within the realm of possibility. Whether these technologies exist, could be used, or could be developed is ultimately secondary to the underlying point that Ghost Fleet makes:
Cyber Warfare is a new doctrine of warfare, and it's one that reinvokes the World War II style of TOTAL WAR. A cyber-enabled war will likely require the sacrifice of every man, woman, and child in order to emerge victorious.
I've briefly touched on this in the past, only through a Russia Hacking Our Election lens, not a Asian Bombing of Pearl Harbor trope, but the message is no less true. From my earlier post, The Accidental World War, I wrote:
While stealth aircraft represent a leap forward [...] they cannot win a war on their own.
[W]e need another asset; one that doesn't require a large invading army that would hearken a return to the disastrous total war concept.
That asset is the exploitation of cyberspace. Ultimately, that realization is far more dangerous than the actual use of cyberspace for military operations. The fear that a country might use cyberspace to disrupt the global economy, and the realization that these actors may not be nation states themselves but rather some random activist or malcontent, could potentially lead to over militarization of the domain. The cyber equivalent of the accidental downing of a military aircraft, or the non-repudiated hacking of a government entity could one day be characterized as an act of war.
Ultimately this is where Ghost Fleet fails us. While the novel depicts an innovative way to conduct war, it continues to rely on old tropes to tell its story: First with the emotional and racist assumption that Pearl Harbor will be bombed by non-white people, and later with the assumption that war will only be conducted because of attributable state-level attacks. It assumes that, while the U.S. will be caught off guard, it will know who conducted these attacks, and eventually, how to respond and prevent future attacks.
The actors don't discount the ability of terrorists and malcontents to affect global change. In fact, in Ghost Fleet, China is able to rise to an economic super power precisely because of a nuclear-enabled terrorist attack that caused Saudi Arabia, it's oil empire, and the western economy, to disintegrate. Both authors, Cole and Singer, likely understand the nuance of non-state actors, but made the artistic choice to focus on the sexier war between the U.S. and the Chinese Directorate. In an interview with the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Singer clearly states that this spillover from cyber to armed conflict can be accidental or intentional, but his work only shows the intentional. By focusing on the easily explained "China clearly did this," Ghost Fleet shows a future where a savage attack against America is all but guaranteed, and in doing so he begins to fulfill his own prophecy.
A world war will be predictable, obvious even, and it will almost certainly begin with a misunderstanding or misattribution of a belligerent citizen on one side of the world or the other. After all, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand did not cause the first world war, it was simply the final straw. Given that every day citizens are now able to conduct large scale cyber attacks with little-to-no formal training, the ability to wage war has now been democratized.
The lesson of Ghost Fleet that arrogance and complacency in IT/Cyber security can lead to disaster, and the cyber warfare is intrinsically a TOTAL WAR concept is entirely accurate. It's a lesson worth heeding; it's just not complete. This return to TOTAL WAR is not only terrifying, it's also something that a geek with a grudge can accidentally set off. Saber rattling by politicians too savvy to accidentally cause a war themselves, may find themselves blindsided by hackavists who are unhappy with the world political stage. Complacent security researchers and administrators may find themselves victimized by state, or non-state cyber actors, and militaries could be left impotent.
Ghost Fleet is a tale of American ingenuity in the face of overwhelming odds, and a cautionary tale about the complacency of American primacy in a world dominated by peaceful growth for more than a generation. The belief that we should make security a national priority, not only to secure our privacy and favorite shows from hackers, but from attacks from other countries is well received. This is an important issue, one that requires both innovation and legislation, but it also requires dialogue. National priorities have a tendency to cause nationalism, and Ghost Fleet does not fail to deliver its own brand of toxic nationalism that frames this dialogue in such a way that it hinders the innovation it praises.
By invoking its Pearl Harbor and American Ingenuity tropes, Ghost Fleet fails to make this cautionary tale a must read. It falls short of being an outright propaganda piece for both a strong nationalist military and a reawakening of technological innovation. It still has more than enough lessons and creative approaches to invoking cyber warfare into modern warfare that it is a recommendation as a creative way to learn to think "outside of the box" as a new security researcher. It, however, is not a lens through which to view the "next world war."
All told, if you have an interest in security or military doctrine, then I strongly recommend Ghost Fleet. I would only caution you to avoid the nationalist themes that underpin the mediocre plot and focus on either enjoying the sci-fi meets reality motif, or focusing on the innovative blending of cutting-edge technology and modern warfare. The nationalist themes and cautionary tales that are interwoven in this novel will only lead to fear, not solutions, and a wise man once said, "Fear leads to hate."