Ghost Fleet and Airpower

USAF F-35A Banks Over Florida's Emerald Coast(USAF Photo, MSgt Jeremy T. Lock)

USAF F-35A Banks Over Florida’s Emerald Coast
(USAF Photo, MSgt Jeremy T. Lock)

Please note there are some spoilers in here, so if you’re worried about it, go read the book first! Peter Singer and August Cole’s new novel, Ghost Fleet, has become a critical darling in Washington beltway defense circles. Called “useful fiction” by the authors, its exhaustively-researched details aim to paint a picture of near-future great-power conflict, earning favorable comparisons to Tom Clancy’s Cold War masterpiece Red Storm Rising. Indeed, the authors themselves say they hope their novel inspires the next generation to take up the mantle of defense work, much as Red Storm did for many of us now reading (and writing) these words. In this latter regard, they really succeed. Even as my defense analyst side was taking issue with the technologies they chose (or did not choose) to highlight and the way they chose (or did not choose) to play out the story, I found myself tearing through page after page to see what happened next. This is something the defense community could use more of in explaining itself to a detached public and an oft stubborn Congress: entertainment. But Leading Edge is an airpower blog, so I guess I should talk about how Ghost Fleet portrays airpower. From my Western perspective, it would be easy to kick back and spend the next thousand words bashing the treatment of the F-35 (hint: not favorable) and the general absence of US airpower through roughly the first three-quarters of the book, but that wouldn’t be terribly productive. Instead, I’d rather look at the deeper messages about airpower which can be found in Ghost Fleet’s 375-odd pages. Of course, it’s typically the Directorate (a post-revolutionary China) which is frequently applying said airpower, but that only serves to reinforce the universality of the message.

Airpower Is Fragile But Still Dominant

“How many decades had the Americans claimed the world’s skies? No more.”

I’m not giving away much beyond what’s on the book jacket to say the early part of the war does not go well for the US, as the Directorate’s anti-access/area-denial strategies execute with eye-watering success. American airpower is grounded in the face of a blistering multi-domain assault, and American ground forces find themselves subjected to air attack for the first time since the Korean War. On the receiving end of massed precision airstrikes, the same kind the US has had a virtual monopoly on for nearly 25 years, defenses crumble, and the Directorate seizes supremacy on the land and sea as well. The fact Singer and Cole need to wipe away American airpower before they can get to the rest of their story is telling as to just how dominant airpower has become on the modern battlefield: having the Directorate succeed in the face of American air superiority (or even contested air superiority) would seem highly implausible at best. Unsurprisingly then, when US airpower is finally brought to bear in the latter stages of the book, and our adversaries’ hard-earned air superiority slips away as easily as it was gained, it marks the beginning of the end for the Directorate. Superiority in the skies, or the lack thereof, is a crucial deciding factor in the trajectory of a state-on-state conflict in both the modern world and in near-future science fiction.

Shenyang J-31 Fighter at Zhuhai Air Show, November 2014(Photo by WC, Used Here Via Creative Commons License)

Shenyang J-31 Fighter at Zhuhai Air Show, November 2014
(Photo by WC, Creative Commons License)

Quantity Has A Quality All Its Own

“He felt sick when he saw how empty the sky was of aircraft. In less than a minute, at least a hundred lives had been lost.”

While some of the specifics may be debatable, Ghost Fleet’s epic air-to-air battle sequences nonetheless reflect a harsh reality: life in the skies over the battlefield in a great power conflict would likely be (with a doff of the cap to Thomas Hobbes) nasty, brutish, and short. Both sides in Ghost Fleet wield lethal air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles. Both are kitted out with stealth and advanced electronic warfare. Amid this relative parity, neither side can seize a decisive advantage, and both receive heavy losses. Fifth-generation fighters and cutting-edge capabilities are the entry requirements into this game: they don’t guarantee victory, just the right to play. The victor, Singer and Cole suggest, will be the side which still has aircraft to spare when the dust settles, more a matter of how many aircraft a side has than how good the individual platforms are. While not to sell the F-22 and F-35 short (they will dominate the lower- and middle-tier foes we are ultimately far more likely to fight), even lopsided kill ratios may not be enough in a conflict against China. This is not necessarily a new idea, a famous RAND study noted the shortfalls in US air-to-air capacity in a war against China back in 2009, but Ghost Fleet presents the problem in context, laying out the costs of failure from the strategic level down to the human one. Bottom line, an air force which lacks the sheer numbers to keep fighting after suffering heavy casualties in the early rounds of a high-end duel may cede air superiority by default.

Airpower Has A Dramatic Impact On Insurgents

“Finn tried to track the quadcopter but kept losing it as it ducked in and out of the forest canopy. A rapid reaction force would definitely be coming soon. They might helicopter up, and if they did, it would all be over soon.”

Ghost Fleet’s most important observation about airpower may well be its most subtle: the effect air dominance has on insurgent operations. In occupied Hawaii, a resistance movement of surviving US soldiers comes together to combat the Directorate’s forces. However, looming large over all their operations, and dominating their every move, is Directorate airpower. Aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms force the resistance fighters to take great caution in their movements, stay out of sight whenever possible, and find innovative ways to counter advanced thermal sensors. Armed quadcopters and attack helicopters respond anywhere on the island within minutes, placing every attack on a short timeline. Airpower dominates not just the sky but the ground as well. In an era when airpower advocates and detractors alike find fault with our operations in Iraq and Syria, it is easy to forget the intervention of coalition airpower in August 2014 brought a swift end to the Islamic State’s lightning campaign which allowed it to seize massive tracts of land in Iraq. Since airpower arrived, the Islamic State, unable to mass its forces or move in the open, has achieved only a handful of gains while being rolled back in areas like Kobane and Tikrit. Just because airpower may not be meeting the unrealistic expectations some have set for it doesn’t mean it isn’t working. Just ask Singer and Cole’s ragtag guerrillas.


So, by all means, go out and get Ghost Fleet. Enjoy the read. Recommend it to your friends. Argue about it over beers. The novel’s power lies in its ability to spur conversations about the future of conflict with people who might not otherwise be engaged. There are a lot of salient points on airpower which can be brought into these conversations, made all the more meaningful by the fact Singer and Cole often let the Directorate, not the US, reap the benefits. Neither the US nor the West writ large owns airpower, and we will only maintain our present advantage by looking to the future and evolving. That is a conversation worth having if we want to make sure the darker parts of Ghost Fleet remain fiction. Brad Edmonson is a USAF civilian and former Air Force officer. His thoughts are his own and in no way reflect the official viewpoint of the United States Air Force. The three quotations are all taken from Ghost Fleet, pages 325, 336, and 234 respectively.


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