Ghosts in the Machine

20 Questions with Peter Singer and August Cole


What if?

Those two words form the foundation of the best fiction, when writers explore the dark corners of imagination and peer deep into the recesses of our greatest fears. No two words convey more brilliantly haunting images. From H.G. Wells to Asimov, from Ray Bradbury to Tom Clancy. What if?

With their new techno-thriller, Ghost Fleet, Peter Singer and August Cole take an unexpected twist on the classic Clancy formula, producing a book that is equal parts science fiction and science fact. But, unlike Clancy, there is no (spoiler alert!) happy ending. Heroes fight and die, machines rise and fail, and America finds herself at her most vulnerable in centuries.

The book is a ‘must read’, the kind of book you read in a day and relentlessly turn page after page. But the book isn’t nearly as interesting as the authors themselves. No two more unlikely writers have leaped to the top of the genre, yet they sit atop a veritable mountain of techno-thrillists. How did they get there? What was there inspiration?

Let’s find out for ourselves…

1) You’re a couple of think tank boy geniuses. Why write a book?

AC: A novel is one of the best ways to explore at the big ideas, complexities and grey areas that are overlooked. A good book is accessible too so you reach people who might never have thought about the issues we’re writing about, like the next world war. When the delivery of Ghost Fleet hardcovers hit my porch the other day, I stared hard at those boxes before I could even touch them. There was a lot more than books in those boxes for me. This has been a lifelong dream — to write something that could conjure the experience I had with Red Storm Rising a long time ago.

PWS: First, thank you for calling us “boy geniuses.” Does that mean we get characters in an upcoming Doctrine Man episode? I’ve written several nonfiction books, but we went the route of “fiction” (noting it still has some 400 endnotes to show how it’s all real) because you can move the dial forward and explore certain “what ifs” that you can’t easily in a traditional book. There are also certain truths that can be told via fiction. Finally, you might be surprised, but a novel is more likely to be read than a typical thinktank product, not just by people on the way to the beach, but even by senior leaders. It’s a lot easier for a staff officer to pass this one to the boss to read on the plane than say an edited volume of thinktank policy reports.

2) What were your literary influences on your writing?

AC: I had a steady diet of science fiction and thrillers as a kid. All that Asimov and Bradbury got mixed up with Tom Clancy, William Gibson. I really like Norman Mailer’s writing and John Le Carre’s characters are tailored with more care than Savile Row’s best artisans.

PWS: George RR Martin, the writer of Game of Thrones said, “All authors are readers first and all of us write the sort of books we want to read.” So, for me it was writers like Martin, Clancy, Herman Wouk, Max Brooks, Sir John Hackett, etc. That also shaped the decision not to follow a single character, but rather multiple characters in multiple locations, a la Game of Thrones, Red Storm Rising, World War Z, Winds of War, etc.

3) Okay, no kidding now. Who wrote which parts of the book?

AC: A lot of people think it’s odd to write a novel with two authors, but when you think about how movie scripts are written, teaming is common. It worked great for us, and we will do it again. The best way we can describe it is like 3-D printing.

PWS: A lot of people think it’s odd to write a novel with two authors, but when you think about how movie scripts are written, teaming is common. It worked great for us, and we will do it again. The best way we can describe it is like 3-D printing.

4) The Army was noticeably absent from the book. What did we do to you?

AC: The big challenge for this book was how much we did not get to show of our world. It sticks with me, and it’s not just a specific Army storyline that did not get to center stage. With a book like this you only get so many pages. The Army is indeed there in the future world, and you’ll be happy to know that it’s following Doctrine Man’s sage advice and those yellow safety belts are no longer necessary, but our camera did not follow them through our story.

PWS: There was a story line about a plucky Army officer, who secretly has a cartoon, but the editor chopped it for being unrealistic. I think it’s there, just not in the way you expect. The book explores today’s debates over counterinsurgency, just with the script flipped. So we engage with things like the difficulty of winning hearts and minds, or how technology isn’t a solution, but we also got to play with what have US troops learned in the wars of the last decade, including from the other side, and how might we use them back. Some of the insights for this for example came from discussions with Army officers recently back from tours in the sandbox.

5) Reading your book was like talking to Tom Clancy’s evil doppelganger. What made you focus on future tech gone wrong?

AC: We don’t think about this often enough. Doing so helps you work through problems before they happen. With a novel, you can reach a wider audience to raise awareness of uncomfortable truths — and hopefully inspire solutions.

PWS: There are a lot of assumptions baked in our strategy and technology today, notably that we’ll always be technologically ahead of the other side, and that everything will work the way we plan. Murphy’s Law, Moore’s law, and Clausewitz’s Law would beg to differ. This is a novel, but it explores how if we don’t watch out, we could be setting ourselves up for an epic fail.

6) On the subject of technology, are we mortgaging our future warfighting capability with trillion-dollar weapons programs?

AC: That’s a real risk. There was traditionally a lot of enthusiasm in defense circles for spending more and adding complexity to systems, even in the name of saving money, because we felt as a nation we could buy technological dominance. No longer. We might be better off with a cheaper and simpler approach that is more in line with commercial world development models or flat-out improv engineering pushed down to the user and operator level.

PWS: The problem may not be how much we are or not spending, but what we are we spending it on. There are a lot of Pontiac Aztec acquisition programs, which try to be all things to all people, and end up being overpriced and under performing. There is also a lot of what we think of as “new,” which are actually programs that date back to before the iPod, let alone the iPhone.

7) Speaking of technology, how do you see drone tech evolving over the next 25 years? Is the age of manned flight coming to an end?

AC: I gave Pete’s family a drone for Christmas. It hasn’t paid me a visit yet, but in a couple decades it might be able to. I see manned-unmanned operations as the paradigm that will emerge, even if we go through an ‘end of manned flight’ era.

PWS: It won’t be the end of manned flight, but the monopoly of manned machines is certainly over. You don’t have to wait for World War III for that; all the sides in the current Iraq fight have used drones, including ISIS. The future is the mix of manned and unmanned and also a wider range of uses and users. The book is a novel, but it’s been used in discussions with Joint Staff teams to the Defense Science Board, as it actually documents over 30 different real robotics programs that will likely play a role in the next war….just not always in the way people expect.

8) Two platforms figure significantly in the book, the F-35 and the LCS. What drew your focus to those two systems?

AC: These are important new systems that haven’t been battle tested yet, so we did that. The Pentagon has placed big bets on them too, financially and operationally. In a sense, the book can be seen like a red team exercise. They also help contrast with the wartime innovative approaches we highlight toward equipping and fielding that are nothing like our normal peacetime weapons buying process. You buy one thing, fight with another.

PWS: They feature prominently, but don’t spoiler alert on how they fare…

9) The F-35 has been called a fifth-generation fighter with fourth generation weapons and stealth. What do you think a true fifth-generation airframe would look like?

AC: Asking a writer how to build an airplane is a recipe for … success? I think about what I would want it to do first with a big task like that and that is to really understand the role of the fighter in our operations during the next 10–15 years. This touches on the role that design theory can have in the defense arena and I see a lot of possibility there. That might lead to optionally manned aircraft as a viable idea, though the economics of that approach seem daunting.

PWS: It might have a gun that works? A bigger issue for the “generation” discussion is that it was supposed to move us a generation ahead. But when August was at The Wall Street Journal, he broke the story on how the F-35 program was hacked multiple times. We’re already seeing its Chinese doppelganger, the J-31, take flight before the plane that was supposed to be a generation ahead serves in our forces. This isn’t to beat up on the F-35 or say that we shouldn’t buy it, but rather to understand that investment in generations may not deliver the same bang for the trillion buck.

10) There is a growing belief that the carrier is too expensive and too vulnerable for future warfare. How do you envision a future naval force?

AC: The aircraft carrier will endure, quite literally given the service life of our current ships in development, but we may see the mission set they own fulfilled by variations on what we see as a carrier. Could you have an autonomous ship operating a swarm-like air wing? Yes. It would be interesting to think of it like the small-sat paradigm emerging in space; there’s room for big satellites that cost billions, but smaller, distributed platforms can do many of those jobs for a lot less money and with more efficiency.

PWS: We’re committed to the carrier. Period. The Navy is not going to evolve away from it anytime soon. But I think we’ll see existing warships revolutionized in new ways. Think of the B-52 as a parallel, how a plane designed for strategic nuclear bombing is now doing close air support because of GPS. Especially with drones becoming smaller and autonomous, the “carrier” might also soon be anything from a Ford class aircraft carrier to an America class amphib to a Zumwalt class super destroyer (not the official class, but Star Wars parallel intended) to an LCS to a submarine.

11) A war with China sets the backdrop for the book. Do you think war with China is likely? Does China really want to fight us?

AC: This book is about destiny. For our characters, and our country, and with China. China wants to return to a position of global strength. As XI’s Chinese Dream shows, the Party wants this very badly. Our future China is a different China than today’s Party-led government and it wants this even more. It sees war opportunistically — as a fast-track to the world it feels the nation deserves.

PWS: I don’t think it is inevitable, but it is notable that the Chinese regime’s newspaper recently said “War is inevitable” if the US doesn’t change its policies in the Pacific. It may be posturing, but it does illustrate how a great power war, which too many think is an impossibility, is back in the realm of the possible, either by design or accident. It’s also notable that many Chinese officers lament what they call “peace disease” that they haven’t served in combat, while over 70% of Chinese public in polling believe they would win in a war against the US. Whether realistic or not, it is not good a good context for peace.

12) The Terminator reboot is just around the corner. SkyNet is already active. Should we be concerned with the evolution of artificial intelligence?

AC: Concerned but not fearful. This is a case where art is giving us a good head start on reality, so we should be able to figure this one out. Unless AIs are already writing all those sci-fi novels and video games and we just don’t know it yet.

PWS: AI will be designed by us, so it will have all our flaws. So the minute it tries to take over the world, I expect the software to crash like it does every time you hit save on an important memo. In all seriousness, one of the things the book looks at is the increasing integration of AI into battle management. We think of AI as Skynet, when it is really the decision aid software now used in Army command posts and on Navy bridges.

13) You’ve had the opportunity to work with and around some of the greatest thinkers of our generation. Who stands out as the most insightful?

AC: He’s going to flinch when he reads this, but it’s Peter Singer, heard of him? A genuinely good person while being prodigiously thoughtful and resolutely professional — a combination that is hard to find and a privilege to work with.

PWS: He clearly means the other Peter Singer, my nemesis (the other writer I am often confused with, who founded the animal rights movement). My dissertation advisor was Sam Huntington. We didn’t see eye to eye on various politics, but he was a master at drawing insights across various fields and drawing them out in a way that was both substantive, but also understandable.

14) Who were your greatest influencers in life?

AC: This is where you say your parents, but I mean it: My dad introduced me to the work of the photographer Robert Capa. My mom was a librarian and gave me a love of reading authors like Ray Bradbury. Steven Pressfield’s guidance and advice in his books on creativity, as well as his novels, are one of my biggest inspirations. I followed his plan: work hard, and harder yet. It worked. I am from Seattle but I think of the Texas wisdom from my former mentor at The Wall Street Journal, Lynn Lunsford, just about every day even though I haven’t worked in a newsroom with him for a while now.

PWS: He said parents, so I will say grandparents and wife. My grandfathers, for example, gave me by sense of history and sense of wonder and sensor of humor. When I look at the totems in my office right now, for example, there is a 1939 Jane’s Fighting Ships from when my grandfather served on one of the Lend Lease destroyers. My wife is my enabler, in the best possible meaning. She urged and supported me to explore these issues and take this risk, and also did various cool things like build our book website (she’s the true tech geek in the family).

15) What motivates you? What is your passion in life?

AC: When I was a kid, I wanted to be a diplomat. Specifically, since this was late years of the Cold War, to Russia. So I went out and learned Russian, getting picked up from some skate spot to go meet a Univ. of Washington grad student tutor. I was like 12. My original interest in journalism, writing, and conflict, and how to avoid it, grew out of that impulse and it carried me a long way. I have a lot of interests, as the bike tires and ski wax cluttering my basement reveals, but my sense of purpose in my different kinds of work I do is still tied to that original impulse.

PWS: I love to be fascinated. Whether it’s a new technology, new book, or TV show, or just new argument, it is the unexpected that engages me.

16) What makes you laugh?

AC: My kids are still trying to make sense of the humor I share with my wife, who grew up with two brothers so she knows how to laugh. She works in a tough field, so she needs comedy to help put some distance between her work and her home life.

PWS: Goodness, everything from my kids and the silly things they do to YouTube clips to TV shows. Silicon Valley right now, for example, just slays me.

17) What was your favorite comic or comic book as a kid? Why?

AC: The Watchmen really shook me, for its unflinching darkness. But I really liked Scout, another dystopic post apocalypse series, Strikeforce Morituri, about a force of human soldiers who got superpowers to fight aliens but a reduced lifespan, Rogue Trooper, about a futuristic soldier roaming a wasteland with his “deceased” former teammates uploaded into his gun and other battle kit.

PWS: I wasn’t a comic book kid growing up. I was more World War II history, technothrillers, and science fiction. So it was more likely to be John Keegan’s 6 Armies at Normandy, Audie Murphy’s To Hell and Back, Tom Clancy Hunt for Red October, Harold Coyle Team Yankee, or Heinlein’s Starship Troopers than Superman or the Flash. Does that make me more or less of a nerd? (DM’s Note: While I prefer to reserve judgment, these tastes in a child are probably harbingers of a Dexter-like adulthood.)

18) iPad, tablet, or old-fashioned books made from dead trees?

AC: All three. A time and a place for everything. The words matter the most.

PWS: iPad on the plane so that I don’t have carry so much, dead tree book at the beach, because of sun and sand.

19) Tell e about the last good book you read?

AC: The Peripheral by William Gibson; War Stories, a sci-fi anthology edited by Andrew Liptak and Jaym Gates; The Lion’s Gate by Steven Pressfield.

PWS: Augustus, by Adrien Goldsworthy. It’s a history book about how this young teenager rose to end a republic that had endured for centuries to become the first emperor of the Western World. It should be fiction when you pull back and think of the hugeness of that.

20) What’s next?

AC: Another book together!

PWS: A book about the next, next world war?