Fictional book, real ships.

Photographer: Gary C. Knapp/Getty Images

The Hackers Behind Pages of 'Ghost Fleet'

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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It’s easy to see why “Ghost Fleet” has captured the imaginations of foreign policy experts in the U.S. and abroad. The techno-thriller, by P.W. Singer and August Cole, not only tells a crackling-good story but also casts light on the warnings that have come from many quarters about the risks of offshoring U.S. defense procurement.

The novel is built around a hypothetical war, in the near future, between the U.S. on one side (thinly allied with the U.K. and Australia; everyone else, NATO included, has, shall we say, abandoned ship) and an alliance between China (now run by “the Directorate”) and Russia on the other. The story begins with a huge cyberattack on U.S. defense facilities, helped out by space-borne technology and the casual carrying of mobile phones, but even more so by the heavy reliance of ships, missiles and computers on microchips manufactured in China. The chips turn out to be corrupted in various ingenious ways that managed to survive all the various forms of screening they undergo.

Immediately the U.S. finds itself at a technological disadvantage, unable to trust the “secure” lines of communication on which the defense infrastructure is built, and unable to protect its most up-to-date planes, ships and submarines from probing enemy eyes -- and therefore from enemy missiles. The nation’s most advanced surveillance systems and battle software are suddenly useless. The rest of the story involves the military’s efforts to fight back using older technology, including the ships of the ghost fleet, as those consigned to the naval graveyard have long been called.

Could it happen this way? The authors -- both serious writers on war, both affiliated with leading think tanks -- have done an enormous amount of research, and have even appended footnotes throughout, to assure the reader that the many technologies they describe either already exist or are likely to exist in the near future.

Much of the commentary on the book has focused on whether the U.S. should use only domestically produced defense technology, down to the smallest component of the microchip. Singer and Cole seem to come down on the yes side. Such an approach would increase procurement costs, perhaps by a large amount, a problem the authors implicitly acknowledge: The narrative includes multiple middle-of-battle references to various complex military components having been built by the lowest bidder.

These are important questions. But something else about the story caught my eye, an issue the authors visit only briefly: the role of cyberwarriors in the battle. Daniel Aboye, a Sudanese immigrant turned tech magnate, finds his offers of assistance spurned by some minor Defense Department functionary. So he enlists his Silicon Valley pals to join the war online. They’re happy to help -- but not, it seems, out of patriotism. Referring to the Edward Snowden scandal, the authors write: “The NSA had cost Silicon Valley hundreds of billions of dollars, and its citizens weren’t in a forgiving mood, even years later.”

I don’t know whether the casual reference to “citizens” of Silicon Valley was intentional, but it immediately calls to mind last year’s much-ballyhooed (but overblown) claims that the libertarian techie billionaires hoped to secede from the U.S., or at least to establish a private island where experiments could proceed without bureaucratic interference. Although Aboye is acting out of love of country, it’s easy to read this brief scene as suggesting that his pals just want their cyberspace back.

This effort in turn leads to what could have been the book’s most intriguing subplot, but winds up as its most unfortunate omission. Aboye is ultimately forced to seek assistance from a shadowy hacker group plainly meant to be Anonymous. Excellent narrative idea! I kept waiting for the epic battle between Anonymous and the hackers of the Directorate. Unfortunately, the authors chose to render that encounter almost entirely off-screen. The decisive battle between the ghost fleet and the combined Russian-Chinese fleet dominates the final third of the book. The cyberwar vanishes. This is where the book could have used a little less Tom Clancy and a little more Cory Doctorow or William Gibson. (There is one disturbing scene, not set in cyberspace, that will delight Gibson fans, but I won’t spoil it here.)

Nobody will be reading “Ghost Fleet” for character development or scene-setting. But it’s still a perfect summer read. If what you like is edge-of-the-seat action, you’ll have trouble putting it down. And even if thrillers aren’t your thing, the book will well repay a read, if only for the disturbing questions it raises about the risks of our reliance on technology, not only in the near future, but also in the present.

  1. Perhaps with the sensibilities of foreign readers in mind, the authors hypothesize that the Directorate, an alliance of military and business leaders, has overthrown the Communist Party. Russia’s participation in the war, we learn near the end of the book, was engineered by “the old spy” -- a hint that the Putin regime is still in power.

  2. I have taught Singer’s provocative nonfiction book “Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry” in my course on the ethics of war.

  3. Anonymous has tangled with China before -- although not, as far as we know, with the Chinese military.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net