Peter Singer Warns U.S. Military to Focus on China
WASHINGTON— Peter Singer, one of Washington’s pre-eminent
futurists, is walking the Pentagon halls with an ominous warning for America’s
military leaders: World War III with China is coming.
In meeting after meeting with anyone who will listen, this modern-day
soothsayer wearing a skinny tie says America’s most advanced fighter jets
might be blown from the sky by their Chinese-made microchips and Chinese
hackers easily could worm their way into the military’s secretive intelligence
service, and the Chinese Army may one day occupy Hawaii.
The ideas might
seem outlandish, but Pentagon officials are listening to the 40-year-old
senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think
In hours of briefings, Mr. Singer has outlined his grim vision for
intelligence officials, Air Force officers and Navy commanders. What makes his
scenarios more remarkable is that they are based on a work of fiction: Mr.
Singer’s soon-to-be-released, 400-page techno thriller, “Ghost Fleet: A Novel
of the Next World War.”
“World War III may seem like something that was either a fear in the
distant past or a risk in the distant future,” Mr. Singer told a dozen Air
Force officers during a Pentagon briefing last week. “But, as the Rolling
Stones put it in ‘Gimme Shelter,’ ‘It’s just a shot away.’ ”
Pentagon officials typically don’t listen to the doom-and-gloom
predictions of fiction writers. But Mr. Singer comes to the table with an
unusual track record. He has written authoritative books on America’s reliance
on private military contractors, cybersecurity and the Defense Department’s
growing dependence on robots, drones and technology.
The Army, Navy and Air Force already have included two of his books
on their official reading lists. And he often briefs military leaders on his
co-written with former Wall Street Journal reporterAugust Cole is based
on interviews, military research and years of experience working with the
“He’s the premier futurist in the national-security environment,”
said Mark Jacobson, a special assistant to Navy Secretary Ray
Mabus, who made sure his boss read the book. “Peter’s always where the ball is
going to be. And people in the Pentagon listen to what he has to
of the book by Houghton
Mifflin Harcourt on
Tuesday comes during a new period of soul-searching for the U.S.
pledge to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was supposed to usher in an era
of restrained military intervention world-wide. Budget cuts and shifting
priorities have forced the Pentagon to shelve plans to carry out costly
nation-building operations like the ones in Iraq and
But threats posed by Islamic State militants reluctantly have pushed
Mr. Obama and the U.S. military back into a limited war against the irregular
insurgents in Iraq and Syria.
The end of the Cold War and the rise of al Qaeda compelled the U.S.
military to reorient its priorities to focus on threats posed by small,
Pentagon officials have elevated military officers who embraced the
“small war,” counterinsurgency dogma that guided the U.S. through a decade of
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Russia’s military operations in Ukraine and China’s aggressive
attempts to extend its control in the South China Sea have forced the Pentagon
to re-evaluate its world view and think anew about the threats posed by
which includes hundreds of endnotes, challenges conventional military doctrine
and relies on real events to warn that the U.S. military is vulnerable to
cyberattacks that could cripple its ability to win a war with
The time has come, Mr. Singer tells military officials in his
briefings, for the Pentagon to consider the possibility that Americans could
face real dog fights in the sky and deadly naval battles unlike anything the
U.S. has seen since World War II.
“It may not be politic, but it is, in my belief, no longer useful to
avoid talking about the great power rivalries of the 21st century and the real
dangers of them getting out of control,” he told Air Force officers at the
Pentagon. “Indeed, only by acknowledging the real trends and real risks that
loom can we take the mutual steps to avoid the kind of mistakes that would set
up such an epic fail in both deterrence and diplomacy.”
After the briefing, Col. Randall Reed, director of the Air
Force Executive Action Group who hosted Mr. Singer, said it helped spark
debate about how to respond to real-world threats. “Having various ways to
view any issue is diversity of thought and that’s healthy,” he
Thornhill, a retired Air Force brigadier general who brought Mr. Singer
to the Pentagon to speak about his work on robotics, said Mr. Singer “did an
excellent job of challenging some of the Air Force’s finest emerging
scientists and engineers to think about the strategic and operational impact
of robotics many of them were studying, and I knew he could do the same for a
more operationally focused military audience.”
“This would help
them better envision the human dimensions of conflict rather than trying to
contemplate what that might look like by working mostly with high-tech weapons
and drafting operations plans,” said Ms. Thornhill, who is now a senior
political scientist at RAND Corp.
One of America’s biggest vulnerabilities is in cyberspace, where
Chinese hackers have secured access to White House computers, defense industry
plans and millions of secret U.S. government files.
officials have long warned that the nation is at risk of a “cyber Pearl
Harbor,” and the Obama administration has been quietly developing more
proactive steps to reduce the country’s vulnerabilities.
Fleet,” the authors envision a cyberwar where Beijing uses hidden technology
baked into Chinese-made chips to help bring down one of America’s costly,
controversial next- generation F-35 fighter jets.
In another creative hack, China uses a gardener’s cellphone to get
inside the Defense Intelligence Agency computer system. The U.S. has to turn
to Silicon Valley to develop a modern day cyber Manhattan Project and rely on
help from hackers to try to gain an advantage. Meanwhile, Americans in Hawaii
launch an insurgency against the occupying Chinese forces.
The book is fiction, but Mr. Singer wants Pentagon leaders to see it
as a cautionary tale.
pointed out to the Air Force leadership that the opening scene of “Ghost
Fleet,” featuring a showdown between a U.S. P-8 plane monitoring Chinese
ships, played out in real life last month in an increasingly concerning
dispute over islands in the South China Sea.
“War is not just
revolutionary, it’s evolutionary,” he said. “It’s survival of the fittest. And
the real world is moving in such a way as to make this book potentially a work
of prediction, which I’d rather never come