“War is inevitable.”
— Quote in a Chinese newspaper last week
Three days from now, on June 30, a major new novel called Ghost Fleet will hit the book stands. It is authored jointly by Peter W. Singer and August Cole, both of them described by Kelley Vlahos in the American Conservative as “think tank denizens in the belly of the Beltway beast with a particular focus on future war technology.”
The interview below features author Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation who has been writing about America’s military industrial complex for many years and is widely regarded as an expert on the subject. “He was the first,” Kelley Vlahos tells us, “to take full measure of outsourcing war, capping it off with a seminal book on the private military industry in 2007. Today he focusses on cutting-edge robotics and unmanned military systems.”
The interview, while focussing on China, mentions Russia only briefly in the closing paragraphs. Surprisingly, Singer refers to Russia somewhat disparagingly as “China’s junior partner”—an assessment not everyone will agree with. Especially in Russia. In any new war with China, now seen as inevitable, Russia will obviously play a major role as China’s ally.
America fears and resents China’s recent successes. It is clearly deeply concerned at China’s extraordinary resurgence and rise to world power status. China’s massive island building in the South China Sea has struck a raw nerve in the American psyche. How dare China extend its territory into the Pacific Ocean! The US has also done a wobbly over the possibility that Chinese hackers have ferreted out vitally important American military secrets in a suspected super hack.
“China’s meteoric rise has Washington worried” Mark Whitney notes in a major new article, “not because China is a threat to its neighbors or to US national security, but because China’s influence is expanding across the region…
This is why Washington is worried; it’s because China has transformed itself into an economic powerhouse that doesn’t conform to the neoliberal model of punitive austerity, pernicious privatization, and madcap asset inflation. China has slipped out of the empire’s orbit and charted its own course…
Having reduced the great American middle class to a lifeless, rotting corpse incapable of sustaining even meager demand or growth, US elites are packing the boats and heading for China, the shining corporate Valhalla on the hill.”
The current relationship between America and China is unprecedented in history. Never before have two nations been so interdependent. According to Whitney, the two countries are bound together in a complex web of economic and financial ties, including China’s massive holding of US debt which amounts to an eyewatering $1.3 trillion.
Paying off this massive debt is of course out of the question. It simply cannot be done, any more than Greece can pay off its debts to its European creditors. One way of settling the debt with China is to pick a quarrel with China and then find a pretext for attacking it, finally repudiating the unpayable debt on the spurious grounds that China owed America huge compensation in war damages.
The war drums are now beating loud and clear.
Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Hillary Clinton notes pugnaciously: “The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action.”
In a recent video interview with neocon Robert Kagan, Kurt M. Campbell, co-founder and former CEO of the Center for a New American Security, adopts the same belligerent tone:
“Most of the history of the 21 century is going to be in the Asia Pacific region. It is in our best national interest to show that we are going to play a central role in that drama just as we have in the 20th century. [There is bipartisan] recognition that our military presence is our ticket to the big game in the Asia Pacific.”
There is no more room, it would seem, for diplomacy. All that is finished with. We are now in the jungle, where nature red in tooth and claw will have the final say.
Force will decide.
Let’s now cut to the chase: the interview with Singer. I have taken the liberty of editing this in the interests of brevity and concision. To Kelley Vlahos, for her original article in the American Conservative, full acknowledgements.
INTERVIEWER: I’m reading your new novel Ghost Fleet and suddenly there are all these headlines about China building massive islands in the South China Sea and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter calling on them to stop. Tensions seem to be ramping up and the headlines seem to be cuing the book.
PETER W. SINGER: After the fall of the Berlin Wall, and after 9/11, the mere idea of a war between great states went right off the table. It wasn’t even even thought about. It was then all about terrorism and insurgency. But now the risks of a big war between great states is back on the table. With Russia and China and the US, you not only have a new arms race but a massive amount of tension and it is scary. I don’t think war is necessarily inevitable, but that phrase “War is inevitable” was used in a Chinese newspaper just last week.
INTERVIEWER: The Navy especially has been talking about conflict with China for the last several years, in fact it seems to be what the military culture in Washington would prefer. As someone who works both in and outside the defense community here, were you in a sense reacting to that, or are you seeing something else?
SINGER: I have a track record as a sort of trend spotter. Over a decade ago I was writing about the rise of the private military companies and—five years ago—the rise of the robots in war … This trend is one that I see as both real, but misunderstood. If you look at the raw data, China is clearly rising as an economic, political, and military great power, and we see that in everything from its economy moving towards the number one position in the world. Its military spending has essentially gone up by a greater percentage than anyone else’s in this period.
They built the most warships in 2013. The most warships in 2014. They are expected to build the most warships in 2015. And right now they are planning for the most warships in 2016 and 2017. You see the trend here?
But there is another trend, as these two great powers engage in an arms race. This added risk is revealed when you look at both China’s plans and US plans. Both militaries are gearing up for something.
The problem is that both countries have the notion that any conflict would be “short” and “sharp” in their words and would work out for their side. There are great levels of overconfidence, both inside and outside of government. For example, recent polling in China reveals that 74 percent of the Chinese public thinks their military would beat the US in a war. This doesn’t just make war more likely … the fact is, both countries can’t be right! One of them has to be wrong. And one would of them would lose.
The difference of WWIII from WWII is this: the US would be competing against other countries that could have just as good military gear as the US does—or even better. That could be very challenging.
INTERVIEWER: One of the most compelling themes here is that our own technology—the sophisticated weapons systems, ships, planes, drones, communications—can be turned on us so easily by an adversary.
SINGER: The amazing networked communications, the command and control information domination that we have been able to put on the battlefield—these are strengths that could be turned into weaknesses. For example, we totally depend on GPS satellites. What happens when we don’t have access to that? This is something we need to consider.
We also have the “own goals” we might score on ourselves—an old soccer saying. We have spent trillions of dollars on weapons system that might not serve us in an actual great power war. We’ve bought weapons systems that we already know are riven with cyber vulnerabilities. Last year, for example, the Pentagon’s tester found 40 major programs had vulnerabilities. Similarly, we are in the middle of buying warships that in the words of the Navy’s own tester are “not survivable” in an actual battle. We’ve developed a plane that is supposed to be a generation ahead of anything out there. And yet we are seeing Chinese prototypes flying around that already look like their twin!
INTERVIEWER: Speaking of scoring goals on ourselves, what does it mean when you are fielding fighter jets in which 78 percent of the microchips in it are made by the very people you are fighting—a point raised in your book?
SINGER: 78 percent is not a random number, by the way, it’s the exact number in the F-35 that we cite in the book from a DARPA presentation. The risk there is not just that someone cuts off your supply line, but you’ve opened yourself up to a new kind of hack, a “hardware hack,” where the other side can literally back vulnerabilities into your systems that you won’t know are there until they activate.
INTERVIEWER: I’m no techno geek—and I don’t mean to insult you here—but how much of the technology in Ghost Fleet actually exists and how much is of the “Star Trek” order, i.e. fictional?
SINGER: Our rule was that everything in the book had to be inspired from the real world—it had to be a technology that was already at the research and development phase. It may sound fiction but it’s all footnoted in the index. No Klingon power packs or teenage wizard wands!
INTERVIEWER: Ghost Fleet is very Navy-centric. Why?
SINGER: There is definitely a Navy theme at the center. That again reflects the real world. We envisioned what would be different about a war with China. This would involve something we haven’t seen since 1945: a war between really great powers. If you look at China, their military build-up has literally created a powerful, modern, and soon to be globe-spanning Navy. If you look at the next generation of our warships, where are we sending all of them? The Pacific. Like it or not, this is a reality. There’s an arms race in the Pacific. The US and the Chinese are locked in a looming Cold War. Just as we are talking right now, Foreign Policy magazine released an article describing the US/China predicament as ‘riding the tiger.’
INTERVIEWER: All of this speculation about a US/China confrontation, is any part of you concerned that it merely whips up the war hawks and helps the Navy and defense industry justify expanding their budgets?
SINGER: No, they don’t need my help in that!
INTERVIEWER: I never asked you about Russia’s role in all of this. Why Russia, and how do you think real events shaped the US/China narrative in your book?
SINGER: There is an ever closer alignment between Russia and China, and even more so after Ukraine further isolated Russia from the West. Indeed, in the last few months, Russia and China have signed over 30 major agreements on everything from energy to cybersecurity and done joint military exercises not just in the Pacific but also in the Mediterranean. The problem for Russia is that it is China’s junior partner, which is something Russia doesn’t want to admit.
INTERVIEWER: Thank you for your time.
SINGER: Thank you.