Ghost Fleet: A Review

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I was a bit late in getting to it, but I was pleasantly surprised by P.W. Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet. It took a bit of effort to get into it, but the temporal leap the novel takes into years after a second Pearl Harbor attack allows for some very interesting worldbuilding. The United States has been taken down a peg and enjoys little to none of its previous dominance. What does the post-hegemonic era look like for America? How, in the fabled era of “degraded ISR,” can American armed forces operate and conduct operations? While we’re living through that transition now, Singer and Cole explore what that future might actually resemble.

Riddled throughout with trenchant criticisms of the current political-military-industrial complex (such as a “Big Two” defense contractors, numerous references to the failings of the F-35, and the Air Force’s institutional resistance to unmanned air-to-air platforms), the vision fleshed out in Ghost Fleet is not a flattering one to our current state of affairs. At times the references are a bit on the nose, but the degree of underlying wit makes up for it.

If nothing else, the opening sequence helps explain even to the layman the importance of sensor platforms and space-based assets, the US military’s dependence on them, and their exquisite vulnerability. Finite quantities of ship-launched missiles and other material become apparent in a way that can be challenging to discern in real-life operations. Our reliance on Chinese-produced microchips and other advanced technology becomes a easily-exploitable Achilles’ Heel, in a manner all too reminiscent of the Battlestar Galactica pilot miniseries.

A new techno-thriller is, of course, cause for comparison to Tom Clancy, and where this far outshines him is in its willingness to critique technology and current trends in military procurement rather than lauding it unreservedly, while crafting somewhat multi-dimensional characters (some of whom are even not white!). And as I’ve written before, even if wrong in the details, fiction like this helps broaden the aperture a bit and convey the potentialities of future conflict. If not China, then Russia; if not the F-35, then perhaps the long-range strike bomber: things will go wrong, technologies will fail, and the United States may well be caught unawares. Hopefully, with novels such as Ghost Fleet illustrating the cost of unpreparedness, it will be possible to forestall the future it envisions.

Diamond in the Techno-Thriller: The Value of Speculative Fiction

A few years ago, some sort of switch got flipped in my brain and all of a sudden I became far more capable of and willing to plow through half a dozen novels in a single stretch than to finish a single non-fiction book. Recently, equilibrium has been at least somewhat restored, but I continue to find myself immersed in fiction in a way that I rarely was before.

Some recent reading has included a pair of Larry Bond novels from the late 1980s and early 1990s, Vortex and Cauldron. Larry Bond is most famously, of course, the man who helped Tom Clancy game out many of his books’ wartime scenarios (and Bond co-wrote Red Storm Rising with Clancy). I hadn’t known Bond as an author in his own right, but recently read those two works of his in succession.

What’s wonderful about books like these is generally not their literary qualities, but nor is it even the conduct or proposed sequence of events in particular conflicts. Can fiction, in fact, predict the future of warfare? Perhaps, but more interestingly, such books serve as a time capsule of the era in which they were written. Much of the “valued added” from this is detailed (at times overly so) descriptions and explanations of the weaponry, arms systems, and military organization of the era. But furthermore, while not predictive in any meaningful way, these novels can help widen the Overton Window of the imagination, to at least consider a divergent future drastically different from our own.

With books set in the future, but now a dated future, it’s almost like reading alternate history. As of this writing, I’m reading The Third World War: August 1985, which is an account of World War III written in the past tense as a historical survey from the point of view of two years later (e.g., 1987). Of course, the book was actually published in 1979, along with a followup, The Third World War: The Untold Story, which was published two years later and dives deeper into specifics of nuclear postures, the war in the North Atlantic and the North Sea, Solidarity’s effect in Poland, and other issues. It is a look at a world that never was, but seemed frightfully close to being so. And from that perspective, it’s a chilling look at the prospective war facing the world of the past.

Obviously, these never came to pass, but when one considers what might have been, that can seem a blessing. Continue reading

Population, Climate, and the Ethics of the Future

The Economist had a piece today about rapidly falling mortality rates worldwide, particularly in poor and low-income countries. Health professionals writing for The Lancet “advocate the establishment of a global ‘sustainable development goal,’ in which countries aim to reduce the number of premature deaths by 40% by 2030,” a very laudable goal to increase lives.

A few days ago, there was a somewhat widely-publicized article in Science, which showed that contrary to popular belief, world population would not in fact peak at 9 billion in 2050, but rather continue to grow, reaching 11 billion by the end of the century. This rather sharply throws into relief the need for better family planning, sanitation, and water management.

And today, in the wake of yesterday’s climate change protests on Wall Street, is an article decrying the strain of thought that exhorts one to act “for the children” and only for the children who will inherit the earth. When we focus only on future generations, we continue to encourage waiting-for-the-last-minute.

Humanity, as a whole, doesn’t know what it wants. We fear inexorable population growth, stripping the planet of its every natural resource; yet we try as best we can to halve the global death rate. We talk about saving the future through climate change action and legislation for children whose very existence might exacerbate the conditions leading to that very global warming. We are walking, talking, breathing contradictions.

What’s the right course of action? We banned CFCs to preserve the atmosphere, which in turn gave pharmaceutical companies the opportunity to design new, patented, trademarked asthma inhalers – which could, of course, then be sold for obscene amounts of money. The world gained, a subset of people suffered.

We’re saving people today, but we’re not sure about the future. We don’t know who will exist, who our children will be or how many children they’ll have; our progeny remains mystery. We’re establishing a global existential rent control: saving today’s lives, very possibly at the expense of tomorrow’s. Making it easier for the people who exist now to keep on existing as they are, while making future existence more tenuous and a little meaner.

What we should do and what we must do and what we ought to do seem radically opposed to one another. Are we preserving lives now that would be better off lost? Are we permitting future humans who might be born into cruder conditions than their parents? Is that immoral? Is the uncertainty and doubt of an ominous future reason enough to worry about current and future populations?

We obviously don’t have any answers individually or as a society. Inertia, momentum, myopia prevent us from taking a longer view. But for now that might be okay – I’m not sure we’d like what we see up ahead.

The Challenge

Originally meant for a Facebook post but it soon spiraled out of control. The subject is a piece by Jason Pontin in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Review: “Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems.”

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills”

Since Apollo 17‘s flight in 1972, no humans have been back to the moon, or gone anywhere beyond low Earth orbit. No one has traveled faster than the crew of Apollo 10. (Since the last flight of the supersonic Concorde in 2003, civilian travel has become slower.) Blithe optimism about technology’s powers has evaporated, too, as big problems that people had imagined technology would solve, such as hunger, poverty, malaria, climate change, cancer, and the diseases of old age, have come to seem intractably hard.

Not to say that the article is entirely pessimistic for the future. In a lot of cases it’s not so much a question of know-how as it is mere willpower.

I’ve written about this before (the common thread through all writing on this seems to be the Concorde.  Humans could once buy a ticket to travel faster than the speed of sound. Those days now lie behind us).

And we’re running out of steam, too. Consider the troubled F-35 acquisition program (I hate holding up acquisitions as an example of anything, but…here I am). It’s not even as advanced as the F-22. Yet we still don’t have a combat-ready B variant (the Marine Corps has stood up an all F-35B squadron consisting of exactly three aircraft). And of course, our most advanced aircraft, the F-22 and B-2, were meant to be procured in far greater numbers but went into the “death spiral” of rising cost and declining orders.

This is not a problem unique to “legacy” industries. Even the hyped new media and tech sectors are seeing their own trivialization. As a Businessweek article pointed out, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” As Jeff Hammerbacher says, this does indeed suck.

I don’t know what the solution is, but this is hardly a matter of perception. There’s an explanation as to why we no longer live in an age of optimism with the stars as the limit and a sense of awe and wonder at what tomorrow might bring. We’re stuck in a quagmire with little consequential technological progress, no political progress at all, and a generational rift that could just as easily be a referendum on moving into the 21st century. Other than Los Angeles, who’s building an urban heavy rail line? Who’s developing a faster way to travel? A better way to compute? A food replicator? A way to make money while also enhancing the common good?

The closest we’re getting right now is 3-D printing, and I have very high hopes for the field. Should it really reach its true potential, global supply chains will be completely disrupted (and for the better). But it’ll have to go beyond mere plastics. And other than that, what’s on the horizon? What about today, other than the tiny details, has changed in the last 30 years? What in that time has changed for the better?

I recently read Charles Stross’s Halting State, which deserves a more comprehensive treatment at some point, but which also has the following passage:

“Imagine you were a time-traveller from the 1980s, say 1984, and you stepped out of your TARDIS right here, outside, uh, West Port Books.” (Which tells you where you are.) “Looking around, what would you see that tells you you’re not in Thatcherland anymore?”

“You’re playing a game, right?”

“If you want it to be a game, it’s a game.” Actually it’s not a game, it’s a stratagem, but let’s hope she doesn’t spot it.

“Okay.” She points at the office building opposite. “But that…okay, the lights are modern, and there are the flat screens inside the window. Does that help?”

“A little.” Traffic lights change: Cars drive past. “Look at the cars. They’re a little bit different, more melted-looking, and some of them don’t have drivers. But most of the buildings—they’re the same as they’ve ever been. The people, they’re the same. Okay, so fashions change a little. But how’d you tell you weren’t in 1988? As opposed to ’98? Or ’08? Or today?”

“I don’t—” She blinks rapidly, then something clicks: “The mobile phones! Everyone’s got them, and they’re a lot smaller, right?”

“I picked 1984 for a reason. They didn’t have mobies then—they were just coming in. No Internet, except a few university research departments. No cable TV, no laptops, no websites, no games—”

“Didn’t they have Space Invaders?”

You feel like kicking yourself. “I guess. But apart from that…everything out here on the street looks the same, near enough, but it doesn’t work the same.”

Humanity possesses boundless reserves of optimism just waiting for the right conditions to be unleashed. But I fear we’re a long way away from that. We currently live in an age of in-between, a mere interlude of history, with our small times and small men and small problems. What’s next?

The Windup Girl: A Review

Everything I hoped it would be and more. This morning John Robb referenced aspects of The Windup Girl and that brought it all rushing back.

Bacigalupi paints the picture of a world where the “calorie men,” representatives of the midwestern agricultural combines that released the blister rust plagues into the wild, whose “U-Tex” and other genetically-engineered crops are the only defense against the diseases created by the same men, and the sterility of which forces India, Burma, and the other starving nations of the world into semi-feudal servility. A world in which rising seas have swallowed New York, Mumbai, New Orleans, and Rangoon, and where only the coal-powered monstrous pumps of King Rama XII prevent the similar fate from befalling Bangkok. Where the combustion engine has been replaced by kink-spring power wound by men and elephant-derived megadonts, where the exertion of labor to power the world requires the fuel of food, and calories are the currency of the realm.

In the midst of this, a former Japanese pleasure construct – the titular “windup girl” – discovers instincts and desires beyond the total obedience and urge to please that has not just been bred into her, but programmed into the very fiber of her being. An accidental übermenschen trapped among a peoples who regard her as trash, she represents a future that she can’t even understand yet. Which, coincidentally, is precisely what Bacigalupi has written here.

It is a rich portrait, indeed, and Bacigalupi excels at the alternate history/speculative fiction techniques of hint-dropping and hastily-sketched background details that he doles out like candy along a forest trail. But you’ll want to go where he’s luring you.

Megalopolis

Last week I had the pleasure of attending another Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs event specifically for Young Professionals. In this case it was a conversation between all-around-urban-intellectual Greg Lindsay and architect Jeanne Gang on nothing less critical than “The Future of Cities.”

Lindsay just cowrote the book Aerotropolis: How We’ll Live Next with John Karsada, which at its most basic is about the coming airport-centric design and planning that will determine the future of cities and the course of twenty-first century urbanism. But even that mouthful of a description doesn’t really do the book justice. Reading Geoff Manaugh’s interview of Lindsay (and also, Lindsay’s of Manaugh), puts the book in a new light and raises a whole variety of additional interpretations to Aerotropolis‘ main theories.

The talk, however, did not focus solely on Lindsay’s book. After a rather stilted introduction from a local Boeing representative, Lindsay launched into a brief overview of the cities of the future. In the next twenty years more “urban fabric” will be created than in the entire rest of human history. And none of them will look like Chicago. They will be born into nowhere, separated from their surrounding regions. Continue reading

Two Steps Back

Do you get the feeling that we’re slowing down? I mean that in the entropic sense, that humanity may have gone as far as it can and is now contracting. Look at how far we’ve come since the year 1910 – two world wars and all the carnage and technological progress they produced, rocketry and space exploration (we put a man on the moon), the rise of computing, Moore’s Law, all the conveniences of modern life. And yet, where are the big breakthroughs?

John Horgan recently wrote in Scientific American about “scientific regress,” fields of science that are not just slowing down as a result of diminishing returns, but that are actually retreating from their own discoveries. Infectious disease is back, including some that were on the brink of eradication. The Concorde, fastest commercial jet in history, was entirely scrapped, and there are no plans to replace it. Even science itself has come under fire – evolution has shifted from common knowledge to a disputable “theory.”

Research and technologies without ‘practical’ application never get off the ground. Hence the hole in the ground that could have been America’s own Large Hadron Collider. Who knows what CERN’s will discover? Alexander Fleming was just studying some bacteria. He ‘invented’ penicillin. Or consider the Vela satellites used to detect nuclear explosions on Earth, which ended up discovering the existence of Gamma-ray bursts. Even the most mundane of new technologies can have serendipitous results, and that’s why continued innovation and discovery is so important. But we’ve stopped.

Even in terms of military procurement – and let’s not forget that ARPA and DARPA brought us the internet and the global positioning system – we’re taking steps backwards in the name of fiscal sanity. Not that balanced budgets are an ignoble pursuit, but we’re voluntarily ending production of the most advanced fighter in the world (the F-22) in favor of its slightly less capable cousin (the F-35). Production of the F-35 itself will be notably slashed. With Britain retiring the Harrier and the F-35B variant in jeopardy, the novel technology of VTOL aircraft may itself not be long for this world.

Meanwhile, the Russian-designed contemporary of the F-35, the Sukhoi Su-35, is making waves, with China about to become a major purchaser of the technology. It takes ages for a new system to come online – the Airbus A400M military transport just now making maiden flights has been in the works since 1982! And even the new weapons systems intended to create capabilities where there are none – the Marine Corps’s Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle comes to mind – are being canceled.

We don’ produce anything any more. The picture of our economy, especially vis-a-vis China, is that of a junkyard. We have a resource economy now, where we ship raw materials out for “more skilled” hands to mold into a finished product. These products are things that just fuel our consumerism, a consumerism wherein we look forward to things breaking just so we can feel the rush of buying something new.

We put so little energy into real long-term thought. Everything we do as a society is all about the quick buck, the near-term gain, what we can see and hold and spend now. Politics continue to be an internal, mind-numbing struggle with no winners and no vision beyond the next election. And of course today’s politicians won’t be living with the consequences of their decisions (there’s still time to atone, though). As the Great Society gets rolled back, the New Deal is next. And what then, the gains of the Progressive Era?

It’s not like I don’t understand why – when you don’t even have a paycheck to look forward to in the next week, every day becomes its own micro-scale struggle just to get to the next one. But it’s not impossible to take care of today’s problems and plan for the future. I’ve previously called for stronger leadership, or a real public works plan, or maybe some British-style openness and transparency (and when the Brits are leading the way in those fields, you just know something’s gone horribly wrong somewhere). These things are not impossible. And they’re not too expensive. I don’t care how bad the deficit looks; no one cares (no, really, outside of a vocal few, it’s not the most pressing concern). It’s certainly a problem, but we have the chance to solve other problems while still looking to the future.

Things are expensive. But in the long long term, doing nothing and stagnating will be even more costly. We need to keep building, inventing, dreaming, knocking over test tubes accidentally, leaving petri dishes next to each other, and to stop arguing over today. Tomorrow is more important.

Think big. Think bold. But most importantly, think ahead.

A Brief History of Future War

Another article at Fortnight today, this one the most relevant to regular readers of this blog. Simply titled “Future War,” it’s a fairly comprehensive overview of Things I’m Interested In militarily. Opening excerpt:

Much as we in the United States may have forgotten our two land wars in Asia, we’re still in them.

But if all goes according to plan, we’ll be completely out of both Iraq and Afghanistan by 2015. Except for the “advisory and assistance brigades.” And special forces. And drones. And all the other minutiae and caveats that will have essentially set the stage for a near-permanent American presence in Central Asia for the foreseeable future.

But some day, an end will come both in name and in deed—even if that end turns out to be anticlimactic. It’s said all too often that “today’s generals are preparing to fight yesterday’s wars.” By the same token, the ascendancy of counterinsurgency doctrine in the United States military could be here to stay.

Charting the future course of war requires wisdom—and prescience. Who will do the fighting? How will our fighting be done? Why will we fight? And why will they fight? The pithy answers, in order, are: Very few people, remotely, preservation and economics.

Go read it!

Rational Pessimism

Matt Ridley’s new book about how we’ve got it so good today, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, has met with pretty decent reviews. I only just got around to reading Brendan O’Neill’s review for The American Conservative today (yes, yes, I know it’s dated August 1, but I’ve been busy), and it quashed any desire I might have had to read it.

I mean, I know I’m a pretty ornery cuss, but let’s face it: despite rapid advances in material prosperity, we as a society don’t seem particularly happy with our lot. O’Neill is right in saying that all the threats guaranteed to kill us all – Y2K, Bird Flu, that Man-Bird-Pig disease of a year or two ago – have never materialized, and that despite our constant worrying over the end, if it indeed comes it is almost certain to catch us by surprise.

And yet, there is so much of Ridley’s overall hypothesis that seems to make no sense. At the risk of becoming one of the “angry, graph-obsessed nitpicking” types O’Neill warns against, I think it would make sense to examine Ridley’s actual claims and see why they ring hollow.

In just the past 50 years, the average human “earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children, and could expect to live one-third longer.”

Right off the bat, I can see one problem here: the average human. While wages and prosperity have risen steadily around the world, in the United States income disparity is at historical levels. Productivity has soared in the past fifty years,  but relative worker pay has dropped precipitously. We’re doing more and getting paid less to do it. So while much of the world may have seen a tangible increase in quality-of-life, we’re in many ways worse off than we were 20, 30 years ago. Continue reading

Collapse

Thanks to Netflix finally appearing on my PS3, I’ve been able to watch all sorts of ridiculous National Geographic documentaries like Stress: Portrait of a Killer, Kim Cattrall: Sexual Intelligence, and Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure. Mixed in with those are some gems, though, like the Inside series (Inside Special Forces, Air Force One, Inside the US Secret Service, etc.).

I saw and decided to take a chance on Collapse: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire Book by Jared Diamond. I should admit that I haven’t read Diamond’s book, but the premise is clear enough. The major factors contributing to our hypothetical demise are a lack of water, food, and oil, all multiplied by the effects of global warming. The story of our collapse is told through the eyes of fictional scientists and researchers in the year 2210 combing the desertified ruins of the globe for evidence pointing to one factor or another (at one point, I think they even recycled five seconds of footage from I Am Legend). This is interspersed with historical reenactments of other collapsed civilizations, including Rome, the Mayans, and the Anasazi.

One-line review: it’s kind of like those Life After People and Aftermath: Population Zero ‘documentaries’, but with more anthropology and more science. I mean that in a good way.

But anyways, I was left with two burning questions at the end of it.

The first was where and how did these scientists survive and come to be? Oral tradition alone should explain our downfall, but they have ridiculously advanced technology. Like iPads with the Minority Report interface. And where are they based? They’re exploring the American West and Southwest, along with the British Isles, Southern Europe, and the underwater ruins of Hong Kong. But where do they live? Did New York miraculously escape destruction?

The second has to do with our impending water crisis. I know that we’re on the brink of the first water wars, but for long-term considerations: what the hell are we doing with desalinization?

According to my research, the most intensive barriers to more widespread adoption are the cost of the technology itself and of the power needed to operate the plants. But in most of the Middle East, for example, virtually every new power plant is constructed with some sort of desalination capacity incorporated into it. Current desalinization, though, can start recycling some of its own energy, meaning with a viable renewable energy source – nuclear comes to mind – a plant can be self-sustainable and contribute energy back to the grid.

As is, the costs of desalinization are passed on to end-users to the tune of $3 per thousand gallons. That seems steep, but then again, we buy bottled water, don’t we? Bottled water runs about $7,945 per thousand gallons. Seriously, this seems like a proactive step we could take. Now. To secure our water reserves for a long time to come and maybe, just maybe preserve California’s Inland Empire as a viable place to live while recycling much-needed energy to the grid.

But forget Phoenix, humans seriously have no business living there whatsoever.