Ghost Fleet: A Grim Warning

By Capt Nelson Chace

Ghost Fleet is an imaginative, vivid, and influential prediction of 21st-century warfare, grounded in reality. It is well written, easily consumable, and genuinely enjoyable. Its efficacy is far-reaching in terms of both technologies and as a grim warning of what is to come. Initially reading the book, it seemed like an interesting take on the use of technology in a future war. After a deeper dive, a constant reminder persists of Washington’s focus on China as a Strategic Competitor, as highlighted in both the National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the Commandant’s Planning Guidance (CPG). China is the most dangerous revisionist power in the world today. The idea of a pre-emptive strike against the United States within the next 20 years is a terrifying possibility.

Thucydides’ Trap is a term that harkens back to the great historian of the Peloponnesian War. The idea is that any time a rising power overtakes a standing power, be it in economic or geopolitical terms, the result will end in war. The Harvard Belfer Center reminds us that since the 15th Century, this has been true 12 out of 16 times.

The road to war in Ghost Fleet includes a severe spike in oil prices, a natural gas reserve enabling Chinese energy dominance, and some critical discoveries of US weak points in space and cyberspace. The Chinese and Russians strike the US with powerful blows in each, as well as at sea and on the ground. In reality, there will likely be attacks below the threshold of war well before such conventional means (see US-Iran relations, January 2020).  So, in a competition environment, how does the Marine Corps support de-escalation? It must become an instrument of strategic deterrence. It can accomplish this through modernization and targeted peace-time operations.

Forty years ago, a ship full of US Marines off of the coast meant something to the world. Such a scenario lost its luster with the mass proliferation of Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) weapons. To make noise in adversary space today, nations have to place down weapons that can sink ships, destroy aircraft and space assets, or strike facilities with assured success at significant ranges. If the Marine Corps intends to regain its status as a strategic deterrent, it must arm itself to do so. It must balance this by avoiding the overreliance on technology that doomed America in this novel. With the latest guidance from the Commandant, it is well on its way.

When restructuring, though, it must not forget its peacetime mission. After all, a strategy based solely on preparation for conventional war is doomed to end in just that. In General Berger’s words, “While the Marine Corps must be prepared to operate across the entire spectrum of conflict, its first priority as a naval service ought to be deterrence, as the cost of competition will always be less than the cost — in both blood and treasure — of armed conflict.” The peacetime mission should focus mainly on two objectives: economic gain and prepositioning of the force.

The latter is much easier for Marines to find relevant missions. Engaging partners, validating Cooperative Security Locations, and setting the force in advantageous terrain are relatively easy tasks. The NDS and CPG call this contact-layer operations and stand-in forces. Marines already do it every day, across the globe.

Finding missions that support US economic dominance is much more difficult. According to CSIS and the UN, “80 percent of global trade by volume and 70 percent by value is transported by sea. Of that volume, 60 percent of maritime trade passes through Asia, with the South China Sea carrying an estimated one-third of global shipping.” Mix this with aggressive and illegal practices of the Chinese to gain economic advantage, and call it a Center of Gravity. Supporting Freedom of Navigation Operations is a perfect mission for our peacetime Marine Expeditionary Units, with far-reaching impacts in the economic sphere.

The best way for America to avoid Thucydides’ Trap with China is to remain pre-eminent. If the Marine Corps is going to be a part of that mission, it must build a strategic armament, and it must remain a key contributor in the contact layer. When reading Ghost Fleet, do not become so infatuated with the future tech as to forget why America ended up at war in the first place.