.
I

f there is one job in Washington, DC, that will never cease to exist, it is forecasters of future war. It’s probably the safest job in any market, as if you’re wrong, you can blame it on exigent or unexpected circumstances. If you’re right, you’re prophetic and reinforce your value. It’s a win-win, either way. This is, of course, tongue-in-cheek. The market, both professional and literary, is filled with books forecasting what future conflict will look like, what tools will be used, and how wars will play out. Academically, these are a decidedly mixed bag, but so too are those on the fiction side of the shelves. Some are very thoughtful, well-crafted, and instructive, offering novel insights into how future wars may play out. Others are escapist, better suited for a direct-to-video showing or a rerun-on Sunday afternoon on TNT or TBS.

2034: A Novel of the Next World War | Elliot Ackerman | Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.) | Penguin Random House | March 2021.

2034 by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis is firmly in the former camp. It is incredibly well-written, deeply thought-provoking, and it makes for uncomfortable and sober reading—in the best of ways. As frequent readers will note, I’m not typically a big fiction person. I’m either all in, or I can’t be bothered and just try to get to the conclusion as fast as possible. 2034 was utterly engrossing, so much so that I nearly finished it in one sitting. It has a third act that races by—so much so I was quite miffed with not infrequent interruptions. Even days later, I’m still pondering how it played out and what it could mean for America’s defense establishment.

Technology as a Crutch

2034 joins the ranks of, but stands apart from, Red Storm Rising, Red Metal, and Ghost Fleet in speculating how future conflict will play out. While all three are excellent entries, they tend to focus more on the technological implications of the battlefield. Red Storm Rising posits a Cold War-turned-hot scenario in which the United States has considerable technological overmatch which, in the end, overcomes the Soviet initiative. Red Metal, a spiritual successor of sorts to Red Storm Rising, describes a Russian advance into Europe as a diversion to secure a critical rare-earth-minerals mine in Africa. Ghost Fleet, a masterwork by P.W. Singer and August Cole, takes the technological dial and “cranks it to 11”, à la Spinal Tap. Mapping current trends (which are heavily footnoted) in technology, Singer and Cole create a future scenario where China is a peer of—if not ahead of—the United States, seizes Hawaii, and puts America on the backfoot.

What makes 2034 stand out from this increasingly crowded genre is that the story is ultimately less about technology. It is much more about the escalation dynamics and how a conflict between the United States and China could play out when American technological superiority and overmatch no longer exists, and when the geopolitical center of gravity shifts away from Washington.

For Mr. Ackerman and Adm. Stavridis, technology is a McGuffin. China has, effectively, a kill switch for America’s technology shutting off jets, missiles, communications et. al. at will. It is never fully explored how this is achieved, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a device to advance the plot in which the United States’ reliance on technology is its undoing and the consequences of America finding itself on the back foot shapes the environment, subsequent events, and escalation dynamic.

An Uncomfortable and Sober Read

The story Ackerman and Stavridis craft is likely to make some in D.C. uncomfortable and that is such a good thing. Being made uncomfortable is crucial to making good policy. If preconceptions, long-held truths, assumptions, biases, and established concepts aren’t challenged, aren’t stressed, aren’t tested, one risks becoming complacent, and complacency kills.

This is not a book that pats the defense industrial base, the national security and defense community, or any policymakers on the back. This is not, as many books in this genre are, a love-letter to technological overmatch and the American century. This is a book about what happens when America finds itself against an equal adversary that can nullify those technological advantages and can best America at its own game. This is a book about adversaries countering America’s strengths and defining a new international order.

What 2034 does is make the reader ask real, serious questions about how America will fight in the future and how it should organize itself. This is, of course, a fictional scenario, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility and that’s what makes it alarming and thrilling in equal measures. Serious readers will take this message to heart. Of course, there will be those who will quibble saying “that would never happen” or “it wouldn’t happen that way”. That may well be true, but the reality of fictional intelligence, or FICINT, is “about understanding what lies ahead” in the words of August Cole. If we assess current trends to be accurate and expect them to continue, America is likely to face a near-peer and eventually peer-competitor in China, something it hasn’t faced since the Cold War.

At one point in the narrative, an official from China remarks that the United States is unlikely to see the bigger picture, choosing to focus on the immediate issue or crisis and that by the time it does, it will be too late. That struck me and, I think, is rather an apt description for the way Washington sees policy and crises. Policymaking in Washington, despite the best efforts of many, is too linear, too direct, and too on-the-nose. It seems that there is a tendency to view issues in a vacuum and not see pressure points or nodes of a network. It is a fixation on A or a fixation on B, or A then B, missing the broader spider web of opportunities and threats.

Peer-to-Peer Conflict

The takeaway from 2034 isn’t that we need more technology. Much like the government which solves its failures by creating more of it, so much of the defense industrial base seems to think that shortcomings of technology are solved by, wait for it, more technology. There is no market for dumb munitions, low-end radio communications, or simple navigational tools. There is no market for tools that are usable in a denied environment—when the lights go out, the comms go out, and the compass spins in a circle. Yet, that is precisely in which we should be investing. I’m not a technological Luddite by any sense of the word. True, I refuse to read on an e-reader, but this is about preparing not for the conflict you want, but for the conflict you’re likely to face.

One wonders if the Navy is dusting off the memoirs of Admiral William Halsey Jr., Chester Nimitz, or Ernest King, or if the Air Force is reviewing the reflections of Maj. Gen. Carl Spaatz or Henry Arnold. World War Two was the last time the United States truly faced a peer adversary on an even playing ground, one in which technology was not the crutch it is today. It is all well and good that the U.S. Naval Academy is teaching midshipmen how to use a sextant, but how often are they applying that skill at sea? Are they training pilots to navigate by compass, grease pen, and watch alone while in flight?

China, Russia, and Iran have had more than 30 years since 1991’s Operation Desert Storm to watch, to learn, and to adapt to America’s way of war. They’ve had 20 years since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to see how America’s reliance on technology performed against insurgent groups and terrorist organizations. Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran are not going to play by Washington’s playbook. Yet, reading the defense whitepapers, national security strategies, and—more importantly—looking at the budgets, you’d be forgiven that by and large, the defense establishment expects just that.

For example, the Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) system would provide unparalleled visibility for battlefield commanders down to the squad level. That is if it truly works in all domains, including a contested or denied environment. But what happens when the lights go out or the system locks a user out? The Department of Defense has enough challenges keeping system users logged on using Combined Access Cards, let alone managing an Internet of Things.

There are some mavericks out there, but they are the outliers. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, General David Berger’s Planning Guidance is a rare document that upends the traditional mode of operations, changing the way the Marines will fight and win future wars. The document does this not by repeating long-held shibboleths but by breaking them. Looking at the future battlefield not as we wish it to be, but as it is likely to be fought, and it has had real impacts. Gone are the Marine M1A2 Abrams tanks. Gone is the fixation on low-intensity non-peer adversary combat. In its place is the expectation that conflict in the South China Sea will occur, that island-hopping campaigns will begin again, and Marine fireteams will need to be nimble, flexible, and carry a lot of firepower with them against a Chinese adversary.

People over Tools

There is also an unexpected emotional rawness to the characters. This, in hindsight, should not come as a surprise. Elliot Ackerman is one of the finest writers to come out of this generation of military veterans and officers. His Places and Names is a superb example of what the “war memoir” can be—not an “I was there” chest-thumping account of the battle but an honest reflection of the toll of war and combat on the human spirit on both sides of the battlefield. Rawness and awareness are present in the characters, their ruminations on war and their place within the grander machinations of nation-states, and the consequences of their actions on those whom they command.

Many books in this genre have an element of whimsy if that is the right word. They maintain an escapist thrill that exposes the reader to the sights and sounds of battle, the gee-whiz of technology, and the complex power games of foreign capitals. 2034 doesn’t have that whimsy and that’s a good thing. This is a book that sets the pulse as well as the mind racing but doesn’t let the reader off with a cheap or easy thrill. It is sobering and chilling.

If there is one critique it is that readers will likely wish there was an afterword or authors’ note at the end of the book. Both Mr. Ackerman and Adm. Stavridis bring with them a wealth of knowledge and expertise and having their thoughts, commentary, or reflection on 2034 and its themes would ground the book even more for the reader. Equally, it is interesting that the authors don’t explore the economic interdependence of China and America in greater detail, and how that may or may not affect the course of a conflict.

The pairing of Mr. Ackerman and Adm. Stavridis is inspired. Both have military backgrounds as officers, both are accomplished writers in their own right, and both complement each other exceptionally well and have produced a fantastic work of fiction. I suspect, and hope, that Washington policymakers, as well as the American public, will read this book and engage with the questions the authors raise. If we as a country are to be successful in the coming years and decades of great power competition, we need to confront our systemic vulnerabilities and have uncomfortable conversations, and 2034 is an excellent vehicle to start that dialogue.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

2034: A Novel of the Next World War

Photo by Hasan Almasi via Unsplash.

January 30, 2021

2034: A Novel of the Next World War | Elliot Ackerman | Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.) | Penguin Random House | March 2021.

I

f there is one job in Washington, DC, that will never cease to exist, it is forecasters of future war. It’s probably the safest job in any market, as if you’re wrong, you can blame it on exigent or unexpected circumstances. If you’re right, you’re prophetic and reinforce your value. It’s a win-win, either way. This is, of course, tongue-in-cheek. The market, both professional and literary, is filled with books forecasting what future conflict will look like, what tools will be used, and how wars will play out. Academically, these are a decidedly mixed bag, but so too are those on the fiction side of the shelves. Some are very thoughtful, well-crafted, and instructive, offering novel insights into how future wars may play out. Others are escapist, better suited for a direct-to-video showing or a rerun-on Sunday afternoon on TNT or TBS.

2034: A Novel of the Next World War | Elliot Ackerman | Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.) | Penguin Random House | March 2021.

2034 by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis is firmly in the former camp. It is incredibly well-written, deeply thought-provoking, and it makes for uncomfortable and sober reading—in the best of ways. As frequent readers will note, I’m not typically a big fiction person. I’m either all in, or I can’t be bothered and just try to get to the conclusion as fast as possible. 2034 was utterly engrossing, so much so that I nearly finished it in one sitting. It has a third act that races by—so much so I was quite miffed with not infrequent interruptions. Even days later, I’m still pondering how it played out and what it could mean for America’s defense establishment.

Technology as a Crutch

2034 joins the ranks of, but stands apart from, Red Storm Rising, Red Metal, and Ghost Fleet in speculating how future conflict will play out. While all three are excellent entries, they tend to focus more on the technological implications of the battlefield. Red Storm Rising posits a Cold War-turned-hot scenario in which the United States has considerable technological overmatch which, in the end, overcomes the Soviet initiative. Red Metal, a spiritual successor of sorts to Red Storm Rising, describes a Russian advance into Europe as a diversion to secure a critical rare-earth-minerals mine in Africa. Ghost Fleet, a masterwork by P.W. Singer and August Cole, takes the technological dial and “cranks it to 11”, à la Spinal Tap. Mapping current trends (which are heavily footnoted) in technology, Singer and Cole create a future scenario where China is a peer of—if not ahead of—the United States, seizes Hawaii, and puts America on the backfoot.

What makes 2034 stand out from this increasingly crowded genre is that the story is ultimately less about technology. It is much more about the escalation dynamics and how a conflict between the United States and China could play out when American technological superiority and overmatch no longer exists, and when the geopolitical center of gravity shifts away from Washington.

For Mr. Ackerman and Adm. Stavridis, technology is a McGuffin. China has, effectively, a kill switch for America’s technology shutting off jets, missiles, communications et. al. at will. It is never fully explored how this is achieved, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a device to advance the plot in which the United States’ reliance on technology is its undoing and the consequences of America finding itself on the back foot shapes the environment, subsequent events, and escalation dynamic.

An Uncomfortable and Sober Read

The story Ackerman and Stavridis craft is likely to make some in D.C. uncomfortable and that is such a good thing. Being made uncomfortable is crucial to making good policy. If preconceptions, long-held truths, assumptions, biases, and established concepts aren’t challenged, aren’t stressed, aren’t tested, one risks becoming complacent, and complacency kills.

This is not a book that pats the defense industrial base, the national security and defense community, or any policymakers on the back. This is not, as many books in this genre are, a love-letter to technological overmatch and the American century. This is a book about what happens when America finds itself against an equal adversary that can nullify those technological advantages and can best America at its own game. This is a book about adversaries countering America’s strengths and defining a new international order.

What 2034 does is make the reader ask real, serious questions about how America will fight in the future and how it should organize itself. This is, of course, a fictional scenario, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility and that’s what makes it alarming and thrilling in equal measures. Serious readers will take this message to heart. Of course, there will be those who will quibble saying “that would never happen” or “it wouldn’t happen that way”. That may well be true, but the reality of fictional intelligence, or FICINT, is “about understanding what lies ahead” in the words of August Cole. If we assess current trends to be accurate and expect them to continue, America is likely to face a near-peer and eventually peer-competitor in China, something it hasn’t faced since the Cold War.

At one point in the narrative, an official from China remarks that the United States is unlikely to see the bigger picture, choosing to focus on the immediate issue or crisis and that by the time it does, it will be too late. That struck me and, I think, is rather an apt description for the way Washington sees policy and crises. Policymaking in Washington, despite the best efforts of many, is too linear, too direct, and too on-the-nose. It seems that there is a tendency to view issues in a vacuum and not see pressure points or nodes of a network. It is a fixation on A or a fixation on B, or A then B, missing the broader spider web of opportunities and threats.

Peer-to-Peer Conflict

The takeaway from 2034 isn’t that we need more technology. Much like the government which solves its failures by creating more of it, so much of the defense industrial base seems to think that shortcomings of technology are solved by, wait for it, more technology. There is no market for dumb munitions, low-end radio communications, or simple navigational tools. There is no market for tools that are usable in a denied environment—when the lights go out, the comms go out, and the compass spins in a circle. Yet, that is precisely in which we should be investing. I’m not a technological Luddite by any sense of the word. True, I refuse to read on an e-reader, but this is about preparing not for the conflict you want, but for the conflict you’re likely to face.

One wonders if the Navy is dusting off the memoirs of Admiral William Halsey Jr., Chester Nimitz, or Ernest King, or if the Air Force is reviewing the reflections of Maj. Gen. Carl Spaatz or Henry Arnold. World War Two was the last time the United States truly faced a peer adversary on an even playing ground, one in which technology was not the crutch it is today. It is all well and good that the U.S. Naval Academy is teaching midshipmen how to use a sextant, but how often are they applying that skill at sea? Are they training pilots to navigate by compass, grease pen, and watch alone while in flight?

China, Russia, and Iran have had more than 30 years since 1991’s Operation Desert Storm to watch, to learn, and to adapt to America’s way of war. They’ve had 20 years since the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq to see how America’s reliance on technology performed against insurgent groups and terrorist organizations. Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran are not going to play by Washington’s playbook. Yet, reading the defense whitepapers, national security strategies, and—more importantly—looking at the budgets, you’d be forgiven that by and large, the defense establishment expects just that.

For example, the Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) system would provide unparalleled visibility for battlefield commanders down to the squad level. That is if it truly works in all domains, including a contested or denied environment. But what happens when the lights go out or the system locks a user out? The Department of Defense has enough challenges keeping system users logged on using Combined Access Cards, let alone managing an Internet of Things.

There are some mavericks out there, but they are the outliers. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, General David Berger’s Planning Guidance is a rare document that upends the traditional mode of operations, changing the way the Marines will fight and win future wars. The document does this not by repeating long-held shibboleths but by breaking them. Looking at the future battlefield not as we wish it to be, but as it is likely to be fought, and it has had real impacts. Gone are the Marine M1A2 Abrams tanks. Gone is the fixation on low-intensity non-peer adversary combat. In its place is the expectation that conflict in the South China Sea will occur, that island-hopping campaigns will begin again, and Marine fireteams will need to be nimble, flexible, and carry a lot of firepower with them against a Chinese adversary.

People over Tools

There is also an unexpected emotional rawness to the characters. This, in hindsight, should not come as a surprise. Elliot Ackerman is one of the finest writers to come out of this generation of military veterans and officers. His Places and Names is a superb example of what the “war memoir” can be—not an “I was there” chest-thumping account of the battle but an honest reflection of the toll of war and combat on the human spirit on both sides of the battlefield. Rawness and awareness are present in the characters, their ruminations on war and their place within the grander machinations of nation-states, and the consequences of their actions on those whom they command.

Many books in this genre have an element of whimsy if that is the right word. They maintain an escapist thrill that exposes the reader to the sights and sounds of battle, the gee-whiz of technology, and the complex power games of foreign capitals. 2034 doesn’t have that whimsy and that’s a good thing. This is a book that sets the pulse as well as the mind racing but doesn’t let the reader off with a cheap or easy thrill. It is sobering and chilling.

If there is one critique it is that readers will likely wish there was an afterword or authors’ note at the end of the book. Both Mr. Ackerman and Adm. Stavridis bring with them a wealth of knowledge and expertise and having their thoughts, commentary, or reflection on 2034 and its themes would ground the book even more for the reader. Equally, it is interesting that the authors don’t explore the economic interdependence of China and America in greater detail, and how that may or may not affect the course of a conflict.

The pairing of Mr. Ackerman and Adm. Stavridis is inspired. Both have military backgrounds as officers, both are accomplished writers in their own right, and both complement each other exceptionally well and have produced a fantastic work of fiction. I suspect, and hope, that Washington policymakers, as well as the American public, will read this book and engage with the questions the authors raise. If we as a country are to be successful in the coming years and decades of great power competition, we need to confront our systemic vulnerabilities and have uncomfortable conversations, and 2034 is an excellent vehicle to start that dialogue.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.