Indeed, in this hunt for realism (of technology if not characters, who could be a bit wooden), it even seemed at the time that Clancy might be revealing classified government secrets. This was reportedly a worry of senior members of the Reagan administration. They loved Clancy’s writing, even inviting him to a White House book club, but feared he was piling on too much detail. For example, one of the turning points in Clancy’s fictional war involves the appearance of an oddly shaped “stealth” fighter nearly invisible to radar, even though there was no such publicly acknowledged plane in the U.S. inventory yet. The Pentagon, which hoped the real-world version of the U.S. Air Force’s stealthy F-117 Nighthawk would spring the same kind of surprise on the Soviets if war did come, denied the existence of the rumored plane for another two years after the novel’s release. (The F-117 would never take out the Red Army as in the book, but it would fight against Iraq’s Soviet-made weaponry during the 1991 Gulf War, in much the way Clancy envisioned.)
The two of us went on to become a policy analyst and defense journalist, respectively. Yet that shared experience stuck with us. So some three decades after NATO and Warsaw Pact countries went to war in Tom Clancy’s mind, we similarly set out to explore the unthinkable with our first foray into fiction, a new novel about what the next world war might look like called Ghost Fleet—and to do our best to create what might be called “useful fiction.”
For all of the focus among today’s policymakers on terrorism and insurgencies in the Middle East—a focus that also dominates the fiction section of the thriller genre—we believe the geopolitics of the 21st century will be shaped by a brewing cold war between the United States and an ascendant China along with its junior partner (who doesn’t yet realize it), Russia. If these great powers were to go to war, one of the key ways it would differ from past conflicts is that it wouldn’t just take place in the waters of the Pacific (which would be different enough, given that the U.S. Navy hasn’t fought a major battle at sea for almost 70 years, and the Chinese Navy hasn’t done so since, well, the last time it was a great power hundreds of years ago). It would also occur in the skies above, extending to two places that have never witnessed major battles before: space and cyberspace. The expectation of a contained conflict, which is behind much Chinese and U.S. military planning today, could very quickly unravel.
That armed conflict might erupt between these countries is by no means inevitable (although it is important to note that since 1500, according to a study by Harvard’s Graham Allison, war has ensued in 11 of the 15 cases in which a rising power has confronted a ruling power). But it is a possibility and thus worth exploring, especially if it is to be avoided.