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What World War III might look like, and how tech can prevent it

Admiral James Stavridis and Elliot Ackerman talk about their new novel, the future of war and how the military and tech industry can learn to work together again.

What World War III might look like, and how tech can prevent it

In "2034: A Novel of the Next World War," a naval skirmish turns into nuclear war.

Photo: Anthony Wallace/Getty Images

Admiral James Stavridis spent decades in the Navy before retiring in 2013. Elliot Ackerman spent eight years in the Marine Corps. So when they teamed up to write a novel about what the next world war could look like, they had a lot of knowledge to start from.

What Stavridis and Ackerman came up with is "2034: A Novel of the Next World War," which was released Tuesday. It's the story of a U.S.-China conflict that escalates too fast, that shows exactly how reliant we are on technology and that makes frighteningly clear how close we are to total destruction. And it feels, at many points, way too real to be comfortable. The book is intended as "cautionary fiction," Stavridis said, giving the world a decade and change to figure out how to get off the path it's currently on.

Ahead of the book's release, Stavridis and Ackerman joined the Source Code podcast to talk about the book, the real-world conflicts it aims to describe, the future for two of the world's most powerful countries and what war — and life — might be like in 2034.

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You can hear our full conversation in this episode of the Source Code podcast. The following excerpts from our conversation have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I'm curious about the world-building process here, because I started the book expecting a kind of techno-thriller, where there are autonomous drones and robots wandering through military installations. And instead of that, the book felt like it could happen, like, in a week. My sense, having finished the book now, is that that was very much a deliberate choice. But as you think about "the future" versus what the world is right now, why did setting it in 2034 become the right answer?

James Stavridis: I'll take a geopolitical swing at that. I think if you look at what's happening in China right now — the centralization of power under President Xi, the bounce that China has in their step coming out of coronavirus, the growing sense of nationalism in China, the reality of One Belt, One Road as a real geopolitical and geo-economic strategy — and then you just kind of lay the railroad tracks out, by the end of this century, what really occurs is the cyber and the artificial intelligence piece.

That string of things I just described, I think, almost unquestionably will be occurring over the next 10 years. And at that point, I think we enter the period of maximum danger where this rising power, China, has real capability in its hands. And we'll have some big decisions to make. To what degree do we want to truly confront China about their ownership claims in the South China Sea? (Which, of course, is precisely where the book opens.) That set of decisions is the Looming Tower of our time, and it's coming toward us and it will collide with reality, I'd say at the end of this decade. I think that the world could, at that stage, without either side really achieving any benefit, stumble into a hot war. We will almost certainly be in a significant Cold War by the end of the decade.

Elliot Ackerman: Creatively, there's this idea I've always loved, it's Freud's notion of the uncanny. The closer you get to total reality without all the way being there — that's the uncanny. And it causes us a lot of psychological discomfort.

And so I think, just from a creative standpoint, 2034 is pretty close. Everything is going to look a lot like it does now, just in terms of walking down the street and what the characters are doing. But it's going to be just a little bit off. And that little bit off is what makes the reader squirm a little bit.

Stavridis: I find that people simply are incapable of imagining that something really, really bad is going to happen. Pearl Harbor. The pandemic. A 20-year war in Afghanistan, who came up with that one? And a massive cyberattack is sort of in that category.

That was one of the things that was so interesting to me about the way you paced and structured the book. I think it has at least crossed most people's minds that something like a nuclear war could happen. But something like you're talking about, these large-scale cyber attacks, I think most people don't understand how it would work, what it would mean, what the consequences would be.

I don't know if this is just my perception, or if you did this on purpose, but the cyberattack moments wind up feeling more climactic, in a lot of ways, than the traditional warfare as people have come to understand it. Some of the most gripping moments in the book are when they cut an undersea cable or when the power goes out. Was that intentional?

Ackerman: I remember the story meeting when we were outlining the first chapter. And when we were saying, "OK, there's going to be this incident in the South China Sea, there's going to be an incident over Iran," then I said, "OK, and then sort of how are we going to close out?" And Jim said "cyberattack." I was like, "Oh, that's right."

For me, the visual that I was holding onto was when the lights went out at the Super Bowl, which created just a sense of disorientation and that no one was quite sure what they were seeing or what it meant. It was an ambiguous gesture. Even though no one gets hurt, per se, it feels more sinister than a bomb going off in a train station or something of that nature. I remember we were talking about it, that the language we had was, the Chinese are going to make the entire eastern seaboard just blink.

Stavridis: And around that time, as we were writing this, the Russians did exactly that to Ukraine: They effectively blinked the western part of Ukrainian electric grid. It was almost playful. It was Cozy Bear deciding, "Hey, how about if we just shut it down."

The nuclear endgame that you describe has been the same for several decades now, right? That was the scary thing about the Cold War several decades ago, and it'll be the scary thing several decades from now. But the means to get there seems like it changed completely. And something like blinking the power grid, I'm guessing that was less of a specific concern with Russia in the '80s.

Stavridis: Yeah, they did not have that capability. But today, they do. I got two words for you: SolarWinds. That's 400 of the Fortune 500 companies. And you know, hacking SolarWinds was hard, but what you ought to focus on is they hacked FireEye. That is arguably the top cybersecurity company in the world, certainly in the top 10, maybe the top five. Call it the FireEye hack if you want to understand this, because it was not only broad, but it was deep. It was both carpet bombing and precision guided strikes.

So no, the Russians could not have done that in the '80s. Now they can. Now China can. Now we can. And we need to, over time, develop a deterrent regime for cyber much as we have one in place for the use of strategic nuclear weapons. Really the reason we have never pulled a strategic nuke out of the locker is because we know it's world-ending. The question is deterrence, and how do you create that in the cyber world? And we have yet to answer that question. And one of the premises of "2034" is that by 15 years from now, we may not have answered that question. That's what led to the Chinese cyberattack.

Obviously, the book is a cautionary tale about war and where all of these things can go. Does it feel to you like a cautionary tale about technology? There's definitely a way to read this book that says: We as a society are much too reliant on technology, and we have to stop. Does it feel that way?

Ackerman: The book certainly has themes, these broader questions it asks the reader to to engage with, and I think that is certainly one of them. It is not accidental that the first strike fighter you see in the book is an F-35. State of the art. And the last one you see is an old tin F-18, that a single pilot with an old-school radio is navigating into harm's way.

The broader question that underpins that is this idea that technology is great, but if technology inhibits a nation's ability to be flexible, to innovate, then technology can be a real detractor to a nation's defenses.

Was that a response to the way you guys see things going in the military or the government right now? Are we heading toward that place, being inflexible because of our reliance on tech?

Stavridis: I think we are. And I'll take that one as a senior military officer, retired.

Yeah, I think you're qualified to know!

Stavridis: And we are over-reliant on these exquisite systems. And I worry that our junior officers or mid-grade officers are overly enamored of the technology and not capable of falling back. I'll give you a very practical example, which is navigation of ships at sea. When I entered the fleet, we used things called sextants to look up at the stars and plot ourselves. And we were all very capable of doing that. By the time I was in command of a destroyer, it was kind of a boutique thing that a few ships were doing, everybody else was totally GPSing. And as I left the military, seven or eight years ago, basically nobody was using sextants anymore.

As a result of what we have seen globally, and the risk not only to cyber but to satellites, we are now seeing the Navy mandate sextants. Paper navigation capability is back. And I think you'll see more examples like that. We need to be able to do both. We need to be able to use those exquisite high-tech systems, but we also have to recognize they may be taken from us in the blink of an eye. What's Plan B?

Ackerman: My experience as an infantry officer and special operator was that we had all sorts of very fancy things we were able to use, but at the end of the day, war is a very, very low-tech endeavor, and really hasn't changed a whole hell of a lot since ... since Odysseus and Achilles were tromping the earth. And so that theme, the universality of the experience was something that we wanted to put in the book.

One of the things that I've talked to a lot of people about over the last couple of years is this interplay between the tech industry and the government and military. There's this big reckoning about how products get used, and what people make, and ethical artificial intelligence and all of this stuff. And it feels like that debate has gotten really complicated.

We spent decades with most great technology coming from the military. And now, the relationship between the private and public sector has just gotten so screwed up. I don't even necessarily have a specific question, I'm just curious, coming from your backgrounds and perspectives, what do you make of where we are as we think about the military and technology?

Stavridis: We have work to do. The great military technologies came from defense companies. They were not invented in the Pentagon. And these defense companies are still very good at building sixth-generation fighter aircraft and putting out Aegis Combat Systems on ships.

On things like cyber, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, not so much. Where is all that residence? It's in a funny little place called Silicon Valley. And we have got to square that circle, if you will.

One rumpus about this was the Maven project, where a group of tech workers said, "We don't want to be part of anything that takes our creative energy and applies it to weapons of war." Well, I appreciate that sentiment. But if you want our nation to succeed, we are going to have to compete, particularly with China, in these zones. And that's a moral decision for someone, whether they want to work for Google if they're doing a project on artificial intelligence. It's really the same as the choice of working for Northrop Grumman or Lockheed Martin. But we are simply going to have to harness those technologies, to some degree, working together with the private sector.

Ash Carter, who is the last secretary of defense of the Obama administration, really moved the ball forward on this, and there are many in Silicon Valley who want to be part of creating security for the United States of America. And we should not allow small numbers of people to swing those industries away from working with the government. It ought to be their choice if they don't want to be part of that effort. But we're going to need that if we're going to succeed in this 21st century.

Ackerman: The way "2034" kind of wound up taking over this this issue of Wired was right at the beginning of the pandemic; an editor there had reached out to me to write a totally unrelated piece for them about a company called Shield AI, which had created this drone that could go into buildings and clear a building. And what I mean by that is it has a video camera on it, it's totally autonomous, and it could tell you whether or not there was some bad guy waiting for you in the building.

And the company was founded by two brothers, one a veteran Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and the other a former Navy SEAL who had seen any number of his buddies get shot up in places like Iraq and Afghanistan doing this type of room clearing.

And so they reached out to me to write the piece just because as a Marine, I had done similar work in Fallujah, where we went house to house to house. I saw a lot of friends get hurt or killed doing that type of work.

They went and demoed their drone called the Nova, and it flies off your hands and zooms into the room. And I have to be honest with you, I was emotional watching that thing do its job perfectly and zip out of the room. Because my immediate reaction was, I could just see a list of friends of mine who would be alive if we'd had that thing. Listen, every person's conscience is their own. But seeing what those two brothers had done in that company, to me seemed like really good and honorable work.

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