At the end of April my next book will be published by Casemate Publishers. Called White Sun War, it is a fictional account of a war over Taiwan that takes place in 2028. The narrator for the story is a future historian, looking back from 2038 on the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the war.
In this respect, it is similar in structure to the Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Killer Angels, which was written by Michael Shaara and published in 1974. In that book, Shaara explores the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg through the lens of key participants on both sides. The Killer Angels is a powerful narrative of higher-level military leadership and the impact of close combat in the mid-nineteenth century and features on the reading lists of many military institutions.
White Sun War is also a story told through the perspectives of its participants. Its key characters include:
A young US Army captain who commands a Cavalry Troop that is newly organised unit with a mix of humans and robotic ground combat systems (human-machine teaming).
A Taiwanese soldier working in the headquarters of a mechanised brigade from the Republic of China Army.
A US Space Force Technical Sergeant whose speciality is orbital warfare.
A Chinese Colonel who commands one of the People’s Liberation Army’s Marine Brigades that is sent to Taiwan.
A Colonel in the US Marine Corps commanding one of the new Marine Littoral Regiments in the Western Pacific that is dispatched to Taiwan.
These characters provide a mix of different viewpoints on modern and near future warfare, from both old and new military organisational constructs.
Some may question why I have turned to fiction as the follow to my previous non-fiction book, War Transformed, that was published in February 2022. There are a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to make the material as accessible as possible. Despite my best efforts, even the best written non-fiction books on war and competition contain a certain level of jargon that some find difficult to understand. I find that fiction allows the use more accessible language to examine some of the complexities of humans and technology in war.
A second reason for writing a fictional account is that it allows the exploration of alternate organisations and operational scenarios without compromising real world war plans or capabilities. Despite the open nature of democratic societies, some military technologies and future plans are by necessity kept secret. Fiction allows us to explore potential futures free from this security constraint. As Peter Singer and August Cole have described the application of narrative, which they call Useful Fiction, it can employ engaging and plausible storylines to introduce readers to novel trends and problems.
And finally, I wanted to use my imagination about some of the impacts of the Chinese military build-up in the western Pacific and the impacts of the war in Ukraine. One the worst things that an institution can be accused of is to have a failure of imagination. Such a concept has been the foundation of strategic failure in the past (it was explicitly mentioned in the 9/11 Commission Report). I hope that by using my imagination, and creating a worst case outcome in the Indo-Pacific security environment, it might inform today’s decision makers about the potential outcomes of such a conflict. And why it is so important to deter such a war.
Thinking About Future War
Many military institutions engage in thinking about, wargaming and planning for the next war. They often get it wrong. Often this is because the wrong lessons are taken from previous conflicts. This is because the context or political objectives of future warfare diverge from those of the conflict from which lessons were taken.
In White Sun War, I have attempted to apply knowledge of Chinese military strategy, speeches by President Xi about Taiwan and China’s build-up of military forces while mixing in observations from the ongoing war in Ukraine. There are many relevant lessons from the war in Ukraine that might apply to conflict over Taiwan in the future. These include:
The importance of narratives and strategic influence operations. While Ukraine has demonstrated a mastery of maintaining a strategic narrative that has resulted in significant foreign assistance, the Chinese government has also invested in its influence operations in the Western Pacific and beyond.
The importance of logistics and national industrial capacity. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated that the era of mass, and the competition between industrial systems, has returned to war in the 21st century. It is very likely that any conflict over Taiwan will also place a premium on assured logistics, the productive capacity of the belligerents as well as the strategic and operational transportation systems to move people, equipment and supplies into and out of theatre.
Understanding that while technology is a vital part of war, it is the application of new technologies in conjunction with new organisations and new concepts of employment (tactics) that will ensure the best chance of military success.
The near transparency of war. One of the most transformative impacts of the war in Ukraine has been the explosion in open-source reporting on the war, and its meshing with government and military information to form a virtual meshed collection-analysis-dissemination cycle. This has involved governments releasing classified intelligence to pre-empt Russian activities as well as the widespread participation in information warfare by hacktivists and citizen journalists. This is likely to be the case in any Taiwan contingency, although China is almost certain to want to do everything it can to deny transparency of the war.
Both Ukraine and Taiwan are young democracies being preyed upon by large, technologically sophisticated authoritarian regimes who care little for human rights and freedoms. In this respect, there is great similarity in purpose in defending Ukraine and defending Taiwan.
Finally, the war in Ukraine has again demonstrated how importance leadership is. While Ukrainian President Zelensky is the best example, battlefield leadership, alliance leadership and national leadership from nations supporting Ukraine has also come to the fore. This is almost certain to play a major role in a war over Taiwan.
Despite these observations from Ukraine and their relevance for Taiwan, there are many differences between Ukraine and Taiwan which I make clear throughout White Sun War:
First, geography is the obvious difference. Not only is Taiwan smaller and geographically isolated from China, but it is much further away from nations that might be able to provide support to it during a war than is Ukraine. This would have a significant bearing on any conflict, particularly in the early days.
White Sun War, and any Taiwan contingency, will have a much more significant air and naval (including under water) components. While the air and naval aspects of the war in Ukraine are not insignificant, they are minor compared to the land campaign. This is not the case for Taiwan or for the story in White Sun War, which sees the vast majority of the story taking place in the urban littoral.
Likewise, the importance of space-based capabilities and on-orbit operations in Taiwan is vastly greater than in Ukraine. Notwithstanding the very important capability provided by StarLink terminals, Taiwan (and the White Sun War narrative) feature space operations heavily.
White Sun War, unlike Ukraine, features a multi-national combat force that is involved in the defence of Taiwan. While Western nations have provided billions in military and intelligence assistance to Ukraine, there is no ‘boots on the ground’. This is very different in White Sun War, and any likely scenario where there is a conflict over Taiwan.
A Future Campaign for Taiwan?
The great tragedy of any future war for Taiwan is that it is likely to be the result of a human miscalculation about the other side’s capabilities and willpower. Just as Putin miscalculated Ukrainian unity and resolve, as well as the interest and patience of the west in supporting Ukraine, it is very possible the Chinese Communist Party could make a similar miscalculation about the resolve of Taiwan or America.
A war in the western Pacific would be catastrophic for the region. Beyond the massive human and material costs suffered by the people of Taiwan, and the high causalities likely to be suffered by all combatants, it would introduce the spectre of nuclear war in the Pacific and would certainly produce a global economic shock that would take years to recover from.
A successful Chinese invasion, which would still cost tens of thousands (and probably hundreds of thousands) of lives would reorder regional and global politics. A failed Chinese invasion would be devastating for how China sees itself and would have severe consequences for President Xi. All of these issues are explored throughout White Sun War.
Far from glorifying war, the novel aims to demonstrate just how high the costs of such miscalculation might be in the hope that war over Taiwan can be avoided.
White Sun War will be released in April 2023 and is available for pre-order at Casemate, Amazon, WH Smith (UK), and Angus and Robertson (Australia) among others.
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Mick, an interesting way to war game a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan thru fictional narrative. Let’s hope your ultimate goal is achieved to bring to light the human and economic toll of such a gross miscalculation not just of resolve or strength, but the miscalculation of what is and is not truly in China’s national interest.
How much do you go into the global economic impacts of such a war? Surely they dwarf those of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It would totally upend global supply chains across most sectors of economic activity. How much of US and EU on shoring of strategic economic sectors is prelude to a possible war over Taiwan? Will China’s current economic problems will cause China to concentrate on domestic issues over international rivalry? Or is this a distraction to the domestic audience so they ignore the serious internal economic problems?
Gen. Ryan, Can you contact me? I'd like to write a review, or may a "preview" of "White Sun War" for our weekly magazine. — Jamie McIntyre, senior writer, defense and national security, Washington Examiner. firstname.lastname@example.org.