John M. Grondelski, Ph.D. is the 2022-2023 Senior State Department Fellow in the Center for Applied Strategic Learning at National Defense University
War Transformed is Ryan’s vision of what warfare looks like today and might look like tomorrow and how military education and planning might prepare us for it. Among his arguments is the value of incorporating fiction into professional military education. Human beings are storytellers who like a good story, which generally sticks more vividly in memory than a dry lecture. Akin to August Cole’s 2015 effort in “ficint” (fiction and intelligence), White Sun War is Ryan’s effort to incarnate the vision he sketches in War Transformed into a potential great power conflict: a 2028 attempt by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to seize Taiwan.
War Transformed considers changes in modern warfare from four angles: intellectual revolutions, new-era competition, the interplay of institutions and ideas, and the role of people. Ryan argues we are in the midst of a “fourth Industrial Revolution” or, more accurately, an “era of acceleration.” The pace of knowledge and change is growing exponentially, threatening to outpace human capacity to assemble, analyze, and act on it. Such change, coupled with the constant advantage of surprise in warfare means technology, including artificial intelligence, will not just be a “tool” in warfighting but, in a very real sense, will become a partner. Other areas where technology is likely to compress the window for decisionmaking are “… robotics, quantum technology, biotechnology, energy weapons, hypersonics, space technology, and additive manufacturing …” (p. 42). These are driving intellectual revolutions.
“New-era competition” will involve features such as the compression of time for decisionmaking, the relevance of electromagnetic signatures, the increased role of algorithms, and changed notions of influence. Today’s geopolitical competition, involving peer and near-peer competitors, represents a departure from warfare as Western nations have mostly known it since the fall of communism in the 1980s and 1990s. The role of space, cyber, and information domains will play far more central roles in warfare than in the past, whether by influencing the outcomes of terrestrial-based fighting or directly affecting space assets, bringing the disruptive impact of war to the enemy through cyber compared to raw kinetic action, or exploiting the potential of information and influence operations on adversaries and their will to fight. Nor will today’s expansion of conflict in these domains necessarily be limited to states: they afford vast opportunities for non-state actors to exploit these domains for their own agendas.
The interplay of institutions and ideas requires assessment of how the conduct of modern warfare will likely demand thinking outside the box. Most services at least pay lip service to, if not actually implementing, greater degrees of jointness and integration. How much we pay attention to resources is another question. Post-COVID-19, the United States and allies have become more aware of their dependency on competitors (if not enemies)—whether out of scarcity or the consequences of globalization—for supplies vital to warfare, be they rare earth minerals, medicines, or various manufactured goods, and for the supply chains necessary to ensure their sustainable supply. Finally, military forces that presuppose more seamless integration of humans and technology will also require troops with commensurate education to employ them well: Ryan politely does not delve extensively into the challenge posed by declining Western educational standards.
Finally, Ryan is emphatic about the primacy and indispensable role of people. Under this rubric, he focuses on five important areas: cultivating a culture of joint warfare; maintaining the cutting edge of our military leaders; fostering their professional development, especially in a culture of continuous learning; and enhancing appreciation of military ethics as essential to professional military education and leadership.
A formidable array of topics, you might say, but how does it all hold together? Ryan attempts to depict one possible way it could, involving a topic of frequent current concern to U.S. defense planners: Taiwan. White Sun War, a novel recounting a 2028 unsuccessful attack by the PRC to seize Taiwan, is Ryan’s canvas to sketch that picture.
A new PRC President sees a narrowing window to achieve a fait accompli by taking over Taiwan. The United States is internally divided ahead of a presidential election, while Washington must handle two simultaneous extreme climate events: massive hurricane-induced flooding in Florida and uncontrolled wildfires in the Far West. With the United States distracted and the People’s Liberation Army heavily invested in technology, the PRC President believes Taiwan can be occupied before Taiwan’s allies can react.
The bulk of the book examines possible changes in warfighting from the perspectives of a PRC Marine Colonel (Bo) leading an invasion brigade; a U.S. Army Captain whose cavalry troop provides reconnaissance support to a Marine Colonel commanding new Littoral Regiments; and a Technical Sergeant in the Space Force. Others—a Taiwanese soldier, various U.S. federal bureaucrats, military figures—also play supporting roles in the story.
Ryan envisions an amphibious assault on Taiwan, calculated to rapidly impose an exclusionary zone on the Taiwan Strait and to land forces on the island. Ryan’s futuristic vision includes massive PRC use of “beetles” (autonomous devices, both airborne drones and amphibious devices) programmed to reconnoiter, clear obstacles, and kill. A project developed by Colonel Bo as part of his strategy project at the PRC National Defense University, beetles are designed to be a non-human advance that opens the way for PRC troops. As the initial landing force on the island, beetles would destroy Taiwanese shore barriers and take first crack at island defenders before actual humans stormed the shores. The beetles also serve as PRC advance forces, clearing the way for follow-on by PRC troops. They feature prominently throughout the book, including an airborne version which regularly detects enemy units to swarm, attack, and destroy them.
White Sun’s beetles are a fictional embodiment of Ryan’s argument in War Transformed that autonomous devices will increasingly almost be “partners” to living troops both in paving their advance as well as in protecting them. Because of their independent sensing capabilities, beetles have the potential (like hypersonic missiles) to achieve lethal goals before the adversary is aware of them and/or deploys countermeasures.
But the PRC is not alone in this computer-driven war. U.S. Army Captain Lee spends most of her time in her armored vehicle on screens, detecting and retaliating against targets. Lest anyone imagine that the fight is just soldiers on computers, Ryan emphasizes that this “automation” of warfare is hardly, however, bloodless: soldiers are cooked inside their vehicles after the enemy detects their signatures and assaults them.
The Space Force acquires a relatively important role, reflecting Ryan’s belief that space-based assets are intrinsic components of modern terrestrial warfare. Examples of that role include an ability to hijack surveillance satellites for a limited period, feeding false imagery of storm transit roots to deceive the PRC about the first U.S. forces’ deployment to Taiwan being seemingly Okinawa-bound. Among the Space Force’s more audacious exploits are the clandestine seizure of a PRC satellite to assess its technological capabilities, leaving satellite debris in its place, and the feat that ends the war: feeding faked storm tracking information into global weather satellites about a typhoon. By misleading people that the storm was bearing down on Taiwan’s east coast with a path out to sea rather than its west coast (the primary site of PRC occupation) and the Straits, PRC forces were left exposed to extremely violent weather during which the United States and Allies launched a massive, all-out assault across all domains against the enemy. PRC forces, bogged down in the southwest quadrant of Taiwan, facing both growing logistical supply problems and aggressive local insurgency, are decimated, forcing a PRC withdrawal. Although the unlucky PRC President is deposed, the Chinese Communist Party remains in power, Ryan leaving the intimation it may live to fight another day.
Naval activity in White Sun War is confined to the Straits. Early in the three-month long war U.S., Japanese, and Australian naval forces—while taking major losses themselves, also inflict significant damage on Chinese cross-Strait vessels, stopping an invasion of Taiwan’s north, which sets the stage for PRC strained supply lines during an extended conflict. There is no activity in the South China Sea nor any strikes on the PRC mainland.
Ryan envisions primarily a U.S.-Japanese-Taiwanese alliance, with Australia contributing a much more junior partner role. The only other country that plays a minor but significant role in the scenario is India. Ahead of the conflict-ending literal allied Sturm und Drang attack in August that is coordinated with the falsified weather data, India is induced to deploy significant forces along its border with Tibet. They do nothing, but concern about Indian intentions forces PRC leaders to divert forces to their Western Theater, further weakening their forces on Taiwan.
Ryan pulls various technological rabbits out of the hat, e.g., a possible improved American stealth aircraft that allows for massive, undetected enemy bombing (which occurs just prior to the August ceasefire). Ryan presents the project as an effort to overcome Western conundrums from Cold War days: given the numerical superiority of then-Soviet, now-PRC forces, Western Allies might be forced to resort to tactical nuclear use more quickly than they would like. There is, therefore, a need for a more massive, effect strike capability at extreme points in a conflict short of the nuclear threshold. That is where his secret stealth bomber comes in.
How plausible Ryan’s technological rabbits are I leave to those more proficient in cutting edge military technology. In some sense, Ryan asks us to suspend our disbelief and concede a measure of plausibility to these developments. At the current pace of technological advance, can we really exclude at least some of them in five years?
Ryan also assumes that geopolitical competitors employing these new warfighting domains and technologies will also begin to establish redlines that warn adversaries of escalatory intent. In one scene, tension is stoked because a local PRC unit deploys a centrally unauthorized electromagnetic pulse to disrupt enemy technology. The unexpected event triggers a discussion about ascertaining if it was a one-off or the PRC is escalating to use of limited tactical nuclear weapons. Such ambiguity is likely to bedevil Western allies’ ability to discern the intent of geopolitical competitors like the PRC in real conflict.
Such is Ryan’s Taiwan scenario. I reiterate that Ryan is probably less interested in a detailed battle plan for Taiwan than using a story to illustrate how he sees 21stcentury war changing, particularly in the pairing of people and autonomous weaponry and the information, cyber, and space domains. After reading the book, I will concede something to Ryan’s argument about the utility of fiction in professional military education: a good story serves to make more memorable how theoretical arguments (in this case, changes in warfare today) might be instantiated.
Either book can be read independently but combined, Ryan successfully attempts a novel feat to make his vision’s points. Together, the books offer policymakers and military leaders considerable fodder to ruminate about conflict in a world where great power conflict is back with a vengeance and how it might play out in an Asian theater of particular American concern.