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Orbital Warfare, Weaponized AI, and the New Cold War.
EX SUPRA and Breaking Beijing at One Year
Today marks the one year anniversary of this Substack. Two weeks ago, I celebrated the one year launch anniversary of my first novel, EX SUPRA. In the last year, I’ve taken the time to write in depth on a range of topics surrounding US-China conflict, competition, and the future of warfare. In that time, EX SUPRA was nominated for a Prometheus Award for best science fiction novel and Breaking Beijing has found its way through the halls of the Pentagon, Capitol Hill, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and a few other locales. And for that I say a very big thank you to my readers and subscribers, you make all this possible. Today, I’d like to check my homework RE: some of my predictions and narratives and dive back into the pages of EX SUPRA. Thanks to Josh (@LostLT1) for suggesting this article idea. (P.S. The EX SUPRA audiobook is coming in August!)
Let’s jump in.
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Chapter 3 “When the Levee Breaks”
The first two chapters of EX SUPRA may hit you hard, emotionally. John Petrov suffers his flashbacks and nightmares as he prepares for and recovers from, the Battle of Kuala Lumpur. But chapter 3 is where the real trouble begins. Set in October 2024, “When the Levee Breaks” is all about the fall of Taiwan and US noncombatant evacuation (NEO) before the PLA hits the beaches. Most controversial, however, is the chapter’s opening scene: the destruction of TSMC by John and his CAG (Delta Force) teammates in a desperate attempt by USINDOPACOM to spoil a PLA victory in the event the island falls before the American fleet can arrive. Never the most likely course of action, I modeled this story after a “most dangerous” scenario where the PLA acts before the US is ready in a period of political tension in the US and across the Strait. Shortly after EX SUPRA published, the 2022 August Crisis over Taiwan captured the world’s headlines. Even more relevant, pundits in the US and Taiwan began arguing over TSMC’s fate in the event of war. I can’t claim sole responsibility for the origins of that debate, but I also can’t say that I had no impact on the idea entering the public imagination, either. As for the possibility of war, a hasty invasion born of political crisis is certainly still the most likely source of war across the Strait in he near term. The PLA is still not yet ready, and given the recent news about purges in the ranks of the PLA, the CMC may be seeing that through their kool-aid more readily. However, the US isn’t prepared for such a war either and while an all out invasion in 2024 remains unlikely, every year we grow closer to a clash of the titans in the Western Pacific. Ready up.
You can read “When the Levee Breaks” for free, here.
Chapter 4: “Who’s Next?”
Here we’re introduced to Athena Lucente, a CIA paramilitary officer held captive in Pakistan following a coup that leaves the PRC’s allies in power. Faced with the burden of food shortages and climate damage, the nuclear-armed Pakistan is increasingly looking like a failed state. It’s also a friend of Beijing, as a way to hedge against India, even when it feels the pressure of its burdensome loans. As the climate worsens and Afghanistan becomes a problem yet again, I don’t see the stability of Pakistan growing anytime soon. Caught between the US, India, and China, I think it’s very likely that Pakistan will continue a backslide into authoritarianism and find itself increasingly under the PRC’s influence, whether it likes it or not.
Chapter 5: “Burning in the Skies”
Told from the perspective of a disgraced USINDOPACOM commander testifying to Congress, Burning in the Skies is all about the Second Space Race that began in the early 2020s and culminates in the technophobic regime in Pakistan blowing a SpaceX colony ship out of the skies during an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test in 2034. I’ve said before that we are with regards to orbital warfare today where we were with cyber in the late 90s/early 2000s. Very few in the public, and in power, truly grasp the damage that orbital warfare can do to our military infrastructure and civilian way of life. Recent headlines suggest that Space Force is finally making headway in formalizing its orbital warfare units, with our rivals increasing their own capabilities and private companies owning more and more of space-related infrastructure. We are indeed in the middle of the second space race, one that will stay quiet until it gets very loud, very fast.
Chapter 6: Detour
This one’s all about Australian politics. With AUKUS in the headlines and footage of American and Australian troops running joint exercises messaged squarely at the PLA, you’d think there’s no chance that Australian politics could ever turn sour on DC but in reality the Australian economy is vulnerable and Australia’s increasingly hawkish foreign policy outlook doesn’t necessarily align with internal political discourse. If I had to rate my outlook, I’d say the US-Australia relationship looks better than it did coming out of COVID, and AUKUS certainly holds promise, but both are more fragile than people think. A single new administration or global economic crisis could seriously gum up the works and disrupt our efforts to ensure Australia is a key player in any Taiwan defense scenario. A neutral Australia, as in the book, is an extreme, but one we should never take for granted. Partnerships require frequent and consistent upkeep.
Chapter 7: “21st Century Breakdown”
POTUS succumbs to disinformation campaign. Georgetown student in mourning becomes radicalized online and targets SECDEF. The PRC uses social media in the age of AI to drive disinformation campaigns targeted at disrupting the US response to a war and causing massive damage to military and civilian infrastructure at home, using every day Americans as first strike weapons. Do I really need to explain whether any of that remains relevant?
Chapter 8: “Covenant”
Named after the enemy alien race in the HALO series that like to glass whole planets, Covenant tells the story of a single Air Force outpost’s strike campaign during the first days of the war in 2035 to stop the PLA in its tracks from the island of Diego Garcia. Is Diego Garcia incredibly relevant to any Pacific campaign? Yes. Are we still short on critical munitions? Yes. Is the B-52 still flying in 2035? Yes. Will targeting and battle damage assessment (BDA) be incredibly difficult when the satellites get blown out of the sky and lines of communication are cut? Yes. Is Myanmar a likely future outpost for the PLA? Increasingly, yes.
Chapter 9: “The Missiles on Maple Street are Fake News”
Everyone’s favorite nightmare of a story. Wealthy Silicon Valley neighborhood meets its demise at the hands of their own creation: a world controlled by social media algorithms. Social media’s not getting any better, we can’t even fix the TikTok fiasco. And we certainly haven’t fixed the wave of hyper partisanship, radicalism, and bigotry that the algorithm in the chapter uses to turn us into weapons. The only thing I might get wrong here is the popularity of AR-glasses. Augmented reality by itself is mostly a matter of compute power, we’ll get that to the mass market sooner rather than later. I’m still not sold on the fashion of AR glasses for maybe a decade or two. Bonus: I’m working on converting this chapter into a feature film script tentatively titled “Anytown.”
You can read this chapter for free, here.
Chapter 10: “All that Glitters”
Social media billionaire realizes what his greed has cost him. Much of the commentary here is the same as chapter 8, but it goes deeper into how the algorithm works. In fact, we’re already seeing advertising algorithms being used in some ways described: manipulating data provided to users, influencing emotions tied to user data, etc.
Chapter 11: “Insurgent”
Due to sequel spoilers (running title: Project Duality), I can’t talk too much about the backstory of this chapter. Stay tuned. As for the technology in the chapter, we’re still getting closer to drone use by police, wearable tech still hasn’t made it to mass market and I suspect power capacity and stability, as well as cost, will continue to hamper that development for some time.
Chapter 12: “Tomorrow and Yesterday”
The Russians want Alaska back after decades of humiliation. Again, this chapter will be light on commentary due to spoilers for Project Duality. I will say that the use of chemicals by SOF (in an approved manner) is becoming closer to reality every day, and the value of the Arctic as a whole grows with every melting inch of permafrost. The war in Ukraine has hollowed out many of the forces Russia built up to defend and seize gains in the Arctic. It may take more than a decade for them to return those forces to power projection status. The US still has a lot of work to do in the Arctic, too, but the Russian threat in the Arctic today and for some time now will come more from nukes, subs, and aircraft than from infantry that can actually hold valuable thawing ground.
Chapter 13: “Arsenal of Kleptocracy”
In 2035, a DC divided by hyper partisanship and devoid of leadership struggles to get itself together in the aftermath of the outbreak of the war. A veteran of the Taiwan campaign now leads Amazon, and tries to get the logistics juggernaut in the fight while battling incompetent leaders and regulations aimed at protecting the old guard instead of America. Meanwhile, John travels across the US by car, witnessing atrocity after atrocity thanks to the PRC disinformation campaign. In 2023, Amazon seems to be struggling at the moment after its COVID-era spending splurge, but it still remains the juggernaut of internet commerce and logistics. DC is still struggling with defense mergers that will harm the industry and national security, and Silicon Valley and the Pentagon still struggle to cooperate and communicate. The whiplash public reaction to artificial intelligence development threatens our ability to maintain an edge against the PRC. What’s old is new.
Chapter 14: “The First Starfighter”
The first space ace, WaveRider seems to be fan favorite, but most of what can be said about this chapter was said in my commentary about the second space race. We’re still developing space warfighting doctrine, and struggling to manage operations in a contested environment that we don’t actually live in, but rely on.
Chapter 15: “As Above, So Below”
Another favorite, if nightmarish chapter. 3rd Infantry Division holding a defensive line north of Cam Ranh Bay, a soldier just tries to make it out alive in the face of a PLA offensive. The synchronicity of orbital, air, ground, and sea operations are key to both PLA and American strategy. Both the US and the PRC continue to strive towards making this a reality. Drones feature heavily down to the squad level, soldiers have AR feeds, and weapons still break down in the heat, humidity, and dirt. This is where I first introduce the concept of infrasonic air defense, and while it seems cool, I don’t think we’re going to end up going in that direction anytime soon as progress with point defense laser systems increases by the day. As for how drones are improved, both in this chapter and in later ones, suicide drones target soldiers in the trenches and are used to adjust direct and indirect fires in real time, all concepts that now feature heavily in the Russo-Ukraine War, but that we are still working on implementing here in the US.
You can read the chapter for free, here.
Chapter 16: “Cold War”
My ode to John Carpenter’s The Thing. The paper I reference in this chapter about soft spots in between realities is based upon a real paper I once read on string theory research ongoing at the South Pole. While most talk about the polar regions focuses on the melting Arctic, the Antarctic is a prime target of PRC scientific research and satellite relay efforts. Just because the ice is melting doesn’t mean the fight over the Antarctic is going to slow down. On the technology aspects, the orbital insertion by the Spetsnaz is probably much further off than 2035. Payload costs are dropping rapidly, but we’re still a while out from dropping operators from orbit. As for the politics of an old authoritarian leader chasing fantasies, well, that goes back centuries and Putin’s penchant for conspiracy and the absurd is hardly unknown.
Chapter 17: “Glow”
Spoilers, darling. But in general, advancements in synthetic biology continue to accelerate and I intend on having a Breaking Beijing article out on Synthetic biology and US-China competition coming out soon. It will also be a key focus of Project Duality. Perhaps the most unrealistic part of this chapter is the Russians ever getting to control Chernobyl again.
Chapter 18: “Kuala Lumpur”
Southeast Asia ravaged by climate change, Malaysia suffering a PRC-backed insurgency, the allies on the run and short on logistics support, a massive battle in the urban heart of darkness that Kuala Lumpur has become. Welcome to the war, Casper.
In truth, the Allies in 2037 look a lot like the Russians of 2022-2023: short on food, competency, high attrition (especially from disease, weather, etc) and using hobbled units in whatever function they can perform. There’s a path where we end up like the Russians, but it requires a series of critical failures at the policy level (outlined in the book) that get us there. Urban warfare is increasingly becoming the center of large-scale battle as more and more people move into the cities, a city with a key port and geography like Kuala Lumpur will undoubtedly, somewhere, suffer a similar fate sooner or later. One may argue that Mariupol already did.
Again, drones and smarter battlefield machines play a key role in enabling success and augmenting human forces in the campaign. From orbit down to street battles, everything is connected, either by comms or cataclysm.
Chapter 19: “Just Like Old Times”
There’s a few future predictions in this chapter, as it’s set in 2025. DC still has a serious homeless problem, the country suffers from the backlash of losing Taiwan, and veterans try to find meaning in the aftermath of defeat. 930 Club in DC still rocks.
Chapter 20: “Ex Supra”
The original short story that started it all, some six years ago. Attrition rules the day in the Himalayas as the PLA clashes with the Indians and Americans in a hellish landscape of artillery, thin air, and climate instability. Soldiers fight stagnant battles in muddy trenches amidst the ruins of Tawang, and the US holds on for dear life thanks to the late arrival of Project Forge. An AI-run hypersonic logistics system, Project Force spans the globe and partially solves the Americans’ logistics woes in the face of the tyranny of distance (the one thing it can’t do is make more bodies). Every so often a report surfaces that the USAF is looking at this technology in some fashion, but it’s still got a while to go. However, what looks most promising is AI-assisted logistics. Reducing friction in logistics decision-making and management could give us a huge boost over our enemies and we’re dumping money into solving the problem.
Chapter 21: “Battle of the Frontiers”
An extension of the Space Race, this chapter covers a small battle on Mars between colonists. In the story, I talk about how the PRC spilled blood by rushing its colonization program, and looking at a few headlines, I think that will end up being true. As to whether either country can establish a colony on Mars by 2035, I put odds at 60/40 that one of us will get it done. As for a battle on Mars, I’ll just say that where humans go, violence follows. Cain and Able aren’t earthbound.
Chapter 22: “With the New Breed”
The Marines have been fighting the Second Battle of Guadalcanal for 3 years. What’s old is new: the old salts who survived the bad years of the war train up the green recruits. For how the Marines ended up in the South Pacific, I tried to wargame how the Marines’ EABO plans might evolve in the face of the fall of Taiwan. Undoubtedly, Marines with anti-ship missiles would still factor in, but as more islands further into the Pacific came into play, some things would have to change. Now you’d have to worry more about holding those islands that aren’t as close to the mainland. And so we end up with War Plan Galactica, a plan to scatter forces across the Pacific in the event of the fall of key bases in the Pacific instead of dispersing Marines deeper into the Western Pacific as we have today.
Chapter 23: “A Hell of a Way to Die”
Spoilers, darling. But, I will wrap up by saying that the world of EX SUPRA is dictated chiefly by strained resources, uneven technological development, and accelerated climate change. All three of those factors are shaping our world today, and are only growing evermore important. We cannot ignore the risk of resource war, luddite philosophies, and climate change. If you step away from the play by play in these chapters and focus on those themes, you’ll quickly see we’re closer to the EX SUPRA timeline today than we were a year ago, and it’s not getting better.
And finally: The EX SUPRA Reading Playlist:
Does it still rock? Yes, yes it does.
If you enjoyed this story, check out the rest of the novel, EX SUPRA. It’s the story about the war after the next war. From the first combat jump on Mars to the climate change-ravaged jungles of Southeast Asia, EX SUPRA blends the bleeding edge of technology and the bloody reality of combat. In EX SUPRA, the super soldiers are only as strong as their own wills, reality is malleable, and hope only arrives with hellfire. Follow John Petrov, a refugee turned CIA paramilitary officer, Captain Jennifer Shaw, a Green Beret consumed by bloodlust, and many more, as they face off against Chinese warbots, Russian assassins, and their own demons in the war for the future of humanity.
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