About August Cole

August Cole is director of the Art of Future Warfare project at the Atlantic Council and writer-in-residence at Avascent. He is the author with Peter W. Singer of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War.

Don’t Forget The Human Element

The audience of venture capitalists, engineers and other tech-sector denizens chuckled as they watched a video clip of an engineer using a hockey stick to shove a box away from the Atlas robot that was trying to pick it up. Each time the humanoid robot lumbered forward, its objective moved out of reach. From my vantage point at the back of the room, the audience’s reaction to the situation began to sound uneasy, as if the engineer’s actions and their invention’s response had crossed some imaginary line.

If these tech mavens aren’t sure how to respond to increasingly life-like robots and artificial intelligence systems, I wondered, what are we in the defense community missing?

Read more at Defense One.

‘War Books’ Must Reads

Throughout my reading life, I’ve picked books for lots of reasons. I can remember going to Tower Books in Seattle when I was in elementary school and perusing the sci-fi section, discovering David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers on the strength of its cover art alone. I did that a lot. Other times, I’ve had books recommended to me with heartfelt conviction, like when a former Navy SEAL first told me about Gates of Fire and the work of Steven Pressfield. More recently, the suggestion to read the novel Room came during a conversation on how I could get better at character development while speaking with Ken Liu, a writer whose prose and translation—and work ethic—are indomitable.

Today there is growing acceptance that fiction belongs on military reading lists, and it is leading to some outstanding suggestions. A great novel or short story (particularly sci-fi) pushes us to confront our assumptions, helps us understand other perspectives, and stokes our imagination in ways that nonfiction cannot. In particular, dystopian sci-fi stories have their place on these lists for their cautionary value in an era when technology’s downsides can sometimes only be revealed after calamity. Terrible times often produce the most memorable heroes.

These are among my favorite fiction titles that I’ve read (or re-read as in the case of The Profession) recently. As a package, these books complement each other for their exploration of everything from human migration and trafficking to political collapse to narco superpowers to private armies. Plus, they all have great covers.

Read more at West Point’s Modern War Institute War Books column.

Between Fact And Fiction

Peruse the shelves at any bookstore and one section sure to be well stocked is for books on writing. There are notable titles, from rule books such as Elements of Style to the inspirational and craft-oriented Naming the World, that are well suited to equipping writers with the tools to put their words on a page as effectively as possible.

There are other types of writing books, though, that pull back the curtain of what it is like to write professionally. Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is one that stands out, and so is Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing endure as being entertaining and useful.

Add to the list two more worthy reads. These recent autobiographical books hew to the “show, don’t tell” adage and reveal the stories behind their authors’ lives: Steven Pressfield’s The Knowledge and John le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel. While these books are rooted in the past, their value to future-minded writers is in understanding the importance of personal stories in creating inspiring characters and credible settings perched on the knife edge between fact and fiction. This is perhaps even more important in tales that can be easily overrun with technology and fantasy.

Read more at the Art of the Future Project website.

A Matter For Machines

Executive orders from the White House so far appear to be the readiest arrow in the Trump administration’s quiver for hot-button, high-stakes political issues like Middle East refugees and cutting federal red tape. Fired recklessly and without counsel or apparent expert advice they are sure to sow chaos and discord, likely by design. What will happen when the administration’s missives start to address the outstanding military and strategic questions about game-changing battlefield advances like AI and robotics? It is worth re-reading the Politico story from late December, “Killer Robots Await Trump’s Verdict” that tackled this question before the tumult of Inauguration Day and the reshuffling of the National Security Council that favors politicking over military and intelligence acumen (the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Director of National Intelligence are no longer deemed essential to meetings of top officials during a crisis but top political advisors are.) Read the Politico story.

As I said in the story, “We’re on the doorstep of what armed conflict looks like in the 21st century” and robotics and autonomy are going to play decisive roles in the air, on the ground, under the sea and in cyberspace. What that role is depends in large part on the initiatives of the Trump administration — or how they respond to other nations and groups who use these capabilities first.

During a recent podcast with Army Capt. Jake Miraldi of West Point’s Modern War Institute about future conflict, we got into a range of future-conflict questions from who will lead innovation around AI/autonomy, what will we do with bad advice from machines, will technology disruption shock the US military, and whether an algorithm might one day be writing my novels for me (and doing a better job…). Listen to the MWI podcast “Autonomy on the Battlefield.”

Really Big Risks

As the Trump administration gets down to work making its mark on the first 100 days in office, its members would be wise to remember that the next national security risks are so new they’re almost impossible to comprehend, let alone see.

This is where science fiction comes in. The right novel or short story can bring existential threats down to Earth, and make them seem solvable with the right recipe of science, heroes, and villains.

Read more at the Atlantic Council’s Art of the Future Project.

New Short Fiction: UNDERBELLY

If the US slashes its involvement in NATO in the near-future, how might the alliance respond to Russian aggression in the Baltics? This short story, UNDERBELLY, explores the intersection of narrative combat, irregular warfare and great power conflict against a backdrop of NATO’s strongest nations lacking the American military might they depended on for decades. 

The major general had forged his 31-year career in the British Army by sheer will, be it through SAS selection, stultifying desk jobs, Iraq, Afghanistan, a PhD in Russian literature, and much more. But just getting his fork from the plate to his mouth required more strength than he’d ever had. Two peas, nested in cold mashed potatoes, perched upon the tines. The room’s sole candle cast a long shadow across the tabletop, the mobile phone flipped screen-down next to an untouched, perfectly creased paper napkin. An inch off the plate was as far as he could get. It had been 18 hours since he’d last eaten but there was just no room in his stomach for food anymore. The profound need to prevail would sustain him until this was all over.

“Sir, you have a few more minutes,” said his aide, an American Army colonel, Shane Williams. “I can see if the kitchen can make something else, have them send it back.”

Maj. Gen. Hugh Fessenden shook his sizeable head and stood up, brushing non-existent crumbs from his jeans and thick brown sweater. He clutched his phone in his bony right hand. The totem of his anxiety. He stood a head shorter than Williams, yet the American looked at him with real admiration. The Cotswold countryside English pub, the Eagle Inn, was older than the United States. In another hundred years, this would be seen as a historic place and moment. Fessenden was the man making it happen. Williams was one of the few American uniformed military advisors still working with NATO since the United States pulled all of its land forces out of Europe two years ago. He would have a front-row seat to history, which was why he had joined the military more than 20 years ago.

Read more at West Point’s Modern War Institute.

Don’t Laugh, This Is Serious

Comedy is an essential tool to understand everything from global trends to local politics for multiple reasons: the comedic process requires a rigorous understanding of your subject, similar to that of an analyst. It is the product of non-linear thinking, usually using narrative and dialogue, to open minds to new ideas and to see the world around them more clearly. In his history of American comedy, The Comedians, Kliph Nesteroff says that “[t]he struggle of the funny performer has remained a symbiosis of drive, jealousy, heartbreak, and triumph.” Comedy can offer the same and sometimes better insights than policy analysis. And let’s face it, no matter who you supported in the election, we all need a laugh now more than ever.

Read more of my essay with Alex Ward at War On The Rocks.

Sacred Assumptions

US Pacific Command recently added Ghost Fleet to its professional development books and film list, which in the words of PACOM commander Admiral Harry Harris “is a selection of good books — novels and non-fiction — and movies that tries to reflect the breadth and depth of issues that cover what we all do at United States Pacific Command.” It’s an honor to have our novel added to professional military reading lists, particularly for the combatant command focused on the future of the Asia Pacific region. Ghost Fleet features in the list’s fiction section, alongside Asia-focused titles such as The Orphan Master’s Son and War Trash.

What Ghost Fleet can do is help open up conversations about some of the uncomfortable gaps between how the US defense establishment has viewed the future of conflict and what it might actually be like in the coming decade. In the past, such comments and conversations could be a professional liability, but today they are a strategic necessity. That is how the book’s value is described: “This novel, about future war, challenges some sacred assumptions about the composition of our armed forces, the strengths of our new systems, and even the way we fight.”

See the full PACOM reading list.

Fictional Interludes

To really capture any senior leader’s attention requires more than white papers or Power Point slides, however. That is why the Atlantic Council’s Global Risks 2035 report includes short stories from the Art of the Future project as “Fictional Interludes” to help officials not just understand but to experience possible tomorrows. To fully consider possible futures featuring super-empowered individuals coalescing into supranational groups with state-like power or game-changing technologies like behavior modeling that can reshape entire generations it is useful to read more broadly — fiction.

Read more at The Art of Future Warfare Project website.

Holding Sway No More?

There is a paradigm shift underway in the international defense marketplace, and it’s led by nations evolving from longtime Western customers and production partners into worldwide sellers. Nations such as Israel, South Korea, Brazil, as well as Russia and China, have enormous potential to rewrite the rules of the twenty-first-century defense business—and America’s military relationships.

It’s true that the biggest defense exporter remains the United States, accounting for 45 percent of $175.5 billion in global arms purchases in 2015, according to Avascent Analytics. As well, Western European firms from allies such as the United Kingdom and France contributed 14 percent globally, according to Avascent data, giving America and its closest European partners a majority position at 59 percent of the market.

Yet for how much longer, though, can the United States count on holding sway over allies—and influence the balance of power in entire regions—through arms sales as it did during the twentieth century?

Read more at The National Interest.