The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) lures the US warship John Paul Jones and its female cigar-smoking commander Sarah Hunt, along with other US warships that are exercising “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea, to render assistance to the Chinese trawler Wen Rui. Commander Hunt discovers that the Wen Rui has aboard “some type of advanced technological suite” that deserves a closer look. Meanwhile, the PLA nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Zheng He and other Chinese warships head directly towards the American flotilla and surround it. A PLA cyber attack shuts down communications between US warships and between those ships and Washington. PLA aircraft from the Zheng He sink two US destroyers, and when two US carrier battle groups arrive to join the fight, 37 US warships, including two carriers, are destroyed and thousands of American naval personnel are dead. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership manufactured a crisis in the South China Sea—which it had claimed for its own since the 1949 revolution—to exert its ownership of the Sea and to launch an invasion of Taiwan. The Chinese had won the Battle of the South China Sea in World War III.
Thus begins 2034, a novel of World War III, by Elliot Ackerman, a novelist and former Marine who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and US Admiral (Ret) James Stavridis. The book is fast-paced—a page-turner that at the end of each section and chapter leaves you wondering what will happen next. While China is winning the Battle of the South China Sea, China’s Iranian allies capture a US F-35 piloted by Major Chris “Wedge” Mitchell, a fourth-generation flyer, whose father flew F/A-18 Hornets in the Gulf War, whose grandfather flew A-4 Skyhawks in Vietnam, and whose great-grandfather flew missions against the Japanese with “Pappy” Boyington during World War II. Mitchell is roughed up by the Iranians, and he and the plane were to be offered by China to the Americans as a bargaining chip to resolve the crisis.
The American President is a woman who won election as an Independent. It is implied that she needs to demonstrate her toughness. As China closes in on Taiwan, she authorizes the use of tactical nuclear weapons against China. Meanwhile, China’s Russian allies take advantage of the South China Sea Battle by cutting the “subsurface 10G internet cables that service the United States.” This causes the interruption of internet service throughout the eastern United States, much of the Midwest, and 50% of the West Coast, resulting in a nationwide power outage. China invades Taiwan. Forces from the US aircraft carrier Enterprise, commanded by Sarah Hunt, strike the Chinese port of Zhanijiang with a 150-kiloton nuclear blast. The nuclear threshold has been crossed.
China responds by moving warships to the Pacific Coast and using its own tactical nukes to destroy San Diego and Galveston. Russia, meanwhile, invades Polish territory to seize what Russian Admiral Kolchak calls “a ribbon of land that would connect its mainland to its Baltic port at Kaliningrad.” The US national security adviser dispatches his deputy Dr. Sandeep Chowdhury to India, where Chowdhury consults with his uncle Patel, a top Indian official, about the growing crisis.
The US President decides to further escalate by ordering the nuclear destruction of three of China’s cities, including Shanghai—population over 32 million. “Wedge” Mitchell, whom the Iranians released, is called upon to lead the attacking forces—fighter planes that will deliver the nuclear strikes.
India now acts to end the war. Its forces carry out successful strikes on the Chinese carrier Zheng He, and it sends warplanes to shoot down the American planes headed for Shanghai and two other Chinese cities. The Indian planes destroy most of the American fighters, but one gets through—“Wedge” Mitchell’s plane strikes Shanghai in a kamikaze-like attack that costs him his life and kills more than 30 million Chinese. Shanghai is, in the authors’ words, a “radioactive wasteland.”
One of the book’s main characters is China’s defense attaché Admiral Lin Bao, who is half-American and who studied at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Lin Bao is an Admiral Yamamoto-like figure who admires the United States and dreams of one day teaching and living in Newport, yet who is one of the architects of the South China Sea crisis that set in motion the limited nuclear war. He ultimately pays for this with his life—Chinese leaders blame him for the loss of the Zheng He and have him executed.
The war ends as a result of the New Delhi Peace Accords. The United Nations, at New Delhi’s insistence, is moved to Mumbai. The authors have made India the “hero” of their book—it is Indian statesmen that act wisely and prudently to de-escalate the war and negotiate the peace. The Chinese and the Americans miscalculated throughout the war. At one point in the conflict, the authors have Patel lecture his nephew—the US deputy national security advisor:
America’s hubris has finally gotten the better of its greatness. You’ve squandered your blood and treasure to what end? For freedom of navigation in the South China Sea? For the sovereignty of Taiwan? Isn’t the world large enough for your government and Beijing’s? Perhaps you’ll win this war. But for what? To be like the British after the Second World War, your empire dismantled, your society in retreat? And millions of dead on both sides?
Interestingly, there is no similar lecture given to a Chinese official. And after World War III, presumably India is the holder of the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.
2034 envisions a nuclear war between great powers that stays limited. How realistic is that? Why does China not respond to the destruction of its largest city and the death of 30 million of its citizens with an equal or more devastating attack on Los Angeles or New York? The book really doesn’t answer those questions. And let’s hope that they never need to be answered.