Startup Helps Officers Explain Future Warfare Through Storytelling
Useful Fiction illustration
Despite a decades-long military career producing policy papers, crafting monographs and even publishing a book, retired Army Col. Ike Wilson wasn’t entirely sure how his writing would turn out before he walked into a three-day storytelling conference.
“I’m a pretty prolific author and writer. But I convinced myself a long time ago that I was a very particular type of scholarly writer and even a technical writer,” said Wilson, who serves as president and professor at the Joint Special Operations University.
But after three days of conversations with creatives involved in world-renowned television, book and movie projects such as The Mandalorian and Band of Brothers, Wilson said he felt ready to tell the story of modernized special operations forces using creative, narrative fiction.
“We don’t consider ourselves necessarily artists in terms of what we do,” he said.
Empowering personnel in the defense community to grab attention with their writing is the goal of Useful Fiction, the company that organized the three-day workshop for JSOU.
Co-founded by authors Peter W. Singer and August Cole, Useful Fiction wants to change how warfighters envision new technologies and concepts that will be essential to the future of warfare.
“We’re at this point where … quantum computing, artificial intelligence or robotics are no longer sci-fi,” said Cole, who is also a non-resident fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Creativity at Marine Corps University and a non-resident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center on Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.
“There is, I think, an awareness throughout the Defense Department — certainly within the Pentagon — that the conventional ways of … thinking about the future and, of course, making steps to act on it, aren’t sufficient.”
Singer and Cole started the company in 2021 after working together on the 2015 best-selling thriller novel Ghost Fleet. The story — which follows the U.S. military, its adversaries and allies as World War III breaks out — is fiction, but the concepts and technologies described in it are not.
That’s the formula for what Useful Fiction dubs “fictional intelligence,” and it’s what made the novel so compelling to its readers, said Singer, who is also a senior fellow at the New America think tank. Ghost Fleet’s 27 pages of endnotes explained how plot points like specific cyber attacks have been tested in the real world.
Even some of the character’s quotes were taken from real military leaders, Cole noted.
The book sold some in the military community on the idea that the United States might not be ready for a fight with Russia and China. Singer pointed to Pentagon investigations into semiconductor supply chain vulnerabilities and the Navy naming its experimental unmanned vessel program “Ghost Fleet Overlord” as proof of the book’s impact.
The book eventually led the two authors to start the Useful Fiction business to teach senior military leaders how to use narratives to get their points across rather than dry, PowerPoint presentations or scholarly white papers.
Singer formally defines “useful fiction” as the deliberate blend of nonfiction with narrative communication techniques — sometimes known as FICINT or “Fictional Intelligence.” The goal is to achieve greater reach and impact of research and analysis through sharing them through the oldest communication technology of all — a story.
“The narrative can also allow a reader to visualize new trends, technologies, or threats, in a manner that is more likely to lead to both understanding and action,” he said.
That kind of creative approach is what Pentagon senior leaders need to hear, said retired Adm. John Richardson, former chief of naval operations.
Many briefs that were pitched to him and other staff at the highest levels were technically difficult to understand, said Richardson, who is a member of Useful Fiction’s advisory board.
“It’s difficult for people of any seniority,” he said. “If you’re educated in it or something like that, then OK, you might be more familiar and you might understand things, but many of us are just not.”
Other briefs presented in the typical slideshows struggle to convey the significance of a certain technology in a future conflict.
“For me anyway, the emotional response was always like, ‘Oh, you gotta be kidding me. Not another PowerPoint brief,’” Richardson said. “The emotional response is kind of negative. The intellectual heft is neutral [at] best, and the stickiness is very ephemeral.”
The Defense Department is constantly trying to speed up acquisition, and improved communication between technology specialists, academia and military decision makers is a part of that, he said.
“And then so how do you do that? If you’re the one person who kind of does know how quantum technologies work, well, how do you speak to that senior leader who’s going to make a decision to either approve or not your program?”
Richardson has been a speaker at virtual events for Useful Fiction and has advised the startup on what keeps senior leaders engaged in a topic.
“My question for the last 18 months of CNO was, ‘How do we have our Pearl Harbor moment without having a Pearl Harbor?’” he said. “How do we try and anticipate and avoid those types of things by getting that sense of urgency, moving with alacrity, to get these things out there to the next Pearl Harbor, whatever it may be?”
Useful Fiction offers several options for officials or businesses who want to break through the noise, Singer explained.
For example, Singer and Cole have fully translated white papers into narratives, such as a short story called “Eye of the Storm” based on an Australian Defence Force training document. They also offer writing workshops and consulting on specific writing, design and video projects.
The services can end up making the original message even better, Cole said. The consultation process demands that authors take a hard look at what they are really trying to say with their writing.
“The act of just going through this narrative development process ... has allowed them to see something that they weren’t perceiving before,” he said. “When you force people to say what is most important — because in a narrative context and story you really have to — it gets them to that point.”
Joint Special Operations University’s Wilson agreed that fiction could be a powerful learning tool for military operators to see things from a new perspective.
The August writing conference itself empowered operators to move past buzzwords and think more creatively about the use cases for technology, he noted.
After the writing conference, participants were chosen to submit their own stories for a special operations book that Useful Fiction will compile. Expected to be published in 2023, the book will explore the previous ages of SOF while exploring how the threat environment has changed.
“We’re recognizing that we are at — and have been probably for quite a while — a unique strategic inflection,” Wilson said. “It demands a back-to-our-futures, balanced approach and a blended mix of use and utility of theory, history and practice.”
The university will pursue a sequel that explores gray-zone warfare tactics and strategies, he added. He declined to give details on what kinds of technologies or maneuvers the sequel would include.
“I don’t want to take even the slightest risk sharing some of those innovative, even devious thinking that this type of Useful Fiction methodology is going to allow and empower us to do here,” he said.
Useful Fiction has also worked with defense writers on an international level. François du Cluzel, a former analyst at analyst at NATO’s Innovation Hub, came up with the idea that the human mind is the sixth domain of warfare. But he wanted to do more than write a paper on cognitive warfare that would end up collecting dust on leaders’ desks, so he teamed up with August Cole and French neuroscientist Hervé Le Guyader.
After strictly laying out his requirements for the piece, Cole and Guyader wrote two vignettes and a fictional speech to convey what might happen if adversaries got ahold of technology such as nano-scale weapons.
Since the work was published, Du Cluzel spent the past two years traveling to different NATO countries and distributed around 300 copies of the piece to help spread the word about the rise of technologies that impact the brain, he said.
“I know that it tremendously helped NATO nations to become aware of how our adversaries were handling that cognitive warfare,” he said.
Now, NATO is turning cognitive warfare into an official concept, he noted.
While Singer and Cole argue that the way forward is fact-based storytelling, their company is not trying to take away from the important data-gathering and experimentation processes that will ultimately shape the future of warfare. The consultants and staff on the team work hard to make sure that rigor and research behind the narrative won’t be diminished by its fictional nature, Singer said.
“In no way, shape or form is this a replacement for the white paper, the strategy report, the war game, [after-action report],” Singer said. “We can’t do it without it. We don’t do it without it.”
But no one can appreciate the science and significance of the data if the communication isn’t right, he pointed out.
The threat isn’t science fiction even if it seems larger than life, Singer explained.
“This is built off the real-world tech or the real-world threat or the real-world scenario, so if you don’t like it, well, here’s the reference to it.”
An Example of The ‘Useful Fiction’ Writing Technique
By August Cole and Peter W. Singer
For all the innovation and breakthroughs available to 21st-century military commanders, the enduring nature of uncertainty persists. And it will continue to do so, compounded by the complexity, nuance, and blurring of the technologically driven domains of cyber and space — as well as within the cognitive dimension of operations and their effects.
The next generation of leaders will benefit from a new scale of data and technology, such as AI assistants and virtual and augmented reality, to help make sense of it. Yet, especially during combat operations, they may also have to lead in a world of constant unknowing and danger. The information that they rely on will be targeted, while they themselves will be hunted with both kinetic and digital weapons.
The narrative that follows is a late 2030s snapshot of a critical moment for a NATO task force commander at the intersection of these trends.
• Commanders will need to trust, and teach, decision-making software in high-fidelity machine-speed training environments that simulate not just kinetic and physical dimensions of conflict, but information, cyber, and legal.
• While data management and processing may become increasingly automated, its interpretation will require human judgment at critical moments. Savvy commanders will retain skepticism about data quality.
• A suite of algorithms may soon understand a leader’s strengths, weaknesses, and even intent better than any human can.
• Increased insight and transparency into adversaries will afford new opportunities for de-escalation and deterrence, but only if commanders are allowed to wield greater authority for nonkinetic effects that do not fit standard doctrine or regulations.
A flock-like gathering of drones spun and dove through smoky sky as the private military company’s UAVs swarmed one of the NATO task force’s expendable close-in ISR drones. To Major General Tim Rawlins, a U.S. Army cavalry officer who commanded NATO’s Crisis Response Task Force–South (CRTF-S), it looked like a murder of crows fending off a trespassing hawk.
Below the drones, he could pick out the individual mercenaries, as they took shelter from the hot midday sun in the relative cool of the shadows cast by the oil tanks. The exhausted contractors didn’t even look up, being so used to the incessant back-and-forth of the unmanned dogfights overhead. They would know it was time to find real cover when an electric motor’s change of pitch or a sudden silence made the hair on the backs of their necks stand up. Survival on the battlefield still depended on instinct and chance, no matter the high technologies brought to bear.
Rawlins ended the video footage projected into his VizGlass with an exaggerated blink that commanded the pop-screen to close. Behind it now showed the real world of his command post, a dim and dusty windowless basement once used for storing barrels of fabric dye. It was a far cry from the digital TOCs they had imagined the future of war would look like.
“Sir, Alpha element is ready,” said Childers, Rawlins’ adjutant. “Charlie is ready. But Bravo is not yet in position.”
The anticipation in Childers’ voice was clear, the way the end of the sentences rushed all the words together, like interjection was the only thing that mattered. “Respectfully, I would suggest . . .” Childers filled a technical billet on Rawlins’ small staff, offering technical and strategic advice to General Rawlins, who would otherwise be unable to fuse together so many disparate sources of information and raw data.
“It’s time, Childers. Past time,” said Rawlins.
This was the critical moment. It would determine whether his gambit to surprise the mercenaries who had seized six oil terminals would pay off. At a time when everything was sensorized, taking a foe unawares seemed almost impossible. But it could be done—if sparingly, so as not to create exploitable patterns.
It was a bit like warfare returning to its 19th-century expression of orderly formations meeting one another at predictable times and with a clear view of the foe. But not all the time, if you could be creative enough.
The six oil terminals themselves were not strategically important to Rawlins, or even to NATO’s energy needs. Rather, they were vital because that’s where the enemy was: a force of about 800 for-hire fighters and three times as many autonomous and semiautonomous systems that had caused trouble from Libya to Nigeria.
For four days, Rawlins and his deployed staff in Libya worked with a strategy cell at CRTF headquarters in Italy and a pair of NATO political-cultural data advisers in Belgium to develop a model of the mercenaries’ strengths and weaknesses. Rawlins knew from experience that this could be the most precarious part of an operation; no matter how advanced the AI systems might be, flawed assumptions or unintentional bias during this phase could doom even the best trained forces to failure. Therefore Rawlins saw it as the commander’s responsibility to be on guard against everything from hubris to spoiled data.
So he carefully tracked his team’s analysis of everything from individual mercs’ social media to biodata from their clothes and gear to personal financial records. They created a digital twin of the foe, and then ran literally millions of simulations against it, so that the NATO battle-management system could deploy what he was about to unleash. For all the algorithmic advice, however, a human still made the final decision.
Rawlins had originally wanted to pursue a cognitive campaign targeting the mercenaries’ family members with info ops, so as to pressure their loved ones to encourage the private military contractors’ surrender. But the model had found they were too battle-hardened for that to work. Plus, the JAG AI suggested that it would be legally denied, because it targeted noncombatants.
It was strange, thought Rawlins. He could bring down hypersonic weapons fires but couldn’t legally message his way to a bloodless resolution. In either case, the new plan would succeed. The models said so, but so did his gut.
The multinational force Rawlins commanded was made up of three elements: over 200 attritable low-altitude strike and ISR drones dropped from a U.S. Air Force MC-17 mothership; two infantry platoons from Attack Company, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team; a British Light Armor Detachment (Autonomous) scouting ahead of the ground element as an assault force while providing air defense against any out-of-area hypersonic fires that the mercenaries might call in.
Sharing the computational load for the force was a twin-engine NATO surveillance jet, callsign SUPERIOR, watched over by a pair of Italian Air Force Tempest 6th-generation fighters.
“Initiate the operation,” Rawlins commanded.
As soon as he gave the order, Rawlins flipped open another video feed pop-up window, this from the ISR drone still fighting for its life right above the mercenaries.
“Executing orders, sir,” Childers confirmed.
Then Rawlins’ command suit, a form-fitting haptic coverall modeled after those worn by fighter pilots, tingled along his right forearm. It indicated an incoming message from SUPERIOR. As a hub in the NATO Allied Future Surveillance System (AFSC), the AWACS-like militarized jetliner was perhaps Rawlins’ most important weapon system on the battlefield.
Rawlins ignored the message, mesmerized by the video feed that suddenly rushed towards the ground. The reconnaissance drone had evidently been downed. The last image the camera broadcast back was a boot stomping on it. It had holes in the soles, Rawlins noted. Maybe we should have just tried to buy them out.
“Sir, suggest you shift visual perspective to retain a comprehensive command view of the operation. A VISIO smallsat cluster is overhead. I also recommend you read the incoming from SUPERIOR.”
Rawlins frowned, not caring whether Childers would pick up on his displeasure at the suggestion.
“Push me the new data,” said Rawlins. But first, he began to toggle across the different video feeds being thrown up by other sensors. He watched from a helmet-cam ride along with the Army paratroopers as they advanced to launch another drone, thrown up to replace the one shot down. He knew it was important to try to get as many different views of the battlefield as he could.
“That’s not necessary, I can synthesize the data update for you, sir,” said Childers. It was an offer of aid as much as a hint that the message from SUPERIOR shouldn’t wait much longer.
Heeding Childers, he called up SUPERIOR’s latest feed into the AFSC data lake used for Mediterranean and North African operations.
“Crap,” Rawlins said to himself. The message was an intelligence report drawn from blockchain corporate filings just uploaded from Switzerland. The mercs had just been cut loose by their corporate parent. Apparently, their sponsors had observed the looming fight with NATO and were abandoning their troops to save paying death benefits to the families.
He tried to rapidly come up with a plan of action, to call back his units, so that he could avoid a needless battle. But they were already starting to take fire—
A message flashed across Rawlins’ field of view.
<<< ENDEX ENDEX ENDEX >>>
“Dammit,” Rawlings said and immediately took off his sweaty VR rig. He blinked at the bright fluorescent lights of the simulation room, looking around for the hydration bottle he’d knocked over earlier. These desert sims made him thirsty every time.
The evaluation on this one wasn’t going to be favorable. No matter, that was the point. Training wasn’t supposed to be easy. The purpose was to learn. Next time he’d take Childers’ counsel. What good was having an AI staff officer, if you ignored its advice?