Future war fiction — also known as alternate history or military science fiction — has been around a long time. Occasionally such books have proved startlingly prophetic. Sinclair Gluck’s “The Dragon in Harness” (1932) featured a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor nine years before the actual event. In general, however, it must be understood that such books are, after all, fiction and plausibility need not be a critical factor in judging their worth.
“Tiger’s Claw” is about conflict over the Spratly and Paracel island groups, which are currently claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines. In addition to valuable mineral resources, the outcome of territorial claims may affect the freedom of international shipping to transit their waters.
In 2014, a U.S. civilian survey ship is fired on by a Chinese naval helicopter and incurs several fatalities. In quick succession, a U.S. naval reconnaissance plane is downed by a Chinese carrier fighter; a Vietnamese naval frigate is nearly blown out of the water; and a Taiwanese submarine that came too close to China’s new aircraft carrier is destroyed with a nuclear torpedo.
These aggressive moves have been undertaken by the hawkish general Zu, who has wrested control of the military from President Zhou, the civilian leader. Zu is convinced that now’s the time for China to flex its military muscles, as the U.S. is no longer a real threat, its armed forces having been severely depleted following the “American Holocaust” — a nuclear exchange in the recent past that the author never bothers to explain in detail.
On the other end of the Washington-Beijing hotline, President Kenneth Phoenix, a former U.S. Marine, and his vice president, Ann Page, are both pragmatic hawks with no reluctance to stand up to the Chinese. Secretary of State Herbert Kevitch is portrayed as a modern-day Neville Chamberlain who believes China can be controlled though appeasement.
The main protagonists of the book are retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general Patrick McLanahan and his son Brad, who are involved in an ambitious private project to restore and refit the mothballed fleet of retired B-1 bombers and other high performance aircraft.
The reams of techno-babble about the bombers’ exotic electronics and armaments aside, the author seems to be suggesting that when war threatens, good-old American private enterprise can save the taxpayers a bundle.
As tensions increase, Brown serves up a rehash of Pearl Harbor. This time, the Chinese ambassador to Washington sits down at the table to hammer out a magnanimous compromise — thereby tricking the Pentagon into ratcheting down its alert status.
Meanwhile, the duplicitous Zu sends a huge fleet of heavy bombers armed with long-range missiles in an attempt to wipe out Guam’s lightly defended Andersen Air Force Base. But the Americans still have a few tricks up their sleeves.
While “Red Cell,” like “Tiger’s Claw,” also delves into new military technology, it takes a somewhat different tack, emphasizing intelligence gathering as the key to victory.
Suppose China’s military could develop new technologies that could easily overwhelm Taiwan’s defenses and fend off any American attempts at intervention as well?
CIA field agent Kyra Stryker — where do authors come up with these names? — is recovering from a gunshot wound she took while in Venezuela. And as hostilities heat up in the Taiwan Strait, Kyra is assigned to a desk job at the “Red Cell” in the agency’s headquarters in Langley under the brilliant but eccentric “analytic methodologist” Jonathan Burke.
“I’m not an analyst,” Stryker protests, but the next thing she knows, she’s on her way to China to assist in the defection of a valuable asset code-named Pioneer, who’s been helping the U.S. obtain information about China’s new cutting-edge weapons that employ stealth technology. Data from the spy arrives in the nick of time and gives the U.S. Navy task force the deciding edge.
Both works under review feature plenty of exciting aerial dogfights, and naturally the U.S. prevails, because no other conclusion would be acceptable to American readers.
Brown, who flew on B-52s for the U.S. Air Force, and Henshaw, a 13-year veteran of the CIA, both pepper their narratives with exotic inside details to capture and hold the reader’s attention. And both works portray China’s military leaders as egotistical and somewhat reckless, eager to put advanced weapon systems to use as soon as they come on line.
Neither of these novels are a match for the early works of Tom Clancy, which considered how the Cold War might become a hot war. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Clancy was never able come up with a new enemy that matched the “evil empire.”
Perhaps these two thrillers best serve the purpose of asking whether China will ever fill the USSR’s shoes in fiction — or in reality.