Mick Ryan, White Sun War: The Campaign for Taiwan (Casemate Publishers, 2023)
Is China genuinely willing to risk massive military losses, suffer international opprobrium, and heighten global tensions and the prospects for conflict for a generation to achieve its policy goal of uniting the mainland and Taiwan? This question challenges defense theorists, policymakers, and others across the US government daily. It is a vexing question in its own right, but if the answer is yes, it raises a range of even more difficult ones: What are the specific US interests in the case of a Chinese military invasion? What should US assistance to Taiwan’s defense involve? And most fundamentally, how would a war over Taiwan actually unfold?
China’s actions in the past two decades demonstrate the necessity of planning for an invasion contingency. It has militarized the South China Sea, embarked on a military modernization program designed to execute a rapid amphibious assault on Taiwan and corresponding joint fires capabilities to keep the United States and its allies at bay, and issued explicit statements from Chinese leaders testifying to nation’s goal of absorbing Taiwan into a single, unified China.
The scope of China’s activities, the risks associated with an outbreak of a major war that could pit great powers against one another, and the sheer uncertainty about the shape such a conflict would take stretch traditional planning tools to their limits. But other, less conventional tools, are available—like fiction. Mick Ryan, a retired major general in the Australian Army, provides a unique and insightful perspective on the character of such a war in his new novel, White Sun War: The Campaign for Taiwan. Ryan’s book falls into the growing genre known as “FICINT,” a term coined by his fellow military futurist and author August Cole to describe works of fiction that set out to realistically depict a future war scenario. Ryan’s exploration of a war over Taiwan is a welcome addition for those seeking to better visualize how such a war will proceed, to witness the conflict from the perspective of an array of characters, and to envisage how such a future conflict will be fought by both friendly and adversary forces alike.
Like other books in this category, Ryan presents a realistic and conceivable plot in which China, as the aggressor, attempts to initiate a surprise military action and conducts a cross-strait operation to seize Taiwan. The invasion leads to the involvement of the United States and others on the side of Taiwan’s defenders, and according to expectations, they find themselves at an operational disadvantage; as such, assurance of a US and allied victory is questionable, particularly due to the challenges stemming from attrition, logistics, and the inherent difficulties of fighting a regional war while simultaneously attempting to avoid escalatory actions. As expected, though, the war is a catastrophe for both sides, yielding massive loss of life, prompting governmental disorder, and inviting global upheaval as a conflict unfolds between the world’s largest military and economic powers.
Ryan takes the reader on an exploration of future, advanced military technologies that are beyond currently fielded capabilities but sufficiently close to them to be firmly within the realm of possibility in the coming years. For instance, AI-enabled unmanned systems team with manned systems to sense, locate, and target an adversary. Ryan also discusses combined arms not from the perspective of armor, aircraft, and ships, but rather the use of precision-guided munitions, electromagnetic warfare, and cyber weapons as maneuvering capabilities. Scenes in the novel depict friendly forces facing quantitative enemy superiority, a contested electromagnetic spectrum environment, and a loss of command and control that inhibits effective tactical actions. Calls for assistance come not from fixed-site artillery or on-call close air support, but rather from a range of cyber fires, electromagnetic attack, and long-range precision missile systems. Moreover, the seamless integration of these capabilities into operational planning suggests to the reader that such systems are the primary means to achieve decisive advantage.
Yet, while Ryan’s depiction of advanced military technologies proves intriguing, it is not the centerpiece of the story. Perhaps more importantly, through his character portrayals Ryan illustrates the human dimensions of morale and will, reminding the reader that war is a human endeavor, not solely a clash of equipment.
In this context and at a strategic level, the tactical and combined employment of manned and unmanned systems encourages the reader to consider the implications of these practices. Specifically, how does the use of a wide array of unmanned systems influence decisions to go war, particularly as the effect of mounting casualties on a democratic population becomes negligible? Rightfully, Ryan does not unpack such questions in his work—though this question and others are worthy of consideration in other forums as the use and reliance on unmanned systems continues to grow—since such analysis would bog down the pace and flow of the novel and risk obscuring the important insights it sheds on the warfighting component of this conflict scenario. Nonetheless, the book’s narrative naturally raises such questions in the minds of readers even as it maintains a strict focus on the plot points relevant to the military actions undertaken by the Chinese to land on and seize Taiwan and the inventive counteractions launched by the United States and its allies.
Interestingly, the reader may infer a degree of military parity between China and the United States, absent an explicit pronouncement of such from Ryan. This implicit equality between fighting forces is thought-provoking, as raw military power will likely not win the day. Russian performance against a smaller, less-equipped, but resilient Ukraine best exemplifies the requirement for effective leadership, preparation, adaptation, and creative operational concepts. In fact, many readers will be familiar with Ryan from his nearly daily observations of the Russia-Ukraine war, and the lessons he regularly identifies in those observations mirrors his emphasis on these nonmaterial factors throughout the novel. The background context of the ongoing war in Ukraine enriches Ryan’s story arc and reinforces the book’s proposition that an organization that exhibits an inclination for bottom-up innovation and a willingness to go beyond traditional limitations will prevail.
As Ryan sets White Sun War in a fictional future replete with autonomous fighting systems and the latest in operational concepts, he nonetheless invokes the use of plain language and shies away from the use of meaningless military and defense buzzwords, cliches, and unintelligible jargon. This approach is an invitation to readers that lack a familiarity with the vague and often confusing lexicon that dominates communication in military organizations. A reader does not require an extensive education or experience in strategy formulation, operational art and design, or military tactics to enjoy this novel. And yet this greater accessibility does not sacrifice substance. Amateur readers will be left with an understanding of the principles of war, novice readers can easily discern the warfighting frameworks of the United States and China and how each nation is attempting to achieve its military objectives, and defense experts will be encouraged to critically examine their assumptions about how a future war over Taiwan will play out.
Clear, direct, and meaningful language—as opposed to nebulous buzzwords and abstract conceptual ideas—is not only a style choice, but also a plot point of the novel. A group army commander in the People’s Liberation Army depicted in White Sun War is explicit:
Let’s just focus on finding and killing the enemy, thank you. All these fancy terms from before the war have not helped us so far. We must ensure we are truly brilliant at the basics of soldiering, shooting, supply, and command and control. It is when we are deficient in such basic parts of our profession that our forces have problems.
This quote symbolizes the simplicity of how we should view war. Too often war is presented as a mechanical, almost computational endeavor, which fails to represent accurately the essence of war. War exacts costs in lives lost, both in terms of fighting personnel and civilians, it creates animosity and everlasting struggles between people, it stunts forward progress, it denudes the environment, and, perhaps above all, war can annihilate a community causing generational impacts.
A secondary theme echoed throughout White Sun War is the all-domain character of such a conflict. Ryan pays particular attention to the space and cyber domains and devises a climax where the convergence of effects across multiple domains proves to be a key turning point in the war. Nevertheless, Ryan’s representation of the conflict does challenge the tempting assumption, based on geography, that a Taiwan Strait scenario will surely be an air and maritime conflict. The novel implicitly suggests that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is essentially a land war, and he does so quite convincingly; the reader feels the grit and grime as soldiers and marines on both sides fight through the rugged and dense urban terrain of Taiwan. More significantly, Ryan highlights a fundamental component of warfare that applies to an attempted Chinese forceful reunification of Taiwan—that the war will be won or lost by land forces on the ground.
Indeed, the novel operates under the presumption that the real-world “setting the theater” actions that the United States are undertaking today—securing basing rights and overflight privileges, establishing logistical hubs, conducting intelligence operations, and others—come to fruition and result in an ideal pre-positioning of US forces at the outset of the conflict, providing the United States and its allies some ability to overcome China’s robust antiaccess / area-denial capabilities. Absent an explicit discussion, Ryan’s depiction of the conflict reminds the reader of the necessity for preparation and the establishment of vital preconditions to achieve victory, particularly in a regional war where the tyranny of distance will challenge power projection and logistics and where the vast geographical range of operations will complicate command and control.
A theme interwoven throughout White Sun War is the importance of leadership in warfare. The author explores the challenges of leadership in war through an examination of the characters’ personal sacrifices, the consequences of their decision-making and their associated emotional strife, as well as their varying perspectives on the war. Ryan subtly yet vividly provides insight into the character’s personas, creating a compelling narrative for each, without laboring over lengthy backstories. Most interestingly, whether frontline US, Taiwanese, or Chinese soldiers, the characters exhibit common apprehensions concerning the uncertainty of war and, above all, share a common objective of fighting for something beyond themselves—a familiar theme for any military professional facing the rigors of combat.
This is not a novel for those readers seeking a sci-fi plot, particularly one where the side with the most advanced and impressive technology wins the day. White Sun War instead illustrates the fundamental human aspects of war, reminding the reader that advanced technologies and innovative employment methods do not lead to warfare sanitized of its most grisly consequences; death and destruction are intrinsic, almost inescapable characteristic of war.
White Sun War adds to the compendium of FICINT novels set in the future that enable readers not only to scan the horizon, but to explore the details of any potential conflicts that might be found there. White Sun War illustrates just one of potentially many routes in a war over Taiwan and prompts multiple questions regarding such a conflict. Namely, can the US military adapt and innovate at a speed and scale needed to counter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan? Moreover, how does a military institution balance the introduction of new warfighting technologies and continue to consider the human elements of war? White Sun War is a thrilling novel that allows readers to easily imagine the pace, excitement, fear, and trepidations of those involved in the conflict, but also makes them realize the dire consequences of war.
Noah B. Cooper is an active duty US Army military intelligence officer. He received an MA from Johns Hopkins University and an MA from King’s College London.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Wang Yu Ching, Office of the President of Taiwan