"Ex Supra" is a near-future techno-thriller featuring the adventures of CIA paramilitary officer John Petrov and Special Forces officer Jennifer Shaw against the backdrop of a global conflagration with China.
The book, published under a nom de plume, walks the reader through a new nightmare scenario on nearly every page while outlining likely geopolitical realities in the coming decades.
After finding the debut novel from this "Tony Stark" to be fascinating and entertaining, I reached out to ask a few questions about his work and the thought process that went into writing his first book.
Jack Murphy: Can you tell us a little about yourself and what inspired you to write "Ex Supra?"
Tony Stark: I’ve done the usual DC things: Georgetown’s Security Studies program, worked in politics and national security policy, Army infantry, and now I’ve moved to the private sector. I started EX SUPRA more than five years ago as a short story under the advice of August Cole, co-author of Ghost Fleet. When that story found some success, making it all the way to HQMC and the Joint Staff, I figured I should keep writing. Everywhere I’ve gone, I've found gaps between what my friends in DC were telling me and what I saw and heard on the ground. And so that’s what EX SUPRA became: sharing all that I learned, the threats that keep me up at night, the dichotomy of being a soldier that digs a hole with a broken e-tool while DC gets sold on AI-enabled vaporware, and what tomorrow can become. I wanted EX SUPRA to do for the human element and operational level of war what Ghost Fleet did for technology and strategy. I want commanders and leaders to read this book and think about how we’d fight under these conditions.
JM: The book imagines a series of nightmare scenarios, including a Chinese invasion of Hawaii and Alaska. While that may seem fantastical to readers today, do you think these are tangible threats that America will face later in the century?
TS: EX SUPRA is set mostly after the fall of Taiwan to the PLA in 2024. In a world where the PLA can project farther into the Pacific, in which climate change is accelerating and resource access declining, where the global economy is ravaged by the disruption of the semiconductor industry, a global conflict between the two competing Pacific powers becomes increasingly likely. When the war breaks out in 2035, we see a politically fractured America under attack by a powerful, but desperate China that needs to secure more and more resources like hydrocarbons, rare-earths, food, and freshwater to sustain its population and economy.
We already see the PRC pursuing these resources through illegal fishing, state-backed corporate purchases of strategic sites, and the damming of the Mekong watershed. Through its increasingly large navy, advantage in AI and supercomputing, and its traditional industrial base, the PLA can build out the capacity to be a global military force in a relatively short time. In my opinion, a lot of that rests on taking Taiwan first and pushing the US back to the Second Island Chain. A lot of this is enabled by an increasingly insular America and the fact that we Americans really like kicking the shit out of each other. Today, the algorithm tells you to hate your neighbor because that’s profitable, tomorrow the algorithm tells you to act on those feelings because your neighbor runs the Defense Innovation Unit. Very few scenarios in EX SUPRA are more than one or two steps ahead of where we are in 2022, and some are already possible.
JM: Your protagonist is a Ukrainian immigrant whose parents were killed during a Russian invasion, all of which seems apropos given what has unfolded over the last six months. Are we watching the prologue to Ex Supra play out in real-time?
TS: We started down the path to an EX SUPRA-type world back in 2014 when the Russians took Crimea. As for whether there’s some Ukrainian immigrant out there donning the Green Beret with a fire in his heart to fight bad guys no matter the cost, I just hope there’s a lot more than one of them. In the near-term, I believe the fate of the Pacific hinges on what happens in the war for Taiwan. Taiwan makes something like 90% of the world’s high-end semiconductors. The loss or disruption of that industrial capacity alone will plunge the world into a global depression for a decade. Then consider all the other potential shockwaves that may emerge. If you think the food security and supply chain shockwaves from this present war are bad, they’re like a mild day on Wall Street compared to what the loss of TSMC on Taiwan will do to us. And those are just the economic costs. The future isn’t set in stone, but we aren't acting like we want to get off the path to EX SUPRA.
JM: One sub-plot of the book revolves around a public-private partnership between Amazon and the Department of Defense. Do you see these types of collaborations as being necessary for American national security in the future?
TS: They are absolutely necessary. The lack of competition in the defense sector really worries me for the long game. I get nervous every time there’s a new merger between the primes, fearful it’ll be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for the health of the industrial base. Over-consolidation of the defense sector, without the injection of new blood from the likes of startups and Silicon Valley, can be likened to an algae bloom atop a lake. The algae flourish in the sunlight but as it grows, it chokes the entire ecosystem below the surface.
We’ve built a system that favors legacy programs over capabilities, while forcing many of the capabilities we need to fight a high-end conflict to survive on minimum-sustaining production rates for years. So that’s your first problem. The second problem is how we train the next generation of policy people. We’re trained to be managers, experts in memos and acronyms. We don’t need more bureaucratic managers; we need more dreamers. We don't train people to understand policy *and* the technology they're being sold. We need people who aren’t afraid to move fast and break things. So, if everyone is thinking the same thing, and we keep using the same stale ideas with fresh names, then we’re doing nothing more than laundering our future away through the bureaucracy. If you want to grow the new Arsenal of Democracy, you can’t do it on a diet.
JM: A good portion of the book is about the war over the ultimate high ground: space. We've seen the creation of the Space Force recently and a renewed focus on the subject. How do you see this domain as a future battlefield, be it the crippling of our eyes and ears, orbital weapons platforms, or even battles over space, lunar, and martian stations?
TS: I talk a bit about this in the book. How exactly do you write doctrine for a domain in which so few humans have ever stepped foot? If you look at the early tests with airplanes on the battlefield in the 1910s, we faced a very similar problem. Back then, it was very hard to imagine exactly how airplanes would be incorporated into combat. Naval and land warfare have been around for all of recorded history. In terms of the evolution of space combat, I see it taking a very similar path of awkward success and dramatic failures before what you see in EX SUPRA: mass orbital combat between man and machine. Space as a domain matters more than the Netflix comedy would lead you to believe.
Space Force has a lot of work to do, and I hope EX SUPRA can help explain why, but we can't ignore it or push it off. As for the Luna and Mars combat stories in EX SUPRA, you might think that seems extra fantastical and pointless to the larger war effort. I like to think of it as a precursor to something much bigger, like the North American campaigns of the Seven Years’ War. By the time of EX SUPRA, it’s very likely we will be on the edge of a new colonial era into the stars. Space is the backbone of how we operate as a force, not investing and experimenting on how we will operate in space is like going into combat without your Kevlar. Do you want to take that risk?
JM: What's next for you as an author? Ex Supra probably could have been a five book series in of itself. What were the issues in the book that you hoped to address that other novels about "future war" had not?
TS: I envision EX SUPRA as a three-book series. It’s a long way away, but I think the second book will likely focus more on Athena’s story and the fallout from the events in Singapore at the end of book one. What I hoped to inspire with EX SUPRA is the creativity that I talked about earlier. There is so much that the rest of the world just doesn’t know or doesn’t understand about the Indo-Pacific problem set because no one has made it easily available to them. I wanted to present our problems and possibilities in such a fashion that everyone could understand, digest, and start thinking about creative solutions. I tried to avoid the usual annoying cliches of technothrillers, like all-male casts and always-confident leaders. I wanted to avoid the bull about magic technologies that always save the day. I tried to not give the glory to the GOs and politicians and put the reader in the mud with the soldier. I wanted a human story, one that told the costs of a war that even though it was horrifying and traumatic, was a necessary fight. I wanted to write the kind of book that I wanted to read.
"Ex Supra" is available now on Amazon.