Military Deception Throughout the Ages.

Article written by Ross Hutton. You can read more from Ross on Heart and Hand.

As fascinating as it is secretive, military deception (MD) has been used for centuries as a tool to defeat the enemy. 5th century Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote in his now world-famous book The Art of War about the importance of deception and espionage to the war effort, and as a result of this military tacticians throughout the millennia have placed a heavy focus on deception as a key wartime tactic. Despite this, there has been a somewhat understandable lack od development in the theory and study of MD, as demonstrated by the fact that NATO have not yet even developed a universal code of MD. Even within various militaries there is a lack of direct understanding about deception and how they may face or use it.

Blow Up Tanks on Wrong Term Memory - A History of Military Deception
Dummy tanks superficially resemble real tanks

MD has allowed militaries with depleted numbers, low morale and lack of physical weaponry overcome their enemies, with the surprise element playing a massive role. It has obviously developed as the years have progressed but examples of successful uses of MD can be traced back to thousands of years BC.

The Trojan Horse

Despite the lack of mainstream appreciation or understanding, MD has been the route cause of multiple historical victories. One of the earliest and yet still to this day one of the most famous examples of military deception is that of the Trojan horse. According to Greek mythology, Paris of troy had kidnapped Helen of Troy (the daughter of Zeus and Leda) and Menelaus (The King of Sparta) waged a war to get her back. To end the war after a decade of fighting, a plan by Odysseus was devised to create a huge hollow horse (as horses were said to be sacred to the Trojans) as an offering of peace. As we all know, the horse was filled with soldiers and during the night they massacred the sleeping city, ending the war completely. This event, believed to be between 1260-1180 BC, still has a profound impact today on MD tactics and popular culture.

The Second World War

Deception has also played a huge part in major conflicts in modern history, with none more so than The Second World War. One of the most famous examples of military deception from that time is from Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi plan to invade the Soviet Union. Part of the build up to launching that full scale invasion was the deception operation that the German’s employed to ensure Stalin had his guard down, which involved sending two separate letters that assured Stalin the Germans only had their eyes on Great Britain, which reassured Stalin that the Soviet Union was safe – a misconception he rigidly believed right up until the 22nd of June 1941.

D-Day landings on Wrong Term Memory - A History of Military Deception
D-Day landings – Operation Fortitude

However, the undisputed greatest use of MD from WWII came three years later as the allies bamboozled the Nazi’s into confusion over the location of the D-Day landings – Operation Fortitude. Operation Fortitude was broken up into two parts – Fortitude North and Fortitude South. Fortitude North consisted of 24 British officers heading up to the Highlands and sending fake transmitted messages that replicated the build up to an Allied invasion of Norway, which resulted in Hitler keeping 13 divisions of Wehrmacht soldiers and 150,000 air and naval workers in Norway instead of Normandy. Fortitude South deployed a lot of the same tactics but in the Southern English ports such as Portsmouth, where they used such things as dummy landing crafts to convince the Germans that Calais was the landing target. As a result, Operation Fortitude has been hailed as one of the greatest acts of MD in military history such was the scale of secrecy and deception that took place to ensure that the D-Day landings were a success.

Military Deception in the Modern Era

Modern MD has moved into the world of technological and cyber deception. One of the most modern examples about the changing dynamic of military deception is the widespread use of drones to seek out enemy positions, something that Russian forces used to devastate the Ukrainian military during the 2016 conflict. This has in turn presented modern military forces with a new challenge to maintain undetected, as once they are found they will be unable to deceive the enemy. This is an especially potent point with regards to the fight against Terrorism and terrorist cells. Drone capability would previously only be available to allied forces but now we are in a position where your average person is one click away from owning a drone with heatmap sensor capabilities.

Signature Management – modern camouflage - on Wrong Term Memory - A History of Military Deception
Signature Management – modern camouflage

To combat this, modern MD has focused heavily on the use of something called Signature Management – modern camouflage. This was detailed by Niklas Alund:

“Every soldier and every piece of military equipment on the planet’s surface is constantly interacting with radiation from within the electromagnetic spectrum. Light waves bouncing off the surface of an object form an image in our eyes or which can be captured by a camera, while reflected waves within the infrared band can be detected by dedicated sensors and films. Objects may generate… Signature management is the process of altering an object or individual’s signature in a way that delivers a military advantage. Most often this involves changing the signature in a way that helps an object to blend in with its environment so that it can’t be identified as a threat”

The planning that goes into modern MD operations is exceptional. Months of planning and information gathering can go into the MD process only for the plug to be pulled at the last possible second because the circumstances have changed. In this resort, the deception may be terminated in a way that ensures protection for military personnel. This eventuality will have been meticulously planned for by the team involved with the deception, as every possible outcome must be discussed as part of the phases of planning. MD strategy by modern militaries is constantly under scrutiny and review due to the fact that technological advances are making it harder and harder to stay ahead of the enemy, therefore constant assessments must be made to ensure deception tactics and operations are still effective.

The future of MD is something that will be an ever-evolving study. We do not still live in a world where superpowers are starved of information on the activities of their enemies, technology has put that to rest, but we are now entering a new era where MD is more vital than ever before. The technological race for military supremacy will be won and lost on the basis of deception and who can outwit the enemy. Gaining that edge in warfare has never been more vital than it is now, and the future will prove to be a fascinating tactical study into the artform that is military deception.

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2 thoughts on “Military Deception”

  1. Great article.
    I remember the days of disruption in N Ireland when PIRA would set off several fire bombs to distract the security forces away from whatever it was they were getting up to.

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