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War and the long tradition of deception

Caleb Larson
September 3, 2022

Deceiving the enemy is an important war tactic. Throughout history, military strategy has involved the use of dummies — be it fake guns, tanks, airplanes or soldiers. The current conflict in Ukraine is no different.

A dummy depicting a Russian soldier is placed on the road near the frontline in Kharkiv region,
Dummy weapons, vehicles and soldiers are being deployed in the war in UkraineImage: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP/picture alliance

There have been numerous reports that the Ukrainian military is outfoxing the Russians on the battlefield in a modern adaptation of deception tactics that go back to ancient times. Videos posted on social media platforms seem to show Ukrainian forces using US-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, against Russian forces — with a devastating effect.

Strikes with the long-range rocket artillery system have indeed destroyed large ammunition and fuel dumps deep behind Russian lines in southern Ukraine in recent weeks, wreaking havoc on Russian logistics. So targeting HIMARS is a high priority for Russia.

But now media reports indicate Ukrainian has a fleet of wooden HIMARS replicas set up to draw Russian fire, which reveals the location of Russian weapon placements and leads the Russian military to squander its finite supply of precision missiles. Though made of wood, the HIMARS reproductions bear a strong enough resemblance to their real counterparts, which may well help even the odds Ukraine faces against a larger, better-equipped Russian army.

The ancient tactics

Though the Ukrainian subterfuge replicates some of the most modern American equipment on the battlefield today, their imitation game is hardly new.

The Chinese military general, strategist, and philosopher Sun Tzu recommended this tactic in his military treatise The Art of War, written in the 5th century BCE. There, he called on military commanders to "set up decoys and feign confusion" and cause an enemy to miscalculate the opposing force. "All warfare is based on deception," Sun Tzu wrote.

While at camp during Rome's Gallic Wars in what is today France and Belgium in the 50s BCE, Julius Caesar stationed some of his legionaries in such a way that they appeared to be a much larger force than they actually were and thereby exaggerated Roman strength. Caesar's accounts of his wars in Europe describe approaching and destroying Gaulish forces that had been distracted by his deceptively large forces at camp.

For centuries, military commanders also sought to dupe enemy forces with fake equipment. During the American Civil War (1861-1865), Confederate troops employed "Quaker guns” — large wooden logs painted black to look like cannons and named after the pacifist Quaker religious group — to trick Union generals. At Centreville, in Virginia, Confederate General Robert E. Lee built extensive fortifications with many rows of Quaker guns, appearing from a distance to be a heavily fortified defensive line.

Black and white photo of somebody lighting a fake Quaker Gun
Wooden so-called Quaker Guns were used in the American Civil WarImage: George N. Barnard/Heritage Art/picture alliance

World War I

After the advent of the internal combustion engine and its more widespread application in war, battlefield decoys gained new importance. The tank made its combat debut during World War I (1914-1918). With it, the British Army attempted to break the stalemate of trench warfare. Quickly, both the British and Germans employed dummy tanks, made of wood and painted burlap cloth, to deceive the other side and lead the opponents to overestimate the adversaries' strength.

Although motorized military machines made their widespread operational debut during World War I, Europe's armies were not yet fully motorized but still relied partly on horses to move material across the battlefield. So the armies erected dummy horses made of wooden, blanket-covered frames to deceive enemy reconnaissance pilots' observations from the air.

World War II

During World War II (1939 - 1945), Nazi Germany and its allies, as well as the alliance of their opponents practiced deception on a much grander scale. Before the Western Allies crossed the channel and landed in Normandy, France, in 1944, troops in England had already made extensive use of inflatable tanks.

These dummies inflated German estimates of Allied strength, and in combination with false intelligence, this served to convince the Germans that the Allied invasion would take place elsewhere, which helped draw German forces away from the Normandy beaches.

So great was the importance placed on tactical trickery that the United States Army created the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops — also known as the Ghost Army — which was described as a "traveling road show of deception.” Armed with inflatable tanks, trucks, and airplanes, and audio recordings of troop and vehicle movements which blasted out via powerful speaker systems, the American Ghost Army staged large deception operations in Belgium, France, Germany, and Luxembourg and is credited with saving the lives of thousands of US soldiers through their reception.

A soldier of the 104th Inf. Div., 1St U.S. Army, examines a dummy tank constructed with wood found during the driving east to take Cologne (Germany) March 1945
Both parties to World War Two used dummy tanks made of wood to dupe their enemiesImage: Coll-DITE/USIS/picture alliance

Islamic State tactics

Wartime trickery extends to nonstate actors as well. In 2016, the Iraqi Army captured wooden replicas of Humvees and tanks built by the terrorist Islamic State militia, intended to draw fire from the US-led air campaign. Though they were made primarily of wood, the imitation vehicles appeared genuine from a distance — some even had bearded mannequins in the driver seats to complete the deception.

Lacking any airpower, the Islamic State hoped to distract coalition warplanes, negate the allied coalition's advantage in the air, and preserve the Islamic States' fleet of captured trucks, tanks, and personnel carriers.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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