Abstract: In the hybrid-digitalised conflicts of the 21st century, military deception is more relevant than ever. The invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has shown the world how resolutely the battle for the narrative in the information space is being fought. Modern technologies offer new possibilities for deceiving the enemy and the public. Commanders and staff officers must be able to apply the principle of stratagem and, at the same time, be armed against it. Theoretical considerations, such as tenets and methods, are just as important as historical examples in fully understanding deception.
Problem statement: What challenges are posed by new technologies and 21st-century developments concerning the leadership principle of deception?
So what?: Deception must be implemented in the military command and control process. Creativity and flexible thinking must be fostered in education to meet the challenges of deception and to access its benefits. Deception must be addressed comprehensively through training throughout one’s career. Therefore, solid, continuous training of the soldier and officer in deception is indispensable. Deception must be kept secret, perceptible, credible, and purposeful. It requires sophisticated planning, sufficient intelligence, and centralised coordination. Creativity is essential for deception to succeed — although a cost-benefit ratio must always be observed.
A Timeless Principle
Deception is a leadership principle that has decided victory and defeat many times in war history. In war, cunning can lead even numerically inferior forces to victory if a deceived opponent is taken by surprise and thus unprepared. Thus, qualitative and quantitative superiority can be established locally, but surprise's cognitive and moral impact should not be underestimated. A confused and shocked enemy is much easier to defeat. History holds countless examples: During World War II, the Western Allies accomplished perhaps the greatest deception of all time with Operation Bodyguard, of which the component Operation Fortitude South led Hitler to believe that allied landings (Operation Overlord) would take place in the Pas-de-Calais and not Normandy. By numerous measures, the United States and Great Britain were able to create a comprehensive (false) picture of the situation, in which, for example, they used the deployment of General Patton — the most capable commander — in a different area. Mock attacks and simulated radio communications rounded off the (fake) situation picture. The Allies repeatedly succeeded in having their strength overestimated by Hitler during the war. A well-known example was the so-called Ghost Division in Cyprus, which never existed but which kept the Germans from invading the island.
In war, cunning can lead even numerically inferior forces to victory if a deceived opponent is taken by surprise and thus unprepared.
In the Soviet Union, the term "maskirovka" loomed large in Red Army regulations. Coupled with the principle of "disinformazia", Soviet forces could disguise their troops' true location. Moreover, they misled the Axis forces into underestimating them throughout the war. This was especially true in the war's later stages; for example, in 1943, the Axis assumed that the Soviets had between 400 and 1,100 tanks. In contrast, in reality, it had over 5,000. The Soviets preferred to feign weakness to the Wehrmacht, only to strike with surprising force.
Deception must be kept secret, perceptible, credible, and purposeful. It must be comprehensive, requiring sophisticated planning, sufficient intelligence, and centralised coordination. Creativity is essential for deception to succeed — although a cost-benefit ratio must always be observed.
Principles of Deception
"Security is as fundamental a principle of war as intelligence. Frederick the Great once declared that if he thought his coat knew his plans, he would take it off and burn it." Recognition of the intent to deceive leads irretrievably to the failure of every stratagem of war. It is intrinsic to deception that the enemy must never know one's true intentions; otherwise, deception has failed.
Secrecy is a considerable challenge in the 21st century. Everyone is a sensor. We can all upload images to the internet through our cell phone cameras and share them with the world at incredible speed. This profusion of sensors and the speed of communication poses profound challenges to the military in all domains and phases of operations. Even in the planning phase, information security must be maintained. The leaks from the US in the first half of 2023, relating to the war in Ukraine, stemmed from the sense of validity of a single US National Guardsman. In this case, the absurd reason for leaking demonstrates that the human factor is still the most considerable security risk. Accordingly, information on planned deception measures must be available only to a narrow circle.
The best deception is futile if, at the other end, the enemy does not perceive it: "The key question is: "Is anybody listening?". In World War II, for example, many deception efforts by U.S. forces in the Pacific War came to nought because Imperial Japan lacked appropriate reconnaissance means to perceive them. Today, on the "transparent battlefield" of the 21st century, this problem hardly exists. UAVs, satellites, and cyberspace mean that the enemy can hardly fail to perceive anything. However, the “information flood” may cause elements essential to deception to be overlooked.
In World War II, for example, many deception efforts by U.S. forces in the Pacific War came to nought because Imperial Japan lacked appropriate reconnaissance means to perceive them.
Deception must be credible: "This deception proposal must be credible. It also must be verifiable from other sources, consistent in presentation, and simple." Simplicity and consistency are, therefore, fundamental. In the best case, the information is hidden, so the adversary must work for it, increasing credibility. The British managed an absolute masterpiece in this respect with Operation Mincemeat: Wehrmacht soldiers in World War II must have hardly been able to believe their luck when they found a dead British pilot who had (fake) coordinates of the landing of the Allied Forces in the Mediterranean sea (Sardinia and Greece, instead of the actual site in Sicily) in his pocket. However, the British had deliberately placed the body so it would be found and the deceiving information would reach its target.
Credibility can be enhanced by knowing the enemy’s hopes and fears. Confirming or reinforcing existing expectations is easier than changing them entirely. "What is or is not possible matters less than what the enemy believes is possible." Here we are at the heart of psychological warfare: those who know their enemy well enough can tailor their deception for maximum success. If decision-makers are targeted, their psychology and character must also be analysed. Here, the concept of "reflexive control" is of particular importance: "Reflexive control exploits moral, psychological, and other factors, as well as the personal characteristics of commanders. In the latter case, biographical data, habits, and psychological deficiencies could be used in deception operations." Hitler, for example, hardly trusted his intelligence reports because he always suspected plots and attempts at deception behind them. The British were able to skillfully exploit this distrust, which was one of the criteria for success in Operation Overlord.
Deception must be aimed at getting the enemy to do what one's operational command intends for him to do. The fewer courses of action one gives the enemy, the better. Whaley points out in his work “Stratagem”: "Indeed, mere multiplication of alternatives is neither the most efficient nor the most effective form of stratagem. At best, it only makes the enemy uncertain and indecisive. While that state will often be sufficient to insure surprise and success, the ultimate goal of stratagem is to make the enemy quite certain, very decisive, and wrong." The focus of deception should, therefore, be primarily on the decision maker because, as the name implies, it is at this point that the enemy decides whether or not to fall for the deception.
Deceptive actions must be coherent and comprehensive. A feint attack will not be credible if it is signalled, but the troops do not take any preparatory action — if the troops move into a staging area but the logistics do not respond in any way. Overall, an image must be created that is free of contradictions. In World War II, the British went so far as to publish fictitious engagement and marriage announcements of non-existent soldiers to increase the credibility of their “ghost armies”. Furthermore, even individual pieces of scattered misinformation can keep an adversary's intelligence apparatus busy. Verification is often tedious and lengthy, creating uncertainty, at least in the short term.
A feint attack will not be credible if it is signalled, but the troops do not take any preparatory action — if the troops move into a staging area but the logistics do not respond in any way.
Planning and Centralised Coordination
The comprehensiveness makes it necessary for deception to be centrally planned and directed. It requires excellent planning since the adversary must be carefully analysed and his response options evaluated. Otherwise, the deceiver may fare as the British did in Abyssinia in World War II: “Gen Wavell wanted the Italians to think he was about to attack from the south to draw off forces from those opposing him in the northern flank. The deception went well enough – but the result was just the opposite of what Wavell wanted. The Italians drew off in the south, and sent what they could spare from there to the north, which was of course the true British objective.”
When planning, it is essential to ask, "How do I want my opponent to react?" and not "What do I want my opponent to think?" Such introspection is vital in today's multi-domain operations, where sophisticated deception can become a monumental task. Accordingly, coordinating the various component forces and domains is an immense challenge regarding this comprehensiveness.
Although employing deception is often a relatively cheap course of action that can help defeat the enemy forcefully compared with a “classic frontal attack”, the costs must never exceed the benefits. Forces are always scarce in war, and if too many troops make a feint attack, they may be lacking in the main effort where the decision must be made. Also, the risk of failure must always be assessed: Any deception can be detected, and the resulting consequences must not be underestimated under any circumstances but must be co-judged. Especially in defence technology, deception can also put the opponent under economic pressure. Cheap dummies can make costly cruise missiles go up in smoke completely uselessly. For example, diversionary manoeuvres by UAV swarms to cover an actual attack by distracting air defences are commonplace in Ukraine.
The risk of failure must always be assessed: Any deception can be detected, and the resulting consequences must not be underestimated under any circumstances but must be co-judged.
Creativity and Flexibility
Since deception must be surprising, it will only be successful if it deviates from standard procedures and doctrines. However, this can only succeed if creative minds are involved in planning the deception. Deceivers must have courage because doctrines and standard procedures exist for a reason, and deviating from them naturally involves significant risk. It is interesting to note, for example, that the British employed, among others, a chemist, a magician, a painter, and a screenwriter in their A-Force of General Dudley Clarke, which specialised in deception. The different backgrounds of the soldiers can be a great asset in this respect.
In addition to creativity, flexibility is also important. Both concepts are found in the leadership principle of the Austrian Armed Forces of agility, which refers primarily to cognitive understanding of this term. The deceiver must adapt his actions to the opponent and readjust them repeatedly. However, these qualities are also essential to recognise and react to deception.
An essential principle for the success of deception is intelligence. This requires competent reconnaissance, intelligence, and secret services. In addition, the enemy's reactions to the deception must be detected. The great success of British deception activities in World War II against the Third Reich can be traced back to decoding German radio communications as part of the "Ultra" signals intelligence programme. Thanks to this capability, the British could incorporate expectations, fears, and hopes into their deception operations and adjust where credibility was lacking. Intelligence is, therefore, a prerequisite for implementing the flexibility already mentioned. Therefore, feedback is key in deception.
The great success of British deception activities in World War II against the Third Reich can be traced back to decoding German radio communications as part of the "Ultra" signals intelligence programme.
Deception in the 21st Century: The War in Ukraine
The leadership principle of deception is more relevant than ever, as can be observed daily in Ukraine. The War in Ukraine clearly showed that "maskirovka" and "disinformazia" are not relics of World War II but are omnipresent on the battlefield of the 21st century.
The Failed Decapitation Strike in Kiev
Based on the attempt to take Kyiv with a surprise ”Decapitation strike”, conclusions can be drawn for the principles of deception, secrecy, intelligence, planning and risk assessment. Russia cleverly used the exercise "Zapad-21" as a cover for its troop deployment. This manoeuvre has been used repeatedly in the past. Although British and U.S. intelligence services, in particular, warned against the invasion, in retrospect, it must be said that the feint succeeded: Ukraine did not mobilise and exhaust all defensive measures, and most European governments were blindsided. The “unthinkable” had happened.
The major drawback of this campaign was the manner of secrecy. It is believed that the planning was initiated primarily by the Federal Security Bureau (FSB) and that the Russian armed forces were made aware of the plans very late. Surprise was given preference over shaping. This had disastrous consequences for the troops, who assumed it was an exercise and, therefore, stumbled into the invasion of Ukraine unprepared. The lack of room for manoeuvre due to the absence of the principle of mission command on the part of the Russians made a creative and flexible response to the new circumstances impossible.
Furthermore, Russia massively lacked intelligence due to a complete misjudgment of the reaction of the Ukrainian population. While Russia assumed flag-waving people along the road, fighter forces destroyed the kilometre-long columns. Although Russia reacted relatively quickly and withdrew its forces from Kyiv, there appeared to be no flexible Plan B should the rapid decapitation strike not succeed. The military leadership could not provide this either, as it had not been fully briefed on the relevant plans. The lack of overall coordination proved detrimental to the invasion. Thus, a flawed risk assessment had been made even in terms of a cost-benefit ratio.
While Russia assumed flag-waving people along the road, fighter forces destroyed the kilometre-long columns.
The start of the war is thus an excellent example of a successful deception that failed to achieve the desired success. Although the surprise was broadly successful, the troops could not translate this momentum into the needed form. The rapid response of the Ukrainian armed forces, the population's will to fight back, and the Ukrainian president's leadership at this stage ensured that this attempted decapitation failed.
The Counteroffensive in Kharkiv
The counteroffensive in Kharkiv can be described as the most tremendous success of the Ukrainian armed forces since the repulsion of the initial attack. Surprisingly, the Ukrainian military managed to recapture vast swathes of territory—and quantities of Russian equipment—within a very short period.
Credible strategic communication was excellently used for deception. President Zelenskyy consistently spoke of retaking Crimea before this counteroffensive, and troops were also massed in the country's south. Russia responded by shifting force disposition, with forces from the north near Kharkiv being moved to the southern front. This left poorly equipped Russian soldiers strung out widely in the Kharkiv area. Facing these troops were lightly armoured Ukrainian forces—not necessarily formations from which a significant offensive could have been expected.
The key to success here was reconnaissance, supported by Western countries. By skillfully exploiting gaps in the Russian defensive disposition, light Ukrainian forces penetrated deep into space. Ukrainian flags were quickly seen flying in villages in these areas, causing Russian morale to collapse. The result was panic: in some cases, officers were the first to give up and flee. Russia’s panic left behind a trove of operational equipment, which the Ukrainians gratefully integrated into their forces. This offensive's critical success factors were agility, intelligence, and skilful communication.
Fighting in the Information Domain
The war in Ukraine is raging in the information space. Through social media, an entirely new kind of warfare is coming to light. Everyone can watch videos of drones and helmet cameras of the daily battle on social media channels every day. On social media channels, content is twisted, facts are obscured, and numbers are falsified. This can be seen particularly well in the casualty figures from both sides. Even when it comes to the destroyed material, it is evident that the warring parties do not adhere to the objective facts: According to Russia, it has destroyed more Patriot (5) systems than were ever delivered to Ukraine (2). It must also be assumed that the casualty figures on both sides are massively glossed over so as not to undermine their own population's moral support.
On social media channels, content is twisted, facts are obscured, and numbers are falsified. This can be seen particularly well in the casualty figures from both sides.
To put deception into context, regarding speed today, it only took a couple of hours from leaking US intelligence documents before doctored versions appeared online. Various manipulated versions falsifying the casualty figures soon circulated, adding to the opacity of the situation. At the same time, an initial version spoke of 17,500 dead Ukrainians, and another version with 71,500 dead circulated quickly.
Technology greatly facilitates deception efforts in this regard. Artificial intelligence creates deep fakes in seconds that can hardly be distinguished from images. The strange-looking phone calls of several European mayors with a "deep fake Klitschko" are only a foretaste of what will be possible through technology. In particular, the widespread availability of these means will facilitate the use of deception in the coming years. Not only governmental - even non-governmental actors can create highly complex deceptions today.
A distinctive feature of the new warfare is the flood of information. The sheer number of facts and lies can succeed in overwhelming the enemy's intelligence apparatus and, thus, its leadership.
Churchill is reputed to have said, "A lie gets halfway around the world before truth gets its pants on." This edge of misinformation also dramatically impacts the struggle for interpretive sovereignty in this conflict. Ukraine is massively dependent on arms supplies from the West. If that support dries up, it is inconceivable that the war will continue in this symmetrical fashion. Therefore, it is expected that Russia will do everything in its power to undermine this support from the West and spread misinformation, especially among the populations of democratic states. Only if the West builds resilience in the information environment and prevents the internal division of societies can this danger be countered.
Deception Will Remain Central
Deception will remain a central element of warfare in the 21st century. The principles presented are timeless: Deception is still about manipulating the adversary decision-maker to gain an advantage. Deception must be credible, comprehensive, creative, and well-planned. The opponent's reactions must be recognised to react flexibly to them. However, military planners should never forget to consider the risk of deception's failure.
Deception is still about manipulating the adversary decision-maker to gain an advantage.
The technologies of our time offer completely new possibilities, especially in artificial intelligence, which is in its infancy. Battle in the information space will continue and may take on a new dimension due to social media.
The failed decapitation attack against Kyiv shows that camouflage is not a magic miracle weapon. If the implementing forces behind it are unprepared, even the best stratagem cannot guarantee success. However, based on the offensive in Kharkiv, one can see that deception offers a numerically inferior actor the opportunity to achieve surprising success. Deception can thus be the deciding factor between success and failure in war.
MjrdG Mag.iur. Mag.phil. Albin Rentenberger, BA MA is Chief Instructor & Researcher at the Department for Leadership at the Austrian National Defense Academy’s Institute for Higher Military Command, Leadership & Management. His research interests include Command and Leadership, Military Disciplinary Law, and the war in Ukraine. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the Austrian Armed Forces.
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