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The Art of Deception in the Age of Intelligence, Observation and Reconnaissance
M guidance is an essential tool for any military or intelligence operation. Before the advent of satellites, manned surveillance aircraft and drones, military planners had an easier time hiding their troop movements and preparations for offensives. In the 19th century, generals could use hot air balloons, where an observer dangled in a basket below the gas-filled sphere and tried through binoculars to locate enemy forces and troop movements. This offered only a very limited glimpse of the order of battle and could easily be obscured by clouds, caused by explosions on the ground or by Mother Nature, observing the landscape. The 19th century generals also relied heavily on human skewers, writes Larry Johnson .
During the first half of the 20th century, technological advances in flight ( e.g., propeller-driven aircraft ) and electronic communications expanded the ability of military planners to detect enemy activity and locations. But trying to determine what the enemy force was doing was a double-edged sword. For example, a clever commander could repeatly march the same group of troops through an observed area to give the impression that his force was much larger. For example, Confederate generals in the American Civil War used this tactical several times. That is one form of deception.
The art of deception begins with the assumption that the enemy is gathering intelligence about the size, capabilities, location and intent of your forces. As a master of deception, your job is to conquer your opponent that you are about to take a certain action by providing the enemy with information that will direct their attention to the false target and away from the real target.
One of the most famous World War II examples was Operation Bodyguard . The British get credit for coming up with this deception.
Operation Bodyguard was the code name for a World War II deception strategy used by the Allied nations before the invasion of Northwest Europe in 1944. Bodyguard was a general strategy to receive the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht about the time and place of the invasion. Planning for Bodyguard was started in 1943 by the London Controlling Section, a division of the War Cabinet. They produced a draft strategy, called Plan Jael, which was presented to leaders at the Tehran Conference in late November and, despite skepticism about the failure of the earlier deception strategy, was approved on December 6, 1943.
Bodyguard was a strategy under which all deception planners would operate. The overall aim was to make the Germans believe that an invasion of northwestern Europe would come later than planned and to expect attacks elsewhere, including Pas-de-Calais, the Balkans, southern France, Norway, and Soviet attacks in Bulgaria and northern Norway. The main part of the strategy was to try and hide the amount of troop build-up in southern England, developing threats across the European theater, and emphasizing an Allied focus on major bombing.
The main strategy was not an operational approach, but established the general themes that each subordinate operation was to support. The deception planners in England and Cairo developed a number of operational deployments ( the most important of which was Operation Fortitude, which developed a threat to Pas-de-Calais ).
Operation Fortitude had General George S. Patton commanding a fictional army that would land at Pas-de-Calais. This deception included setting up bases in England filled with inflatable tanks, trucks and artillery pieces and massive amounts of radio traffic convincing the Germans who tracked the intercepted messages and photos from reconnaissance planes that Patton would lead the invasion of Europe.
The British were very good at these deception operations, but the Soviets were better. Maskirovka is the Russian term for preparing and delivering a massive blow without warning the enemy of Russian intentions. Operation Bagration is an iconic example:
By the middle of the war, the Soviets had fully mastered radio discipline and communications security. Camouflage techniques had improved apparently and the Soviets had largely mastered the difficult task of moving troops quickly to take advantage of German weaknesses. Zhukov noted that by then the Soviets were much better at keeping their intentions secret and at spreading disinformation and misleading the enemy. By that time, most Soviet units used code pages in all radio and telephone transmissions. Codes were changed every 24 hours and code keys were only sent by courier. An extremely detailed maskirovka part was included in every operational plan.
In Belarus, as part of Operation Bagration in mid-1944, Soviet tanks and guns rolled out of the swamps on the northern edge of the Pripet Marshes and caught the German defenders by surprise. Unnoticed by the Germans, Soviet engineers had constructed wooden dams, creating improvised roads for the Soviet armies to advance at 40 kilometers per day against the started Germans, who retreated against the relentless onslaught.
The planning of Operation Bagration was kept secret enough to allow the Soviets to allow partisans to attack the main transport points of the German Army Group Center. Deception had encouraged the Germans to regain the southern sector of the front, while the decisive battle fell to the north. The destroyed railway lines prevented the Germans from easily moving their armor to the places where they were most needed.
Kudos to Patrick Armstrong for his astute observation that modern deception in the age of solid intelligence, observation and reconnaissance ( aa ISR ) capabilities is a much more difficult challenge compared to what was used in World War II. Tolkien’s Eye of Sauron has become a reality in the 21st century, i.e. an all-seeing eye that can pierce the battlefield and beyond. It is highly unlikely that Ukraine or Russia can muster a large army in one sector of the battlefield without being discovered. The United States has ignored deception on this front by regularly announcing the deployment of troops and equipment to Ukraine’s border.
As for the war in Ukraine, it seems that Russia has a huge advantage in maskirovka because NATO lacks a coherent strategy and is under enormous pressure to give in to domestic politics. Then there are social media and the internet. It is a powerful tool for molding public opinion and confusing intelligence analysts. The Western fixation on Prigozhin and the Wagner Group is a good example of this. Americans and Europeans have been bombed with stories and videos of Wagner’s latest antics. So answer this question – where is the rest of the Russian army? The Western media rarely report on the activities and status of the rest of the Russian army, except when a commander, such as General Popov, is related of his duties. The strange thing about the Popov story is that he was sent to Syria to direct Russia’s military operations, rather than being related of his duties. Maskirovka? Maybe.
Maskirovka is very similar to fly fishing. The rogue planners must figure out how to get hooked on something that the Western public and military planners will happily swallow. I wouldn’t be surprised if Russia has fed the West stories of chaos in the Russian military, Putin’s isolation and illness, and poor morale. We see many senior officials in the United States and Europe embracing these memes. If Western leaders are convinced that Russia is teetering on the green of collapse, they are more likely to dismiss intelligence reports and ignored evidence that tell the opposite story.
My suggestion is simple – take everything you read in the media and on the internet with a large grain of salt. I believe that Russia’s military planners continue to embrace deception as a central part of their military strategy and tactics and that many in the West are ignoring this concept. Conversely, the United States and its NATO allies – who love social media – are focused on information warfare to the exclusion of other camouflage operations. The end result is confusion – NATO struggleles to figure out what Russia will do to end the military operation in Ukraine.