To Survive, Deceive: Decoys in Land Warfare

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Editor’s Note: This article has been adapted from a paper in French published in Défense & Sécurité Internationale (DSI).

In a black-and-white photo seen in many books and newspapers to illustrate the deception integral to the D-Day invasion, four men carry a 30-ton Sherman tank near what seems to be a barrack. This famous image is bizarre. Of course, what it shows is an inflatable tank, a decoy that was used in the vast and complex deception operation around the 1944 Normandy landings. Land tactical decoys are dummy equipment like armored vehicles, bridging capabilities, artillery pieces, and radars or installations (buildings, bridges, and runways) intended to deceive enemy observers. Their use has been standard in warfare since ancient times. Among the countless examples, relatively contemporary decoys include the Quaker guns of the U.S. Civil War, which were logs simulating artillery pieces; “horses” made of wood and blankets used by the British at the Battle of Megiddo in September 1918; the construction by Her Majesty’s Sappers of 8,400 dummy vehicles and devices of all kinds for Operation Bertram in 1942; and, more recently, various decoys to deceive enemy aircraft used by the Iraqis in 1990 and 1991, the Serbs in Kosovo in 1999, the self-styled Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, and Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020. Unsurprisingly, major potential adversaries of Western countries have kept a place for decoys in their armed forces: China seems well equipped and appears to give decoys a prominent place in its maneuvers, for example, and North Korea is reportedly using decoys intensively to protect its equipment and plans to use them extensively in warfare. Faithful to its longtime military doctrine of maskirovka, or deception, Russia pays special attention to decoys and even has a dedicated unit (the 45th Independent Camouflage Regiment) stationed near Nakhabino in the Moscow region.

 

 

Western armies, however, appear to have dropped decoys from their inventories. The main reason is that for too long, they have benefited from “operational comfort” and, in particular, undisputed air superiority during interventions…

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