Wavell Room
Image default
Capabilities and SpendingConcepts and DoctrineLandLong Read

We’re Only Deceiving Ourselves

In July 2008, 11 Columbian commandos mounted an operation to rescue 15 hostages whom FARC guerrillas held for over five years.  The operation was a complete success.  No hostages were injured and the commandos even captured the leader of the 1st FARC Front.  What was remarkable about Operation Jaque was not just its success but the fact that it was achieved without a single shot being fired.  Operation Jaque was a complex and sophisticated deception operation, which resulted in the FARC guerrillas unwittingly handing over themselves and their hostages to the Columbian military.1 

The British Army prides itself on a long and distinguished deception pedigree; however, it has long since lost its confidence to plan an operation as audacious as Jaque.  The modern British Army lacks a culture of deception at the tactical level.  It has collectively forgotten what is fundamental about deception. 

What is Deception?

Deception is foremost an activity that affects an adversary’s perception of reality, causing them to act in a specific way.2  Colonel Dudley Clarke, the lead British deception planner in North Africa during World War Two, explained deception to General Montgomery by asking him to imagine he had a direct telephone line to Hitler.3   However, placing faith in mind games over artillery shells brings great risk along with potential rewards.  Letting these risks trump opportunities has led to deception waning as an offensive capability, the requirement to understand a target’s biases and preconceptions has been forgotten. Insteaddeception has become synonymous with a materiel solution for protecting assets by distraction. 

In his seminal work, Edgar Schein argues that an organisation’s culture can be analysed through three levels: artifacts, beliefs and values, and basic assumptions.4  This essay analyses the lack of deception across these cultural levels and suggests actions that could rekindle the British Army’s deceptive capability. 

Deception Artifacts

Artifacts, Schein states, “are everything that an outsider would see, hear or feel” within an organisation.5An outsider to the British Army would have difficulty in identifying a deceptive culture through our artifacts. 

Looking back through history, aside from a scant mention of deception operations in Afghanistan and the Falklands, it is World War Two before observers hear stories of institutional use of deception.6 The British Army Review has to go back to 1942 to find enough of an example to use as an educational case study.7 

An outsider might also look toward British doctrine to understand how well we employ deception.  While army doctrine explains the underlying concepts of deception, the reader must first get through the opening paragraph, which negatively frames deception as a problematic and resource-intensive activity.  Indeed, it is the fifth paragraph, two pages in, before any mention of the potential opportunities deception affords a commander.8  Meanwhile the paragraph structure of the deception chapters in brigade and battlegroup tactical doctrine frames the reader that it is an action which primarily is for use in countersurveillance and masking.9  The structure of these sections serves to reinforce the mental framing of deception as a protective, rather than offensive, measure. 

At the joint level, the revising of deception doctrine for the first time in 21 years (1999 to 2020) is a welcome step.  However, publishing a combined operational security and deception manual continues the conflation of deception as a protective measure to confuse adversary targeting, rather than something to enable our offensive activities.10 

These visible artifacts paint a confusing picture of deception within the British Army.  A credible historical pedigree combined with moderately persuasive doctrine shows some green shoots in the barren deception desert.  There remains, however, a lack of understanding over the fundamentals of deception.  Deception occurs in decision-making space, supported by activities in the physical (and electronic / information) domain.  By conflating deception with operational security and countersurveillance, emphasising difficulty over opportunity in the modern operating environment, and by repeatedly harking back to inflatable tanks and bridges masquerading as trucks filled with blankets, these artifacts portray that the means of deception are more important than the ways to achieve a deceptive end.  While we have the underpinning conceptual structures to enable successful deception, what we say is not matching what we do.  Our visual does not match our audio. 

This say-do disconnect begins at the cultural level of beliefs and values.  The British Army lacks confidence that deception can achieve the objectives which our espoused beliefs claim. 

Force ratios and wargaming

A course of action’s anticipated performance is assessed through wargaming, using force ratios and correlation of force analysis to identify likely success or failure.11  This encourages a belief that performance is directly linked to the ability to concentrate force at a time and place.  For lower tactical units with limited lethal and non-lethal fires, this concentration of force is achieved by massing on an objective.  The view that deception is a material solution to protect against adversary targeting, rather than an offensive capability to disrupt and dislocate an adversary, means that commanders see deception plans as a drain on resources, reducing their ability to mass, in turn making their performance less effective. 

A computer graphic simulation of a Future Protected Vehicle called Cammo. But deception should be more than hiding.

This logic flow results from an institutional failure to remember the beginnings of British deception.  In World War Two, the British Army encouraged deceptive thought and action to overcome Axis advantages in technology and numbers.12  An effective deception plan can reduce the mass an adversary can bring to bear. So while it is difficult to portray in course of action  wargaming, the effects of successful deception in reducing the enemy force ratio are often disproportionate to the amount of resource used to enable it.13

Role of technology?

Technology causes a second disconnect between espoused and observed beliefs.  Many argue that the proliferation of technology has made deception difficult or overly resource-intensive to achieve in the modern operational environment.14  An alternate view is that while greater technology makes deception easier to identify, it also provides many more channels through which to transmit deception plans.15  This was the view taken by Serbian forces during the Kosovo bombing campaign.  Their use of deception in the face of superior NATO surveillance technology was highly successful.  A fake polystyrene bridge was destroyed several times, and perhaps as many as 100 of the reported 120 Serbian tanks which were destroyed by NATO bombing were, in fact, dummies.16  

Discomfort in deception

While we desire to be deceptive and imaginative on the battlefield, we are not comfortable putting deception into practice.  A lack of belief in deception’s effectiveness causes commanders to see resourcing deception vice resourcing the decisive act as zero-sum game.  This is a false binary choice to face.  An effective deception plan should increase the mass ratio a deceiver can bring to bear by significantly reducing the enemy forces available at the decisive point.  However, until the British Army adopts the basic assumption that deception is an opportunity, not a resource requirement, deception will continue to fail to be given the weight that it deserves. 

A Crusader tank with its ‘sunshield’ lorry camouflage October 1942.

The confused artifacts and say-do disconnect demonstrate a basic assumption within the British Army that deception is not an effective or worthwhile capability for the entire force to concern itself. 

Basic assumptions

Schien states that basic assumptions are drawn from our perception of what has worked repeatedly in the past.17  Collective training has traditionally taken place against scripted opponents, for whom some deceptive defensive measures may have had limited effect, but the nature of the exercise design means the enemy is protected against any true deception plan.  Without the experience of seeing the success of deception in dislocating and disrupting an adversary decision cycle, commanders and staff lack the evidence on which to base an assumption that deception is effective.  The increasing free-play being injected into collective training is an opportunity to build experience with deception success.  However, anecdotal evidence from the US Army National Training Centers and Warfighter exercises suggests that free-play does not automatically induce deception into the battlefield and it still requires deliberate implementation.18 

Another missed opportunity to build experience is through professional military education.  At the officer level, none of the mandated educational courses (Junior Officers’ Tactical Awareness Course, Junior Command and Staff Course, or the Intermediate Command and Staff Course) feature specific, defined education on planning and conducting deception operations.  While practical exercises may (instructor-dependent) encourage deception, it is not a formal requirement. 

Schien also discusses how unconscious distortion takes place to avoid challenges to our basic assumptions.19  The Army can pat itself on the back because deception planning does feature in British doctrine, but the links between deception and tactical planning are tenuous to say the least.  The Army can congratulate itself because deception is being reviewed by trials and development organisations, but in the context of capability solutions to achieve ‘hide, survive, deceive’ rather than how to offensively persuade an opponent to adopt a specific course of action.20The Army has structured organisations who do specialise in deception planning, but deception should be an integral part of all operations, and therefore understood by all commanders and staffs.21  Deception is seen as either a resource-heavy way to protect critical capabilities or an operational/strategic trick conducted by specialist organisations.  These basic assumptions in turn drive the say-do disconnect between what is espoused in doctrine and what is practised on operations and exercises.  There is, however, some good news at the end of the tunnel. 

Historically, organisational competence in deception is a temporary, cyclical event.  Organisations frequently find themselves reinventing the wheel in terms of deception.22  Identifying a lack of deception culture now gives the British Army an opportunity to refresh its ability before being forced to do it, ‘in contact’, in a no doubt costly fight.  Of Schein’s 12 steps to drive cultural change, three stand out as force optimisation quick, cheap wins that the British Army could implement immediately.23 

What can we do?

Leadership attention.  Collective training organisations and exercises must demand the use of deception.  More importantly, the exercise construct must allow both sides to exploit deception activities fully, not only in terms of materiel capability but in supporting and simulating the use of longer-term ruses (e.g. cry wolf) and supporting agencies.  Doing so will drive commanders and staff to consider not only how they can achieve success through deception but how to counter an adversary’s use of deceptive measures. 

Deliberate teaching and coaching.  There are some incredible stories of deception, and a wealth of published literature on the planning, implementation and theory of deception.  Any interested readers of this article should seek out Practise to Deceive (available as an eBook through the Army Library and Information Service) and Deception Maxims: Fact and Folklore.  Deception is also not just an officer sport.  Operation Jaque was inspired by a group of Columbian signal NCOs.  The study of deception provides an opportunity for whole of unit and formation military education and those whom are identified as having deceptive talent should be encouraged.  Outside of the unit, professional military education must formally introduce the study of deception practices within the curriculum.  The use of adversarial wargaming and simulations to test deception planning will further reinforce deception operations’ effectiveness. 

Organisational systems and procedures.  Two changes should be made to the combat estimate process to better plan and consider deception activities.  Firstly, the commander and staff must understand early what the enemy think friendly actions are likely to be, in addition to understanding enemy courses of action.  This allows deception plans to be designed to capitalise on the Magruder effect.24
  Secondly, the adversary’s decision-making system, including sensors, biases, and commanders, must be mapped.  This is the map against which deception can be conceptually planned before the actions and effects that drive a deception plan can be geographically placed on the ground. 


The British Army has lost the deceptive culture which gave it an advantage in World War Two.  This cultural loss can be traced back to a lack of understanding of deception’s fundamental purpose, a conflation of deception with protective measures that demand resource, and a recent attitude to write off deception as a specialist, or impossible, activity.  More positively, the structures and history exist to breathe life back into a culture of deception, but this must be done now.  As the British Army reduces in size, it is important now more than ever to invigorate capabilities that allow it to do more with less.  Reinventing the deception wheel will take time, and our adversaries already have a head start.

Cover image: Inflatable S300 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:VitalyKuzmin


Dom Wiejak

Major Dom Wiejak commissioned into the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment in 2011.  Since then he has deployed on Op HERRICK and numerous overseas training exercises, and worked in a variety of roles in the Field Army, and at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.  He is currently an exchange student at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies.  The views and opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Ministry of Defence or the British Army


  1.  Operacion JAQUE: The Ultimate Deception, “Briscoe, Charles H. Kulich, Daniel J.,” Veritas 14, 3 (2018), https://arsof-history.org/articles/v14n3_op_jaque_page_1.html.
  2. Cynthia Grabo, “The Problem of Deception,” in The Art and Science of Military Deception, ed. Hy Rothstein and Barton Whaley (London: Artech House, 2002). 30.
  3. Barton Whaley, Practise to Deceive, 1 ed., ed. Susan Aykroyd (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute Press, 2016), 34.
  4. dgar H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2017), 17.
  5. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, 18.
  6. Steven Paget, “Terget San Carlos: British deception during the repossession of the Falkland Islands,” in Weaving the Tangled Web, ed. Christopher M. Rein, Large Scale Combat Operations Series (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Army University Press, 2018), 193-213; “Where Eagles Dare,” 2008, accessed 28 Mar, 2021, https://www.michaelyon-online.com/where-eagles-dare.htm.
  7. Graham Thomas, “Deception in the Desert – Op BERTRAM,” British Army Review 162 (2015); 95.
  8. British Army, Army Field Manual -Warfighting Tactics Part 1: The Fundamentals, (Warminster: British Army, 2018), 3A-1.
  9. British Army, Army Field Manual -Warfighting Tactics Part 2: Corps and Division Tactics, (Warminster: British Army, 2018); British Army, Army Field Manual -Warfighting Tactics Part 3: Brigade Tactics, (Warminster: British Army, 2018), 2-11 – 2-12; British Army, Army Field Manual -Warfighting Tactics Part 4: Battlegroup Tactics, (Warminster: British Army, 2018), 2-12.
  10. Director Concepts and Doctrine Centre, Allied Joint Publication 3.10.2: Allied Joint Doctrine for Operations Security and Deception, (Shrivenham: DCDC, 2020).
  11. British Army, Planning and Execution Handbook, (Warminster: British Army, 2018), 3-73.
  12. Christopher M. Rein, Weaving the Tangled Web (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Army University Press, 2018), 3
  13. Barton Whaley, “The One Percent Solution: Costs and Benefits of Military Deception,” in The Art and Science of Military Deception, ed. Hy Rothstein and Barton Whaley (London: Artech House, 2007), 499-530.
  14. Richard Simpkin, Race to the Swift, 3rd ed. (London: Brassey’s Defence Publishers, 1985), 192.
  15. Rein, Weaving the Tangled Web, 233.
  16. Robert H. Gregory Jr, Clean Bombs and Dirty Wars, (Lincon, NE, Potomac Books, 2015), 105.
  17. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, 19.
  18. R Powl Smith Jr, “BCTP: Be Unpredictable, Take Risks—Or Lose,” in The Art and Science of Military Deception, ed. Hy Rothstein and Barton Whaley (London: Artech House, 1997), 448-453.
  19. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, 19.
  20. @thepagey. Twitter Post. February 29, 2020, 1009hrs. https://twitter.com/thepagey/status/1233695894547070978 
  21. Whaley, Practise to Deceive, xv.
  22. Whaley, Practise to Deceive, xii.
  23. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, 323.
  24. Named after General John B. Magruder of the Confederate Army, Magruder’s Principle states that it is easier to reinforce a preconceived belief, than it is to induce a new one. The D-Day deception plan took advantage of this in reinforcing Hitler’s preconception that the Allies would land in Pas-de-Calais, rather than Normandy. See CIA, Deception Maxims: Fact and Folklore,  (Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 1980), 5

Related posts

Russia’s Conscripts Problem

Sergio Miller

Marmite – My Hate and Love for the Iraq and Afghanistan Memorial

Lt Col Rob 'Pagey' Page

Does Diversity Dilute the Warrior Ethos?

Major Ant Sharman RWxY

Leave a Comment