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Sowing Darkness for Military Advantage: Deception

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

O divine art of subtlety and secrecy!  Through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible, and hence we can hold the enemy’s fate in our hands.

Sun Tz

Countering Competitors with Deception

The rise of China and resurgence of Russia suggest that an era of great power competition has returned.  Diminishing technological advantage over such peer and near-peer competitors as well as pressures on defence budgets present challenges for Western militaries such as Britain, the United States and Australia.  Within this context, history provides numerous examples of the successful use of deception on the battlefield enabling forces to achieve physical and psychological effects against peer and near-peer adversaries.  Recognition of the opportunities presented by deception, surprise, and stratagem in warfare are evident in recent publications in the UK, US and Australia, presenting a growing interest and an opportunity to rapidly develop capabilities and expertise in these areas.


The rapid rise of China coupled with the resurgence of Russia entering the 3rd decade of the 21st century evokes echoes of the Cold War that dominated the period from 1946 to 1991.  It signals a new era of great power competition.  In parallel, the technological preeminence that the US enjoyed at the end of the Cold War, and displayed with devastating effect in the first Gulf War, has eroded steadily over the past 20 years.  This has generated renewed interest in how the United States and its allies can maintain or achieve military advantage as part of a containment and deterrence strategy to counter Chinese and Russian ambitions.  For example, the US 2018 National Military Strategy emphasises that the Joint Force needs to work to retain a competitive advantage over China and Russia, while acknowledging “… our competitive military advantage has been eroding” coupled with the need to “… restore America’s competitive edge by blocking global rivals Russia and China from challenging the U.S. and our allies.”1  Going forward, developing and sustaining a coherent approach to meet that goal is a significant challenge because demands on resources, expansion of responsibilities, technological parity, and the need to adapt quickly to evolving geopolitical circumstances are not going to diminish and probably will grow. 

Unmarked Russian soldiers in the Crimea 2014. By Anton Holoborodko (Антон Голобородько) – http://www.ex.ua/76677715, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31559794

Ignoring this reality inevitably, and unfortunately, has a high likelihood of constraining the Pentagon’s ability to focus on its core mission of deterring or defeating adversaries, especially as DoD’s share of the budget shrinks.  Similar concerns have been voiced in Australian and British defence circles.2  The complexities inherent in this strategic environment also simultaneously create obstacles to consciously prioritising the allocation of time and resources between competing threats and political priorities, practicing strategic patience, and engaging in concerted cooperation like the AUKUS partnership with Australia and Britain.  Moreover, as full-spectrum competitors, China and Russia on a global scale, or for that matter adversaries such as Iran and North Korea on a regional scale, pose a unique problem because they can combine strategic intent and adaptive behaviour to thwart Western objectives.

Lessons from history 

Fortunately, the historical record offers insights for crafting a strategy with deception – providing false information within the bounds of what may be thought reasonable or probable – as one of its cornerstones to successfully counter peer or even peer+ competitors.  The objective of deception is to “Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy” thereby destabilising the enemy’s ability to succeed.3  As Michael Handel notes: “Deception in war must be considered a rational and necessary type of activity because it acts as a force multiplier, that is it magnifies the strength or power of the successful deceiver.  Forgoing the use of deception in war undermines one’s own strength.”4  

“from the earliest accounts of warfare to the modern era, deception is a consistent feature of the preparation and execution of plans” 

Multiple examples from antiquity to the present illustrate this point including the Greeks use of the Trojan Horse;5 Napoleon’s victories over the Prussians in the February 1814 battles of Champaubert, Montmirail, and Vauchamp;6 ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s campaigns in the Shenandoah Valley and Chancellorsville;7 German deception against the French on the Meuse in May 1940 and the Americans in the Ardennes in 1944;8 a series of Allied operations during World War II including the battle of Midway and the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy;9 the US Marine Corps landing at Inchon and China’s subsequent intervention in the Korean War;10 the 1968 Tet offensive during the Vietnam War;11 the Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal in the opening days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War;12 and the 1991 Gulf War’s Operation Desert Storm.13  In fact, from the earliest accounts of warfare to the modern era, deception is a consistent feature of the preparation and execution of plans as commanders sought to achieve surprise over their adversaries and exploit the subsequent confusion and fear to achieve battlefield victory.14 

The lessons

Those cases offer lessons learned and a template for using deception as a stratagem.  In each instance, deception produced a physical effect and a psychological effect.  The target of deception is the mind of opposing decisionmakers, and the aim of deception is to get them to act in certain ways.  Deception goes beyond simply lying.15 A successful deception campaign requires an audience that wants to believe something which is false about military capabilities or intentions at the strategic, operational, or tactical level.  To accomplish this, deception also requires a plausible scenario (i.e., error mixed with truth) that fits audience expectations and embeds the basis for a false inference within the plausible anticipated future to achieve a desired response – action or inaction – that is exploited at the centre of gravity on the battlefield.16

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

Echoing the recent observation by General Sir Patrick Sanders, Head of UK Strategic Command, that the military needs more Qs than 007s,17 cognitive degradation of an adversary acts as a force ratio multiplier helping achieve an advantage.  Successful deception causes resource misallocation (e.g., accepting the false scenario, hedging against the possibility of it occurring), confusion, overconfidence, and indecision.18  This invariably happens because successful deception means an adversary is unable to understand, plan, or act in accordance with reality.  Making appropriate decisions becomes increasingly unlikely regardless of the speed of decision making.  Indeed, inducing a peer or near peer competitor to make rapid incorrect decisions might advantage one’s own position since those incorrect choices can have a compounding effect. 

The old German

Clausewitz’s argument that everything in war is difficult underscores another factor favouring countering peer and near peer competitors with deception.  Modern militaries, especially Western ones and their peer or near-peer competitors, increasingly rely on digital schemata (e.g., common operating pictures) to provide a situational awareness of the battlespace.  The breadth of the battlespace means that such schemata are necessary.  However, increased reliance on sensors rather than direct observation means that a commander increasingly views, and cognitively processes, a representation of reality.  They do not directly experience that reality itself.  Hence, despite conventional wisdom that it becomes harder to conduct deception because of multiple sensors, the sheer volume and velocity of data bring collected might well prove to make deception more possible.19  As a result, it is plausible in a kinetic conflict between peer or near-peer adversaries that “… the factors of confusion and high operational tempo, the multiple dimensions of threat and uncertainties, the degradation of intelligence and communications” all present opportunities for deception.20

Simply put, given the emergence of peer and near-peer rivals combined with the weight-of-evidence demonstrating the efficacy of purposeful deception as a stratagem, it is time to emphasise deception and make it a central feature of Western doctrine and tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) especially as reliance on hybrid and asymmetric warfare has proliferated.21  Increased concerns about the military capabilities of peer competitors (i.e., China and Russia) combined with fiscal constraints, provide powerful incentives to enhance deception capabilities.  Moreover, as Michael Handel noted roughly 40 years ago “… there is never a reason to make life easier for the adversary or more difficult for oneself … even if deception is not always used as part of a military plan or strategy (which would be a mistake) the adversary must always live under the impression that deception is being practiced.’22 

Nuanced approaches 

Because deception works at a personal and cultural level, deception operations require a nuanced approach, are resource intensive, and must be tailored to specific countries, services, and commanders.  This underscores need to generate credible, accurate intelligence to better understand potential future adversaries and build capacity for deception operations now.  The difficulty of achieving such knowledge of adversaries cannot be overstated.23  And, knowledge and expertise in any field atrophies when not a primary focus or point of consistent practice.  A standing start at the outbreak of hostilities needs to be avoided if deception is to achieve decisive advantage.  It is clear that the Chinese, Russians, Iranians, North Koreans and other state actors already are aggressively pursuing those capabilities.  The question is what is being done now to develop the necessary knowledge and expertise in the West?  Given ongoing uncertainties about the future trajectory of great power competition between Western democracies and autocratic regimes in China and Russia, now is the time to reinvigorate deception.  This requires both effort and expertise in capability in the understanding, design and application of deception operations and their effectiveness against a variety of opponents.

  “It is clear that the Chinese, Russians, Iranians, North Koreans and other state actors already are aggressively pursuing those capabilities.”

Fortunately, promising signs of a renewed emphasis on deception and its importance as a stratagem in warfare are evident in recent American, Australian, and British military circles and publications.  This includes,  for example, the 2019 publication of FM 3-13.4 Army Support to Military Deception.24  Moving aggressively to develop this capability and expertise will further demonstrate the West’s resolve, and more significantly, ability to deceive adversaries in order to meet successfully the challenges posed in the 21st Century.


The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence or the U.S. Government.  This research was supported in part by U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, Grant # 2020-20061700004 (PI: Regens). The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.


Charles B. Vandepeer

Charles B. Vandepeer is a Senior Lecturer in Intelligence and National Security at Charles Sturt University and runs the Mind of War Project.

James L. Regens

James L. Regens is Regents Professor and Director of the Center for Intelligence and National Security — an Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence — at the University of Oklahoma.



  1. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Description of the National Military Strategy 2018 (Washington: Joint Chiefs of Staff, US Department of Defense, 2019), 6; and U.S. Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (Washington: US Department of Defense, 2018), 1. The second quote is from Katie Lange, “What Is the National Defense Strategy?”, U.S. Department of Defense (8 October 2019), defense.gov/Explore/Features/Story/Article/1656414/what-is-the-national-defense-strategy/. See also General Charles Q. Brown, Jr., Air Force Chief of Staff, Accelerate Change or Lose (Washington: US Department of the Air Force, August 2020), 5; and James L. Regens, Matthew R.H. Uttley and Charles B. Vandepeer, “Technological Optimism and the Imagined Future: Implications for Warfare,” The Strategy Bridge (18 February 2020), thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2020/2/18/technological-optimism-and-the-imagined-future-implications-for-warfare.
  2. Australian Department of Defence, 2020 Defence Strategic Update (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2020); and UK Ministry of Defence, Defence in a competitive age CP411 (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 2021).
  3. Lieutenant General Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, one of the best-known Confederate commanders and tacticians, in the American Civil War as quoted in Colonel George Armand Furse, C.B., Information in War: Its Acquisition and Transmission (London: William Clowes & Sons, 1895), 17. This mirrors Sun Tzu’s axiom that “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when suing our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away, we must make him believe we are near…” in Sun Tzu, The Art of War translated by Lionel Giles (London: Luzac & Company, 1910), Section I, 19.
  4. Michael I. Handel, “Intelligence and Deception,” in John Gooch and Amos Perlmutter, eds. Military Deception and Strategic Surprise (New York: Psychology Press, 1982), 122.
  5. The Trojan Horse according to classical accounts of a war between Troy and Mycenaean Greece is the prototypical forefather of deception. See Virgil, The Aeneid translated by Shadi Bartsch (New York: Random House, 2021).
  6. Napoleon concealed the condition of his troops and direction of retreat after the defeat at Brienne. The French unexpectedly reappeared first at Champaubert, defeated the divided Prussian corps under Blücher in detail during the three battles, and narrowly missed forcing the entire Prussian army to surrender prior to Waterloo. See Alan Schom, Napoleon Bonaparte (New York: HarperCollins, 1997).
  7. See Christian B. Keller, The Great Partnership: Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and the Fate of the Confederacy (New York: Pegasus Books, 22019).
  8. John Keegan, The Face of Battle (New York: Penguin, 1978).
  9. Craig L. Symonds, The Battle of Midway (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); David Stafford, Churchill and Secret Service (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1998); Ewen Montagu, The Man Who Never Was (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1953); and Peter Caddick-Adams, Sand and Steel: The D-Day Invasions and the Liberation of France (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).
  10. General Douglas McArthur’s amphibious landing of the 1st Marine Division at Inchon in September 1950 was followed by a rapid advance across the 38th parallel bringing forward elements of American forces to the Yalu River border with Manchuria by early October. In parallel, starting in October 1950, Mao Tsedong launched a stealthy deployment of massive Chinese Communist Forces (approximately 300,000 troops) across the Yalu to envelop MacArthur’s command. The CCF attack in November 1950 brought American and other UN forces to the brink of disastrous defeat, signalled the end of maneuver warfare, forced Washington to confront the reality that political decisions were beyond the purview of the military, and bookended the ultimate stalement in Korea. See Thomas R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War (New York: Macmillan, 1963).
  11. Mark Bowden, Huê 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam (New York: Grove Press, 2018).
  12. Abraham Rabinovich, The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed The Middle East (New York: Schoken, 2005).
  13. Brigadier General Robert H. Scales, Jr., Certain Victory: The U.S. Army in the Gulf War (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 1998).
  14. Mark F. Cancian, Inflicting Surprise: Gaining Competitive Advantage in Great Power Conflicts (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021); Charles B. Vandepeer, James L. Regens, and Matthew R.H. Uttley, “Surprise and Shock in Warfare: An Enduring Challenge.” The Strategy Bridge (27 October 2020), thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2020/10/27/surprise-and-shock-in-warfare-an-enduring-challenge; Mark F. Cancian, Coping with surprise in great power conflicts (Washington: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2018); Barton Whaley, Practise to Deceive: Learning Curves of Military Deception Planners (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2016); and James D. Monroe, Deception: Theory and Practice (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, 2012).
  15. Deception operations leverage the human desire to believe information that exists within their mental systems to impact comprehension and assessment. See US Central Intelligence Agency, Deception Maxims: Fact and Folklore (Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency, 1980); Donald C. Daniel and Katherine L. Herbig, “Propositions on Military Deception,” in John Gooch and Amos Perlmutter, eds., Military Deception and Strategic Surprise (New York: Psychology Press, 1982), 156-158; 163; and Bertram Russell, The Analysis of Mind (New York: Macmillan, 1921).
  16. US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations (Washington: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2017), III-23. This is a consistent theme in deception literature, namely that the focus needs to be on getting an adversary to do or not do something, to act in a certain way, rather than simply a focus on the adversary’s thinking. For example, see Thaddeus Holt, The Deceivers: Allied Military Deception in the Second World War (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004).
  17. Danielle Sheridan, “’We need Q rather than Bond to fight future wars’ says top general,” Daily Telegraph (15 September 2021), 3.
  18. Rémy Hémez, “To Survive, Deceive: Decoys in Land Warfare,” War on the Rocks (22 April 2021), warontherocks.com/2021/04/to-survive-deceive-decoys-in-land-warfare/; Paul Barnes, “Tempus Fugit: Using Time for Cognitive Advantage,” Grounded Curiosity (26 March 2020) groundedcuriosity.com/tempus-fugit-using-time-for-cognitive-advantage/#.YELV-Z0zZPa; US Army, Field Manual No. 3-13.4 Army Support to Military Deception (Washington: Headquarters, Department of the Army, 26 February 2019); Charles B. Vandepeer, “Self-deception and the ‘Conspiracy of Optimism’,” War on the Rocks (31 January 2019), warontherocks.com/2019/01/self-deception-and-the-conspiracy-of-optimism/; US Joints Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations (Washington: Joint Chiefs of Staff, US Department of Defense, 2017), III-24; Daniel T. Gilbert, “How Mental Systems Believe,” American Psychologist 46, 2 (February 1991), 107-119; and Donald C. Daniel and Katherine L. Herbig, “Propositions on Military Deception,” in John Gooch and Amos Perlmutter, eds., Military Deception and Strategic Surprise (New York: Psychology Press, 1982), 163.
  19. James L. Regens, “Augmenting Human Cognition to Enhance Strategic, Operational, and Tactical Intelligence,” Intelligence and National Security34 (2019): 1-15. The ability of technological advances to render deception obsolete is not a new issue. Writing in 1902, British Lt. Colonel George F.R Henderson observed “… It is repeated ad nauseam that in consequence of the vastly improved means of transmitting information, surprise on a large scale is no longer to be feared.” However, Henderson emphasised that both the means of concentrating forces was faster, and that false information could be more quickly distributed; better information systems spread accurate as well as inaccurate information rapidly. Quoted in Barton Whaley, Practise to Deceive: Learning Curves of Military Deception Planners (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2016), 11. See also Jacob Simpson, “Operations in deception: corrupting the sensing grid of the enemy,” The Forge (2021), theforge.defence.gov.au/publications/operations-deception-corrupting-sensing-grid-enemy; and James L. Regens, Matthew R.H. Uttley and Charles B. Vandepeer, “Technological Optimism and the Imagined Future: Implications for Warfare,” The Strategy Bridge (18 February 2020), thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2020/2/18/technological-optimism-and-the-imagined-future-implications-for-warfare.
  20. Scott Gerwehr and Russell W. Glenn, The Art of Darkness: Deception and Urban Operations (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2000), 27.
  21. Jovana Marović, “Wars of Ideas: Hybrid Warfare,” in Tomáš Valášek, Political Interference, and Disinformation (Brussels: Carnegie Europe, 2019), 27-30; Joshua Ball, “What Is Hybrid Warfare?” Global Security Review (10 June 2019), globalsecurityreview.com/hybrid-and-non-linear-warfare-systematically-erases-the-divide-between-war-peace/; Luigi Del Bene, “Hybrid Impact on the Air Domain,” in “Joint Air & Space Conference: The Role of Joint Air Power in NATO Deterrence,” Joint Air Power Conference Center, October 2017, japcc.org/hybrid-impact-on-the-air-domain/; and Ivan Arreguín-Toft, “How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict,” International Security 26, 1 (2001), 93-128.
  22. Michael I. Handel, “Intelligence and Deception,” in John Gooch and Amos Perlmutter, eds., Military Deception and Strategic Surprise (New York: Psychology Press, 1982), 143-144.
  23. History shows with myriad examples such as Xerxes’ inability to understand his Greek opponents, America’s senior political and military leadership’s unwillingness to speak and act as their positions required during the Vietnam War, and Western – particularly American – and Afghan Government failure to prevent the Taliban’s ability in 2021 to win its insurgency in Afghanistan that this is a recurrent problem. See Herodotus, The Histories (London: Penguin, 2013); Herbert R. McMaster, Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998); and Carter Malkasian, The American War in Afghanistan: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).
  24. US Army, Field Manual No. 3-13.4 Army Support to Military Deception (Washington: Headquarters, Department of the Army, 26 February 2019); Jacob Simpson, “Operations in deception: corrupting the sensing grid of the enemy,” The Forge (2021), theforge.defence.gov.au/publications/operations-deception-corrupting-sensing-grid-enemy; and Major Dom Wiejak, “We’re Only Deceiving Ourselves,” Wavell Room (12 May 2021), wavellroom.com/2021/05/12/were-only-deceiving-ourselves/.

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