Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
French colonel Rémez Hémez’s book, Les Opérations de Déception: Ruses et stratagems de guerre (Deception Operations: Ruses and War Stratagems), published in 2022 by the French Armed Forces Ministry and Perrin, is one worthy of the attention of the English-speaking world. Besides providing an illuminating survey of deception operations and insights into French military perspectives on the issue, Hémez provides an up-to-date analysis of the role of deception in contemporary warfare and a look into its future. The bottom line is that ruse and deception are essential tools made all the more critical by the technological advances of modern warfare.
Most of the book consists of a historical survey with fascinating accounts of how various armed forces worldwide have effectively used ruse and deception. Hémez offers several case studies from different periods. These include the rise of camouflage in World War One and efforts to use deception to achieve surprise on the Western Front. He writes at length about the famous episode in which a British officer in Palestine deliberately left behind a satchel with fake documents intended to deceive the Ottomans regarding British intentions. (The story is true, but Richard Meinertzhagen, the officer usually credited with the operation, was, he says, a fraud.) Of note also is Hémez’s discussion of the WWI “Q-boat” program, in which the British placed weapons on commercial ships of various kinds and used them as bait to attract U-Boots, waiting until the submarines came close enough before unveiling the weapons and firing on them.
Turning to World War 2, Hémez describes British efforts to deceive Rommel regarding British military moves in North Africa and allied efforts to deceive the Germans regarding the invasions of Sicily and Normandy. He details allied measures to create phantom units through fake radio broadcasts that inflated enemy assessments of allied orders of battle and British methods to trick German air defence radar. Pushing into the Cold War, he writes of American efforts to deceive the North Koreans about the Inchon Landing, French efforts to achieve surprise in Indochina, and later American effort to trick North Vietnamese air defence systems, which, he writes, became adept at tracking F-105 fighter-bombers. In later chapters, he details British deception efforts in the Falklands war, Serbian measures to deceive NATO, and American deception efforts in the two Iraq wars, among many examples.
Hémez is particularly admirative of what he sees as the British military’s long-standing proficiency with deception. He also offers a lot of detail about Russian doctrine and its recent applications against Georgia and Ukraine (he wrote before the February 2022 offensive). The Brits’ success, according to Hémez, bespeaks creativity and the will of military commanders not only to avail themselves of deception operations but to integrate them into their planning and conduct of war at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. That is one of Hémez’s principal lessons: deception operations cannot simply be an extracurricular and exceptional activity delegated to a small cell. Instead, they must be a normal function of militaries, integrated into planning at the staff level and executed through the coordinated efforts of the entire force at war. As for the Russians, Hémez notes that they, too, have made deception an integral aspect of operations and have been consistent in its application. The famous case of the “little green men” was a classic: Russia succeeded in injecting enough doubt among Ukrainians and NATO countries to slow their reaction.
Interesting and useful
However, the most valuable and interesting portions deal with the modern era, when so much of the battlefield has become transparent to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms. Militaries have become digitised, and electronic and cyber warfare are increasingly becoming standard features of any conflict, even against asymmetrical adversaries. Today, what can be observed can be destroyed. So contemporary militaries need to prevent that from happening. Deception has become more difficult but also more necessary.
For Hémez, it is essential to understand that the presumed transparency of the battlefield remains both a myth and a weakness. Whereas commanders might think they have a complete picture of what is going on, in reality, “information is not always complete;” there can be too much information, and that information can be manipulated. Hémez pays particular attention to camouflage as an urgent necessity. He notes the emergence of camouflage that conceals objects from visual observation and masks their thermal or electronic signatures. Camouflage is something military units must make use of as a matter of course. In addition, Hémez is an enthusiast of decoys, which can be used to confuse the enemy regarding one’s numbers or where one might be massing for an attack and, therefore, where one might intend to attack. Decoys can also absorb munitions, which often are enormously costly or must be husbanded because of short supply. Decoys and robot decoys may also make up for the mass that Western militaries lack and facilitate manoeuvre.
Hémez expresses concern that today’s hyper-networked soldiers’ reliance on data communicated on their screens creates vulnerabilities. Commanders staring at their screens too easily confuse what they are seeing for the entire picture. This dependency also makes them vulnerable to deception or misinformation, given the possibility of overloading their sensors and introduce false data into their networks. He goes into detail about how this might be done. Still, the bottom line is that the more military equipment depends on sophisticated electronics and information networks, they more compelling they become as targets for electronic or cyber warfare. Armies must learn to defend these systems while attacking those of their adversaries.
Propaganda and influence
Likewise, propaganda and influence operations are essential tools. Tools that can be used, for example, to induce an enemy into thinking one intends to act in a certain way when in reality, another action is planned. He cites as an example an effort in 2021 when Israelis appear to have manipulated the media to report a pending assault on Gaza. Israel intended no such assault, but the news ostensibly induced Hamas fighters to take up positions in tunnels, which Israel then bombed. Social media also can be used, through fake postings and accounts, to create the impression that certain units are in a specific location. Perhaps to make the adversary think the force opposing them at a given place is larger than they really are or to mask the actual location of a planned assault. Then there is the example from the Ukraine war when Russians were able to identify a Ukrainian officer, obtain his home phone number, and call his wife to say he had been wounded. This prompted her to try to reach him. He responded to her message by calling her, thus revealing his position through his phone. Seconds later, a rocket killed him.
Harkening back to his earlier discussion in the book of how both sides used deception to gain the element of surprise on the Western Front in World War One, Hémez insists that deception has particular value when movement is blocked. One seeks to kickstart manoeuvre despite the relative transparency of the battlefield. “The ability to conduct deception operations,” Hémez writes, “because they seek to deceive with regard to one’s intention…is more precious than ever for creating surprise and for avoiding a new ‘tactical blockage.” Besides, deception is essential for countering precision weapons: “With the improvement of precision arms, detection becomes synonymous with destruction.” In these circumstances, “the apparent dilution of intentions or fooling [the adversary] regarding them becomes an indispensable complement for physical deception to manoeuvre.”
Hémez closes his study with “factors of success for a deception operation.” The first is secrecy. One must keep secret not only one’s true intentions but also the fact that one intends to mask those through deception. The second is planning and coordination. Deception operations cannot be improvised and must be planned and prepared well ahead of time: “Only manoeuvres adroitly coordinated achieve veritable operational and strategic success.” Thus, the force and its battle staff officers must be trained in this sort of activity and dispose of the appropriate means.
The third is that a deception operation must be credible in the eyes of the adversary. This requires a good understanding of the adversary to infer how it might “read” the message one provides to it. This means that the fake activity has to make sense. It has to be read as something the adversary believes one might do, given past actions or one’s doctrine.
One example he provides earlier in the book is the British assault on Beersheba in 1917. The British used various means to deceive the Ottomans that they would attack Gaza, not Beersheba. This made sense to the Ottomans because they believed the British would not manoeuvre through the open desert to get to Beersheba. But that was precisely what they did. Similarly, in 1991 the United States conducted a massive deception campaign to convince Saddam Hussein that the coalition would focus on Kuwait and conduct an amphibious operation, something that was easy to do given Saddam’s assumption the coalition would not manoeuvre to the west in the open desert. Which, again, was precisely what the coalition did.
Fourth, and related to the third, one must reinforce the adversary’s beliefs. This amounts to playing on their confirmation bias. One can think of General Douglas MacArthur’s refusal to believe the evidence of a large-scale Chinese attack in 1950 or of Israel’s refusal to see evidence of a looming Arab assault in 1973 for what it was, based entirely on assumptions about what the Arab armies would or would not do.
Taking the bait
The fifth factor of success is the ability to gauge whether the adversary is taking the bait. “One must have sensors dedicated to this task” and have thought through appropriate indicators that the adversary was acting in the desired way because of the deception.
Sixth, one must have a good specific understanding of the adversary’s deciders as clients of adversary intelligence operations. Part of this involves having insight into what the adversary believes to be the limits of its intelligence services’ ability to discern intentions. “It is primordial to realise how the target perceives us (and in particular our decision cycle) in order to adjust the deception and reinforce secrecy.”
The seventh factor is creativity. This does not come easily, given that armies, as bureaucratic institutions, tend to promote people who lack the requisite creativity. “Armies ground their structures on routine and procedures because it is a mark of efficiency in combat,” Hémez notes. “But deception,” he continues, “demands something else: recognising the possibilities of failure and risks, having a vision that is as objective as possible of one’s own capabilities, and compensating alternative thinking.” He continues:
To plan this type of operation, it is essential to ensure the diversity of modes of information transmission and modes of action. Regularly using the same deception procedures will be counter-productive, for it will make manoeuvre predictable. It is a question of doing “neither what one expects of us, nor the opposite, but rather something entirely different.”
Lastly, Hémez cautions the reader on the subject of counter-deception. This requires, among other things, a thorough understanding of the adversaries’ methods of deception, as well as staff officers willing to take note when intelligence does not square with assumptions. He adds that it helps to craft staffs capable of “deciding faster, to create confusion among the enemy and to deal with his attacks.” From now on, he writes, one has to “be conscious of the fact that ruse has never lost its importance in war….”
Hémez’s book is rich in fascinating details and valuable insights. It is hoped that English readers will soon benefit from a translated edition.
Michael Shurkin is a former senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. He is currently an independent security analyst.