The use of military deception has been around probably since the first organized forces met on a battlefield. Only in modern times has military deception developed into a fully fledged doctrine. This was notable a century ago during the First World War when units were moved in secret and misinformation was released to confuse the enemy. Military deception played a significant role in the Second World War, notably in the efforts to confuse the enemy prior to and even during the D-Day landings.

As with other military doctrines, deception has continually evolved, and in February the Department of the Army released an updated manual on efforts to support military deception. The newly published field manual (FM 3-13.4), which was released publically, stated that its aim was “to provide techniques to assist planners in planning, coordinating, executing, synchronizing, and assessing military deception (MILDEC). While the means and techniques may evolve over generations, the principles and fundamentals of deception planning remain constant.”

FM 3-13.4 is meant to apply to all members of the Army profession including leaders, soldiers, army civilians and contractors; and applies to the Active Army, the Army National Guard/Army National Guard of the United States and the United States Army Reserve. The proponent for the publication is the United States Army Information Operations Proponent (USAIOP) Office, while the preparing agency is the Combined Arms Doctrine Directorate, United States Army Combined Arms Center.

This new manual also serves to offer definitions to key terms of military deception, as military deception officers must have comprehensive understanding of these terms and definitions even as deception and the tools used to employ it have changed and evolved over the eons.

“For 2,500 years deception has been a significant enabler in wresting victories against tremendous odds,” explained Ralph D. Sawyer, one of America’s leading scholars in Chinese warfare.

“While often erroneously viewed as a measure of last resort, deception is but one tool in the repertoire for manipulating enemies, creating gaps and fissures, balking plans, and exploiting the resulting weaknesses,” Sawyer told ClearanceJobs.

“Deception doesn’t create power, it permits leveraging resources and fighting effectively, minimizing cost and losses,” he added. “For example, a dozen German raiders disguised as neutral and friendly flag vessels sank extensive tonnage and captured essential British battle plans for the Far East that facilitated the Japanese advance through Southeast Asia.”

The Art of Deception

The new manual noted that when properly resourced and integrated, deception can offer the potential to deter or induce actions that are favorable to the force and can increase the success of friendly activity. Deception can also be employed as part of a broader strategy, and while rooted in the earliest military strategies, the modern day practical study now relies largely on case studies from wars of the 20th century, beginning with the First World War.

The publication is also the proponent for the new Army term: “tactical deception.”

The purpose of military deception is to deliberately mislead an adversary and this includes the decision makers for military, paramilitary or even violent extremist groups; and thereby causing that adversary to take specific actions that will contribute to the accomplishment of a friendly mission.

In this way deception includes – but is not limited to:

  • Causing delay and surprise through ambiguity, confusion, or misunderstanding.
  • Causing the enemy to misallocate personnel, fiscal, and material resources.
  • Causing the enemy to reveal strengths, weaknesses, dispositions, and intentions.
  • Causing the enemy to waste combat power and resources with inappropriate or delayed actions.

Deception fundamentals

Deception falls into multiple categories, and this includes activities that support objectives detailed in concept plans, operation plans (OPLANs) and even operation orders (OPORDs), all of which are associated with approved military operations or activities.

FM 3-13.4 also breaks down how military deception (MILDEC) is planned, trained and conducted to support military campaigns and major operations; while “tactical deception” is in actuality an activity that is planned and executed by, and in support of, tactical-level commanders to cause enemy decision makers to take actions or inactions prejudicial to themselves and favorable to the achievement of tactical commanders’ objectives.

There is also the deception in support of operations security (DISCO), which is an activity that conveys or denies selected information or signatures to a foreign intelligence entity (FIE).

Deception: Rules of War

What is essential to understand today even as the rules of engagement continue to change, deception shouldn’t be seen as “playing dirty.”

As FM 3-13.4 also notes, “Deception operations are constrained, but not forbidden, by international agreements. Ruses of war and the employment of measures necessary for obtaining information about the enemy and the country are considered permissible. Ruses of war are legitimate so long as they do not involve treachery or perfidy on the part of the belligerent resorting to them.”

However, it should be noted too that certain deception activities or techniques are prohibited because they violate the law of war, including killing or wounding the enemy by resorting to perfidy.

“A ‘gentlemanly’ aversion to employing deception has long handicapped American military efforts, causing commanders who frequently misunderstand its effectiveness to slight and disparage it,” said Sawyer.

“America’s enemies suffer no such qualms,” he added. “Overconfidence in down-looking sensors contributes to negative expectations regarding deception and misperception about its tactical applicability. But the realm of interconnectedness and pervasive electronic dependence creates unimaginable possibilities far beyond the strategic. Deception remains the subject of worldwide study and pervasive application.”

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.