Fighting on multiple fronts and facing an opponent with superior numbers and combat resources Ukraine is taking lessons from past wars to compensate. Numerous media reports have surfaced on the employment of decoys by Ukraine’s military forces.
Some of these have been promoted by official Ukrainian sources. In fact, using deception, including the use of decoys has proven useful in past conflicts in deceiving an opponent as to one’s capabilities and dispositions. They, particularly when utilized in conjunction with camouflage, concealment, and signals security, can provide major battlefield advantages. Properly executed they offer a means to not only achieving economy of force by directing the opposing force’s attention to equipment, units, and assets that are not real but even offering a force multiplier.
Battlefield deception’s objectives may be as simple as causing the opponent to attack a false target. This causes them to expend munitions without destroying an actual combat asset. I could also cause them to reveal the position of, for example, artillery or a missile battery which can then be struck.
Ukraine has particularly employed decoys of highly valued weapon systems like the HIMARS for which they have only limited numbers. In fact, wooden replicas of the HIMARS were one of the earliest decoys employed. The idea is to direct attention to the false systems. HIMARS presents a obvious signature when firing. The decoy gives the enemy the target they know must be there to hopefully distract them from seeking the real systems. The effectiveness of this tactic might be reflected in the quote to The Washington Post by an unnamed US diplomat the Russia “Claimed to have hit more HIMARS than we have even sent”.
The relative stability of the current battlefield makes it both easier to deploy decoys and their value significantly greater. The wide presence of unmanned aerial vehicles makes the possibility of being observed a constant concern, thus, the demand for decoys has expanded. The Ukrainian company Metinvest, featured in several news pieces, makes replicas of the US M777 155mm howitzer using sewer pipes for its gun barrel. Costing under $1000 they are sent to the front as a “flatpack” and then assembled in less than 30 minutes. The company is now designing and building other decoys to meet specific army requirements. The sophistication of surveillance means that these decoys must be not only visually realistic but also be able to fool advanced sensors. Heat sources to mimic a thermal signature and or even a convincing radar return may be necessary.
Battlefield deception is equally valuable at the operational level. Misdirecting an opponent to one’s force dispositions, or seeming to confirm to them their own expectations can deliver immense benefits. This can mean replicating large numbers of vehicles, equipment, and even facilities. The Czech firm Inflatech has a solution in its line of inflatable decoys. They are offered in full scale replicas of weapons and equipment from specific tanks and armoured vehicles to artillery, surface-to-surface missiles, and air defence systems.
The decoys are accurate enough to deceive the camera of an unmanned aerial vehicle. When realistically deployed and if employed in conjunction with false radiated signals these have proved highly effective.
Yet using deception can be an intriguing “game”. The decoys must be convincing so they should not be too obvious, or they could be recognized as not “real”. Similarly, they must act like actual combat systems such as regularly redeploying and not staying in the same site. Plus, deception can be not only a passive activity but can also employed to actively entice an opponent to attack a decoy, thereby, revealing their location and exposing themselves to attack. The value of decoys and deception is being reaffirmed on the battlefield of the Ukraine. It is a tool used by militaries throughout history and one that armies today would do well to rediscover.
by Stephen W. Miller