The Continuing Relevance of Military Denial and Deception

Adam Elkus

The Continuing Relevance of Military Denial and Deception
To cite this article: Elkus, Adam, “The Continuing Relevance of Military Denial and Deception”, Military Operations, Volume 1, Issue No. 1, Summer 2012, pages 21-24.

Military denial and deception (D&D) have a long and storied history in military operations, but D&D is also an integral part of current and future operations. This analysis offers an overview of D&D, a look at D&D in past and present military operations, and some predictions for how future D&D will be a part of future military scenarios. New technologies will offer new opportunities for deception and information denial, but the core of D&D is its most vulnerable target: the human mind. A look at D&D in military history—ancient and contemporary—sheds light on its successes and limitations.

Explaining D&D

In simplest terms, military denial and deception can be explained through the two frames of simulation and dissimulation. To dissimulate is to hide the real, and to simulate is to reveal the fake. Denial, whether through tactical concealment or security operations, hides military capabilities and intentions from the opponent’s gaze. Deception creates a false image through the usage of camouflage, decoying, false documents, and other time-tested tools of military fakery. The two are symbiotic and cannot be divorced from each other. By controlling the channels by which an opponent receives information through information denial, deception can be readily achieved by feeding him false information.[i] Even better, denial reduces information channels which opponents can readily access, making them more willing to trust channels which the deceiver controls.

Though today’s technologies for D&D are novel, D&D as a technique is most certainly not. So why D&D? Military operations involve the ultimate risk: death or severe injury. Commanders from ancient times onwards have sought to use denial to reduce the risk of harm to themselves and deception to shift the costs of war on to their opponents. Good D&D minimizes harm and risk to one’s own forces and amplifies the effect of force against the enemy. Because of these effects, and the consistent vulnerability of the human mind, D&D is as old as warfare itself.

Like logistics, D&D is a niche subject that is nonetheless essential to the use of the military art to achieve strategic effect. A review of D&D in military history and current operations can help better reveal its utility and limitations for both analysts and practitioners, while pointing the way toward D&D in future warfare. D&D is timeless, and thus will always have value. However, such value must be qualified to be of use to the practitioner.

Deception in military history is much-studied: the classically-trained reader is familiar with the Trojan Horse, and the religious reader much more so with Gideon’s use of misinformation, trumpets, pitchers, and torches to overawe the Midianites. Jon Latimer has also written about the use of military deception by historical figures ranging from Hittite enemies of Ramses II in 1294 BC to Coalition planners in the 1991 Gulf War.[ii] The complex British and American D&D operation that enabled Normandy campaign is famous in the annals of military history. Less famous but equally impressive is the Soviet information effort that helped it to destroy the German Army Group Center in 1944 during Operation Bagration.

Denial in and of itself, however, while equally ancient and storied, does not receive much attention. This is a shame, since many historic failures can be at least partially explained by a failure to control information. If the proper authorities in Jericho, to continue the biblical analogy, had exercised proper counterintelligence (CI), the city’s weakness would not have been telegraphed to the Israelites. Joshua’s invasion plan, which hinged on sensitive political intelligence about the morale of Jericho’s defenders, would have been foiled if proper information denial had been utilized. Furthermore, good CI work could have ‘turned’ Rahab into a double agent capable of running deception operations against the Israelites.

The Trojan Horse deception operation would have been similarly foiled if one of Ulysses’ men had, in a moment of drunken revelry, had voiced candid comments about the deception plan to audiences with malicious motives. Deception in history is glamorous, but the need for proper OPSEC is recognized only when disaster occurs. The famous World War II posters declaring that ‘loose lips sink ships’ is indeed a backhanded tribute to denial’s importance. Regardless of its neglect, any thorough review of military history reveals proper denial as the element that enables a successful military operation. It should be cautioned, though, that failures of denial are only meaningful if successfully exploited by the enemy. General Robert E. Lee’s orders may have fallen into Union hands, but Union commanders lacked the military skill to capitalize on Confederate misfortune in the battle of Antietam.

How does one plan denial and deception? Michael Bennett and Edward Waltz’s book Counterdeception: Principles and Applications for National Security is by far the most comprehensive work on D&D. Bennett and Waltz summarize deception planning as a cycle that begins with an objective achieved by methods of concealing facts and receiving fiction. These methods exploit a target’s psychological or organizational vulnerabilities, or dependence on certain information sources. Deception effects are achieved by influencing the target’s reconstruction of the deception story, data and information collection, fusion, and interpretation. The ultimate aim of the deception operation is to negatively effect the target’s decisions and actions. Effects that can be achieved range from acting at the wrong time and place to the delaying of crucial military action.[iii]

D&D takes place at numerous levels of engagement. At the tactical level, military D&D relies on concealment, security, feints, and other elementary tools. On the operational and strategic levels, D&D primarily targets military staffs and government bureaucrats. While D&D in war is intended to maximize surprise, D&D in peacetime settings seek to conceal capabilities or provide competitive political advantage.[iv]

It is important, however, to qualify the effect of D&D. D&D, at most, amplifies the effects of military action. It was armor, artillery, aircraft, and the infantryman’s cold steel that forced German troops aside at Normandy, not a clever deception planner. Moreover, deception operations depend implicitly on the target being able to reconstruct a deception story in the manner that the planner chooses. Whether or not the enemy complies is beyond the operational control of the deception planner.

Operational and strategic surprise, when achieved, can lower the cost of war. But the exceptional nature of campaigns such as 1941’s Operation Barbarossa or the smashing Israeli surprise strike in 1967 also cannot be ignored. For every successful campaign there are many more failed attempts or successes with ephemeral strategic effects. Israel may have been surprised in 1973, but it was able to reverse the military situation and take its military forces inside both Egyptian and Syrian territory.

Deception in and of itself cannot guarantee lasting effects. In fact, it can frequently backfire. The cumulative impact of Saddam Hussein’s numerous deceptions regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) enabled his overthrow, and Iran’s deception operations laid the grounds for the country’s current geopolitical woes.

D&D as an Integral Element of Current Operations

At first glance the idea of D&D may seem charmingly anachronistic. How is it possible to fool opponents with modern sensors? But the technological dependence of modern militaries is precisely what enables lesser opponents to fool them with deceptions that exploit intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and data processing equipment. The common perception that such gadgets are infallible is a deception planner’s best asset.

The Kosovo War was a testbed for emerging theories of information dominance on the battlefield. Unfortunately, Kosovo showed that opposing forces could handily fool Allied ISR. The Serbs hid their weapons by mixing their military convoys with civilian caravans, and drew Allied fire with fake bridges and elaborate decoys that simulated artillery, anti-aircraft missile launchers, and even fighter aircraft. Allied reliance on overhead reconnaissance for battle damage assessment, the overtasking of imagery analysts, NATO’s self-imposed bombing altitude restrictions, and Kosovo’s unique terrain all made Allied forces more susceptible to D&D.[v]

D&D’s relevance is also undoubtedly challenged by a 24-hour news media increasingly fed by social media and mobile devices. But an information-hungry global media also enables effective D&D. While most are familiar with the propaganda tactic of taking foreign reporters to see real or simulated civilian casualties, the media can also be leveraged for D&D. Saddam Hussein, denied access to his most useful means of ISR, came to depend on CNN for information about the conflict. But CNN was scrubbed of useful information through tight Pentagon operations security and mostly filled with Coalition press statements. Hussein’s reliance on the media, coupled with extensive physical deception measures, hid the ground war’s main effort and decoyed the Iraqis away from the Coalition’s ‘left hook’ in the west.[vi]

Surprise attacks by irregular armies from the People’s Liberation Army of Vietnam to the Taliban have utilized denial and deception to defeat both human intelligence and expensive technical collection platforms. That some of these surprise attacks have been mounted despite forewarning and knowledge of enemy tactics is a proof that irregular actors do not slouch at D&D.

D&D in Future Warfare

D&D is likely to play an important role in future warfare. In the emerging field of cyber operations and tactics, military computer networks can further deception by manipulating attackers’ perceptions. Even though enemy hackers might ‘own’ the network, defenders still have physical control and can use deception to give attackers a false sense of their military capabilities. And by making one network seem more attractive than it actually is, deception can also protect other networks from harm. Offensive cyber operations also can help D&D efforts by disabling enemy ISR systems through cyberattack or corrupting systems to help the enemy see what the attacker wants.[vii]

The Marine Corps Amphibious Capabilities Working Group has also noted that D&D holds the key to overcoming ‘anti-access/area denial’ threats. The report notes that a ‘battle of the signatures’ is dawning. Denial—the reduction of visual, electromagnetic, thermal, hyper-spectral, audible and informational signatures—and deception are necessary for executing modern amphibious operations. In an environment congested by layered networks of enemy sensors, D&D would protect tactical and operational surprise while distracting, decoying, demonstrating, feinting, or simulating in order to draw enemy attention. Only then can operational maneuver, which avoids enemy hardpoints, be achieved.[viii]

Technology has always been an integral part of deception operations, in large part because aerial photoreconnaissance, radar, and other sensors of the early 20th century vintage substantially bolstered the ability of the defense to detect offensives. Encounter battles still occur despite technological know-how, as the confusion during the ground phases of both 1991 and 2003 Iraq wars demonstrated. ‘Systems of systems’ have not, in any way, reduced the fog of war. The fog of war’s character, however, is substantially different. The kinds of encounter battles and surprise offensives fought from Alexander to the Franco-Prussian War are largely not possible today because of the immense increase in ISR and data fusion methods. These sensors must be thwarted or fooled in order to protect one’s own forces from conventional attack.

New technical means will also transform deception operations. First, the increasing diversity of sensors and media on multiple levels of engagement will present more means of executing deception. But more immediately useful to the military practitioner are emerging advances in materials science and nanoscience, electromagnetic technologies, information and quantum sciences, and better understandings and practical applications of psychology, biology, and the computational social sciences. Some of these technologies will make denial harder, such as small mobile and self-replicating sensor networks that can reach even denied targets. But advances in plasma and directed energy technologies can also potentially allow remote probing and exploitation, enabling an active decoy attack on the enemy.[ix] Robotics also have been employed since the 1980s Israeli air operations in Lebanon for the purpose of deception.

The technological dimension is only one half of the emerging operational dimension. There is a distinct reason why D&D and deception will be attractive to both Western militaries and their opponents. It is axiomatic that the weak thwart rather than overmatch the strong. The West’s militaries, once strong, are suffering fiscal losses and losing key personnel as drawdowns occur. Populations are growing tired of war, and expensive key platforms are aging without viable replacements on the horizon. As such, the warfare of the weak and strong may converge.

From the end of the Cold War onwards, Western militaries have rightly assumed that military competitors would attempt to disguise their power and deceive to draw attention away from their real capabilities and intentions. Moreover, the West’s enemies also are frequently authoritarian states for whom cheating and deception is basic political behavior. The attractiveness of deception operations and capabilities to opponents ranging from Mao’s China to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq provides empirical support for this prejudice.

But democracies are also capable of information manipulation and deception. The United States was able to exercise remarkable control over information in the 1991 Gulf War, not only shaping the media coverage’s tenor, but also protecting secrets. It is true that America cannot do so today in regards to its remotely piloted vehicle (‘drone’) program and its cyber operations in Iran. But while this demonstrates the difficulty of conducting D&D in democracies, it is not proof that D&D is impossible.

Now that the West has become fiscally weaker and weary of war, denial and deception will be crucial to engaging and destroying both conventional and irregular forces. Currently, the United States is employing special operations forces, paramilitary intelligence capabilities, and regular air and sea military platforms to acquire and target al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Information denial is key to this campaign, lest press leaks alert al-Qaeda to ongoing operations. The US reliance on human intelligence also presents opportunities for adversary deception operations, like the Jordanian double agent who executed a hit against an American spy base in Khost in 2009.

Future conventional campaigns are likely to also hinge on the employment of denial and deception. Information denial has always been a hallmark of successful Western operations, but deception has been neglected due to the brute fact of Western qualitative and material superiority. If one marches with big battalions and has better troops, platforms, and weapons, why do any extra effort to engage in deception? At times, such as during Operation Moshtarak in Afghanistan and Israeli operations in Lebanon and Gaza, operational objectives have been served by telegraphing the attack in advance in order to allow civilians to leave the target zone and intimidate the enemy.

Material superiority, however, will not guarantee victory. As William F. Owen has observed, combined arms capabilities and anti-access weapons have always been available at low cost. Weapons do not make war, but solid tactics, discipline, and excellent fields of fire can devastate armies. The panic over opposing force standoff weapons many militaries are currently experiencing is simply a delayed realization of this fact.[x]

The emerging fiscal and military weaknesses of Western nations will necessitate better protection of expensive platforms and well-trained men in military operations. Should expensive surface combatants be sent into harm’s way, they will be increasingly protected from acquisition and targeting by technical interference, denial, and decoying. As previously noted, amphibious operations will also likely be protected by technical means and simulation. The WikiLeaks affair and the continuous stream of leaks about counterterrorism and cyber operations will probably result in greater information denial and a greater importance on protecting capabilities and intentions from enemy spies and the domestic media.

Despite its heavily technical dimension, D&D is mostly a psychological activity. Some knowledge of the targets’ biases, preconceptions, and decision-making style is necessary to create an accurate lure for them to consume. The psychological element of deception is likely to be bolstered by the growing involvement of national leaders in operations and expanding amounts of personal information increasingly available online. The increasing involvement of national leaders themselves in military operations also presents enormous risks for deception operations.

Adolf Hitler, in World War II, had a unique understanding of his adversaries’ psychology. Up until his miscalculation that Britain and France would not come to Poland’s aid in 1939, Hitler adroitly manipulated national leaders and their staffs by preying on their fear of conflict and need for successful resolution. Since World War II, world leaders have become more personally involved in lower levels of warfare. The destructiveness of modern warfare and the need for whole-of-government industrial and political preparation put a premium on powerful civilian leaders, and technology that enabled networking and precision allowed civilian leaders to exert control even over tactical operations.[xi]

American employment of remotely piloted vehicles and special operations capabilities has involved the chief executive in everything from target selection to mission planning. By doing so, it also potentially exposes the political leader and his staff as a direct target for enemy psychological operations and deception, especially in light of the copious amount of public information leaked about the targeting process. Future wars will likely narrow the gap between political leaders, generals and operator-tacticians, putting a premium on psychological manipulation as a means of deception.

Future opponents are also likely to have far greater understanding of American culture than Americans possess of theirs. Poor personal security by soldiers and civilian bureaucrats also allows those adversaries to use social network profiles as a means of constructing target folders. All deception inherently plays up to personal bias and perception; and is there any better means of playing up to a man’s ego, apart from exploiting the information contained on his Facebook page? One crucial part of the Normandy deception process was, after all, heavily rooted in Hitler’s strong liking for Andrew Thorne, the Grenadier Guards colonel who had been a British military attaché in Berlin from 1932 to 1935.[xii]

D&D and the ‘Bodyguard of Lies’

The more important the operation, the greater the necessity for the truth to be protected by a ‘bodyguard of lies.’ Future wars are likely to contain promiscuous use of denial and deception by both sides. New risks certainly exist along with new opportunities. Any proper study of D&D must incorporate a historical dimension, recognizing that while the technology and organizations in question may be new, the psychological core of D&D rests on human nature. Because human nature is constant, the core psychology utilized in D&D does not vary across the ages.

Deception is sexy and denial is boring. But failures of denial will most certainly lead to failures of deception. Military operations have succeeded in spite of deception failures, but a failure to conduct proper operations security and counterintelligence can lead to potentially serious military consequences.

Finally, while neglect of D&D can be operationally and strategically harmful, even more harmful is a presumption that D&D somehow leads to easy victories. The steep casualty totals of Operation Bagration and the 1973 Yom Kippur War should suggest otherwise. All D&D can do is reduce the toll of war, and amplify, rather than create, the lethal effects of men, weapons, and fighting machines.


[i] Michael Benett and Edward Waltz, Counterdeception: Principles and Application for National Security, Boston: Artech Publishing House, 52-43, 2007.
[ii] Jon Latimer, Deception in War, New York: Woodstock Press, 2001, op cit.
[iii] Ibid,56.
[iv] Ibid, op cit and Roy Godson and James J. Witz, “Strategic Denial and Deception,” in Godson and Wirtz (eds), Strategic Denial and Deception: The 21st Century Challenge, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2002, 1-15.
[v] Mark Johnson and Melissa Meyeraan, Military Deception: Hiding the Real, Showing the Fake, Norfolk: Joint Forces Staff College, 2003, 8-12.
[vi] Ibid, 6-8.
[vii] Martin Libicki, Cyberdeterrence and Cyberwar, Santa Monica: RAND, 2009, 172-173.
[viii] Amphibious Working Group, Naval Amphibious Capabilities in the 21st Century: Strategic Opportunity and a Vision for Change, Washington: Department of the Navy, April 2012, op cit.
[ix] Benett and Waltz, 309-319.
[x] William F. Owen, “The Toyota Horde,” Small Wars Journal, 7 April 2010,
[xi] P.W. Singer, “The Rise of the Tactical General,” Armed Forces Journal, June 2009,
[xii] M.R.D Foot, “Conditions Making for Success and Failure of Denial and Deception: Democratic Regimes,” in Godson and Wirtz, 96.