The Art of Deception

The art of deception is as old as the art of war, the Trojan Horse is perhaps the most widely known.

Although the use of fraud in any action is detestable, yet in the combat of war it is praiseworthy and glorious. And a man who uses fraud to overcome his enemy is praised, just as much as he who overcomes his enemy by force.

Machiavelli 1531

A military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent, appear to be incompetent. Though effective, appear to be ineffective.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

There is a rich history of deception in all areas of conflict but in this post I will concentrate on deceiving the opposing air force from the 1940’s onwards.

Battle of Britain

Before the onset of WWII the RAF knew that its airfields would be a prime target for the Luftwaffe but resources were stretched thinly, constructing an extensive network of dummy airfields could not be a high priority when real ones were still in short supply. Nevertheless, the Air Ministry recognised that deception would be a vital element of an integrated defence.

Colonel Sir John Turner of the Royal Engineers was appointed as the head of the deception programme to coordinate the efforts of the three Air Commands. An early decision was to concentrate on creating night time dummy airfields using paraffin lamps as landing strip lights but this proved too dangerous to RAF aircraft and this was discontinued until more modern electrical devices could be used.

Dummy air stations for use during the day were called K Sites and night time use, Q Sites

The K sites were resource intensive and expensive to create and maintain, unfortunately they proved to be less than successful. Of the 60 sites created it was believed from captured Luftwaffe maps that only three of them were considered to be real, only a small number attracted any attacks. That said, they did attract some attacks which means that the bombs dropped did not find real targets.

The Q sites proved much more effective. Using only a fraction of the resources of a K Site they used electrically controlled lights and a pair of servicemen to deceive enemy bombers. By the end of 1941 the hundred or so Q Sites had attracted double the number of airstrikes their genuine partners had.

The K Sites needed a series of dummy aircraft so Colonel Turner asked the aircraft manufacturers to create a series of designs. In a move that would seem to echo the present the aircraft industry came in with an expensive and complicated proposal. Unburdened by a defence industrial strategy Colonel Turner, in a flash of genius, asked the film making industry to have a go. The film props industry made its living from creating illusions and created a series of dummy aircraft for a quarter of the price. Old and unserviceable aircraft were also deployed as decoys.

Fake ships and factories were constructed but again, these proved expensive and inefficient.

QF, QL and Starfish sites used fire and lighting to attract night bombers and were extremely effective in an age without night vision equipment and other advanced targeting technology.

All of the UK’s major cities had makeshift decoy sites created and these were refined into the Starfish site concept that used a variety of combustible materials and structures to simulate a night time incendiary attack, various colours and intensities were needed.

QL sites used lights, QF sites were small sites that used fire and Starfish sites were large sites used fire to simulate a burning town or city.

By the end of 1944 the QL and Starfish sites had attracted 730 attacks, do doubt saving countless lives.

Operation Bodyguard

In 1944 the Allied planners knew that key to the success of Operation Overlord was to deceive the Germans into thinking it would happen elsewhere and later than planned.

Operation Bodyguard consisted of a number of sub plans and was devised and managed by the London Controlling Section at the offices of the War Cabinet. Primarily a British operation it was an extraordinarily sophisticated and ambitious in both scope and scale. Churchill was always interested in deception and the LCS had considerable authority and autonomy.

The most significant part of Bodyguard was Operation Fortitude whose aims were to ensure the Germans did not reinforce Normandy and instead reinforced Norway and the Pas de Calais area.

Fortitude South and Operation Quicksilver, devised by Colonel David Strangeways (Montgomery’s deception officer) were to create a fictitious US Army Group, the famous FUSAG or First US Army Group under the command of the flamboyant General Patton.

Making extensive use of double agents, fake radio traffic and other means the visual element was perhaps less important but was still used.

Dummy buildings, vehicles, artillery and landing craft (big bobs and wet bobs) were created and allowed to be viewed by the odd German scout aircraft that was ‘allowed’ to penetrate the airspace of South East England.

ULTRA decrypts confirmed the effectiveness of the deception and it continued to be believed by the German High Command until several days after the D Day landings.


During the conflicts in the Balkans the Yugoslav forces knew that the might of NATO air power was ranged against them, they had, as everyone in the world had, seen the dramatic news video clips of precision guided munitions being dropped through windows and made their plans accordingly.

The air campaign also exposed serious flaws in all aspects of political and military command and control when operating in a coalition including the infamous refusal by the Dutch to approve the bombing of the Milosovic villa because it contained a Rembrandt painting.

Many lessons were learned during this conflict but one of the most shocking was the degree by which low technology, cunning and inventiveness could neutralise the very expensive and sophisticated air attack capabilities of modern NATO nations. Whilst the overall air campaign was a limited success it did expose many issues for correction and development.

Shock and awe, yes; that was what happened in the air colleges and staff headquarters of NATO nations!

Exploiting restrictive NATO rules of engagement and poor weather the opposing forces employed a wide variety of thermal, electronic and visual deception techniques

Taking a leaf out of the Colonel Turner playbook the Yugoslav Air Force placed old and unserviceable aircraft in location to draw fire.

In the field, Yugoslav forces used improvised decoy tanks, fake bridges and airfields. Gas fires were used to create false heat signatures and bonfires were used to create large volumes of laser obscuring smoke.


One might think that in the age of high resolution multi spectral sensors that the day of the decoy is over but as the cycle of measure and countermeasure continues the decoy industry has kept pace with sensor technology using variable radar reflecting coatings, heat and electromagnetic emitters to create effective facsimiles of a range of modern equipment, concentrating on high value and highly sought after targets like anti aircraft systems.

With the proliferation of precision guided munitions and the fact they are the preferred means of attacking both strategic and tactical targets the comparative cost between a blow up tank and for example a dual mode Brimstone is huge.

Decoys may also be used as range targets.

It is probably fair to say that the decoy industry is alive and well although given the air power of NATO is perhaps more developed in those nations that use Russian or Chinese equipment.

Have the Western nations neglected the arts of deception because of their overwhelming air superiority, is it a facet of warfare that we should pay more attention to given evolving and proliferating sensor and UAV technology.

When terrorists can access Google Earth and buy a thermal imaging UAV off the shelf are we in danger of forgetting that simple can sometime be more effective than complex.

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December 29, 2009 11:57 pm

Deception was always a big part of Soviet / Warsaw Pact strategy and tactics, perhaps more so than in western doctrine, and obviously deception is a major art if your a “terrorist” organization.

We are not completely useless at it though. All armies understand deception, using camo nets is deception at its most basic. I have even been on ships where we changed our lighting configuration at night, and changed the apparent shape of the upper deck (using panels of radar absorbent material) in order to slip past someone else while keeping our identity secret.

However, should we be better at it – yes possibly, and we must continue to teach our people how develop their own ‘cunning plans’ while being able to see around (or through) those of the bad guys.

December 30, 2009 10:55 am

Deception has its place, however, I would guess it never really had a place in our war plans since the second world war.
We were in effect set up to fight a defensive war against a technologically weaker opponent.

Since we could probably shoot down the majority of the Soviet recon air force, and our light tanks could quite effectively blind their advancing ground forces, what deception could we have used?

Are Stealth Aircraft and Stealth Submarines “Deception”?
Are covered trenches?
Is our loitering anti radiation missile?

It would be nice for a mass wave of Soviet bombers to bomb nothing but dummy airfields, but it would be nicer for them to get shot down on the way in