Thinking About Deception
Republished with the permission of the author.
5 August 2004
This brief paper discusses the most often asked questions about military deception.
What is Deception?
The answer to the first question is misleadingly simple. The official definition is:
It is misleading because it is narrowly drawn. To carry off a deception operation against a real enemy, one has to look further down the list of definitions, where you’ll find:
Beyond this nest of definitions one would find dozens of places where the word “deception” appears in the definitions of other terms or pointed to as an activity correlated with other activities such as “Defensive Information Operations” or “Command and Control Warfare.”
There is, however, a simple, action-oriented way to think about the what and the why of deception:
What point is there in deceiving an adversary if not to exploit the result? The object is not to fool the adversary, it is to exploit an advantage gained by inducing predictability in him, i.e., causing him to cooperate to our advantage.
The difference between the target and friendly intent is critical in terms of the distinction between deception and coercion. One could force changes in behavior on a target that the friendly side might exploit. This would not be deception, however, because the target would have no choice. It would have behaved as it did because of coercion and its knowledge of friendly intent, or lack of it, would have made little to no difference.
Concealment of the intent behind friendly actions is essential to concepts of deception because our manipulations would not achieve their objective if, by virtue of the other side’s knowledge of friendly intent, the target could refuse to act as we planned.
The relation between intelligence and deception is complex. Clearly the better our intelligence on the adversary’s intentions and capabilities the better we will understand how to induce the desired behavior in him. But it is also true that the more we rely on intelligence the greater the danger that we will ourselves be deceived. Bear this warning always in mind:
Geoffrey Barkas, the British officer in charge of many of the highly successful deceptions that beat Rommel in North Africa in 1942, had this insight after seeing the Germans capture a dummy oil port he had built and thinking that the Germans would never be fooled again after seeing what the British had been able to accomplish.
It is the search for information and the acting on it that creates a vulnerability. Without intelligence you could blunder, but you could not be deceived.
There are many reasons but they all come down to something Napoleon said:
Therefore one seeks every advantage possible.
What Napoleon was saying is what we mean here by saying that the impact of deception comes from one-sidedly reducing the level of uncertainty that afflicts all competitive relations. The deceptive techniques that are used, whether head fakes in basketball or option plays in football or honeynets in cyberspace are all intended to decrease one side’s—our side’s—level of uncertainty by getting our adversary to cooperate against his own interest.
The number of ways that can be accomplished is as varied as the people involved and the tools they use. Seeing how the available resources can be used for deceptive purposes requires imagination as much as anything else. It may be harder to see the analogies between the physical world and the cyber-world of networks and computer software, but the objective is the same whether what is involved is a feint with a brigade of tanks or a decoy network containing a file of false information. It is to get the adversary to respond in one way while we take advantage in another.
Designing and executing deception requires people, time, resources and effort. Resources are never sufficient to do all the things one might want to do. If combat outcomes are uncertain at best, why take risks for deception’s sake? Why not, simply overwhelm the enemy?
On one level the answer is simply that we do not have infinite resources and cannot always and everywhere overwhelm an adversary. On another level, however, commanders have an obligation to conserve resources both for humanitarian reasons but also because resources that may be abundant today may no longer be so tomorrow.
Sun Tzu, the great Chinese philosopher of war was very sensitive to this. He said, “All warfare is based on deception.” But many of his wise sayings praise the general who is able to accomplish missions at low cost in lives and treasure.
How Can You Measure Its Value?
Saving one’s own resources and causing the adversary to waste his seems a simple way to measure the value of deception. Setting up a honeypot would enable you to measure how long an adversary spent in one attempt to penetrate a network. But, of what value is that to the friendly side? What difference will X number of minutes of wasted adversary time make to an outcome desired by our side?
In the physical world it may be easier, at least, to conceptualize casualties not suffered, materiel not expended or bombs wasted on non-targets. But what is the cyberspace analog to these?
Perhaps hours of uninterrupted availability of networks. Hours of availability to friendly networks denied to an adversary? Hours of uninterrupted maintenance of rapid message dissemination? Number of dummy or doctored files downloaded by an adversary? All these may be worthwhile in particular circumstances. But how do these quantitative measures translate into qualitative successes?
Our preferred definition cited above puts exploitation of advantage at the center of deception and why we do it. It is well to waste an adversary’s time, but the question is, “What advantage do we enjoy as a result of the time gained?”
The impact of deception has to depend on whether the exploitation planned achieved the desired outcome. The extent to which the adversary behaved as we wished and the extent to which the advantage exploited achieved our aim, is the extent to which the deception was successful.
Risk of Failure
Deception may fail for many reasons along the chain of events that must occur from original idea to final outcome—just as every operation may fail for many reasons having to do with our forces or the adversary’s forces, the forces of nature or the laws of probability..
To list a few may be instructive:
Even a great deception success can have ambiguous results. The D-Day landings at Normandy in June 1944 are a case in point. The story of the deception operations preceding D-Day have been the subject of histories, movies, television documentaries and personal memoirs. Thousands of people labored over literally half the globe to plan and execute deceptions to divert German forces and prevent the Germans learning the exact day and place for the main landings—with apparent success.
But it is not clear that the success of those deceptions deserves the main credit for the success of the landings themselves. It can be argued—I would—that the single most critical decision leading to the success on 6 June 1944 was the decision to go ahead with the landings despite the bad weather. In addition to the weather, Allied commanders feared that a month-long delay to the next favorable window of tides, day- and moon-light would give the Germans time to penetrate the secret.
Because of their weather prediction the Germans assessed that the allies would not land, at least, for another several days. Their analysis of previous allied amphibious operations had given the Germans high confidence that they understood the allies’ criteria and their best weather prediction was that the criteria would not be met during the 6 June window.
But their weather prediction was wrong. It missed a two-day break in the weather that was coming from the northeast and was due to arrive at the Normandy area early on 6 June. Because of that gap in their weather intelligence the Germans were not at a the highest state of readiness that good weather would have dictated. The German commander, Rommel, was at home in Stuttgart for his wife’s birthday. Much of the senior German staff were away from their headquarters for a war game.
The German weather prediction was off because the US Coast Guard and Navy had uprooted German meteorological stations in Greenland and Iceland early in the war. At the time of the landings in June 1944 German weather reporting was confined to reporting from 2-3 U-boats in the North Atlantic. These were inadequate for accurate prediction of weather in western Europe. 5/
Does that mean the effort to deceive the Germans was wasted or unnecessary? By no means. The war required every effort and resource—if resources were available no possible effort to harm or deceive the enemy was refused. As Churchill said,
1 Barkas, G. The Camouflage Story. London: Cassell and Company Ltd;1952. Pp. 160-163.