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Posted on Nov 29, 2010 in Tactics101, War College

Tactics 101 055 – Military Deception

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland

In a battle even the most skillful soldiers find it difficult to estimate the enemy’s numbers, and as a rule, one is apt instinctively to exaggerate the number…. The art of the great captain has always been to make his troops appear very numerous to the enemy, and the enemy’s very few to his own.”



Within military deception, there are some basic components that drive planning, preparation, and execution. These are:


Deception Objective – This is what you want your enemy to do or not do at a specific time and/or location. Always attempt to articulate your objective as it relates to how it assists your forces. This is a good way to ensure that the deception efforts are geared to assisting in mission accomplishment.

Deception Target – This is the person or group of people you are directing your deception efforts upon. This person or persons must be the decision-makers on the battlefield. The decision of the target is critical. If you get this wrong, you are wasting your vital resources.

Deception Story – This is what you want the enemy to believe. This will subsequently cause the enemy to conduct an action or inaction which will assist you in achieving your overall mission.

Deception Plan – These are the actions you will execute to sell the overall deception story.

Deception Event – These are the indicators you want the enemy to see (and subsequently believe) in order to assist you in achieving your deception plan.


Unfortunately, much can go awry during the execution of military deception. Because of this, many times the only people we wind up deceiving are ourselves. The reasons for failure are many. Below we will list some of the more common ones.

  • Targeting the wrong people. If non-decision makers are the eventual targets of your deception; nothing will be achieved.
  • Not understanding the enemy intelligence capabilities. Over or underestimation of the enemy’s ability to collect and then analyze intelligence is a recipe for failure. This misread will inevitably lead to the enemy not buying your deception story.
  • Not understanding the enemy reaction. Sometimes you get what you do not bargain for. If you truly do not understand your enemy, he may react (or not react) in a manner you did not anticipate. This can easily cause you far more harm than good.
  • Time. In most all instances, it takes some time to plan, prepare, and execute a quality military deception effort. A unit who attempts to conduct deception on the cheap (time-wise) will not be successful.
  • Too sophisticated a plan. Many times, a sophisticated deception plan is just too complicated for a unit to pull off. Consequently, something falls apart and the enemy soon sees through it all.
  • Too simplistic a plan. Sometimes the KISS principle can back fire in military deception. Too simple a plan may not be enough to engage the enemy mentally.
  • Too ambitious. You have to know what is achievable in military deception. Those who try to go beyond that bar will normally not succeed.
  • Not enough centralized control. As we mentioned earlier, one of the principles of military deception is centralized planning and execution. When things become too decentralized, the chances of having a synchronized plan are greatly diminished.
  • Discovers what you are doing. As mentioned earlier in our discussion on feedback, a worthy opponent may very well determine you are attempting to deceive him. If he can conceal from you that he knows this; he can utilize this to his advantage.
  • Just pure bad luck! It is highly unfortunate, but luck even plays a role in warfighting. Consequently, no matter how expertly planned, prepared and executed your deception effort was; lady luck could cause it to fail. Sad, but true!

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