Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 8, Issue 2  /  

The Case for Deception in Operational Success

The Case for Deception in Operational Success The Case for Deception in Operational Success
SEALs, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
To cite this article: Anderson, Michael G., “The Case for Deception in Operational Success,” Military Strategy Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 2, fall 2022, pages 38-42.

In an era dominated by ever-increasing and rapid information saturation, deception in warfare is paradoxically more difficult to achieve and more critical to operational success. Often military deception is overlooked or outright discounted by many planners, especially western and commonly United States planners, relegated to the niche “specialists” or “experts”. Military deception is commonly developed in a compartmentalized process limiting its impact on the broader campaign planning, rather than a deliberate part and consideration of the entire planning effort often resulting from its perceived difficulty, its complexity, sensitive nature, but also from its degree of doctrinal emphasis, specifically in the case of the US military. Military deception’s role in history and theory is distinctly present throughout, however, the United States’ elements of operational art doctrine does not include it. Military deception is more limited and compartmentalized throughout United States doctrine to the detriment of future operational success, and by association perhaps its allies and partners as well. Military deception, is defined as actions executed to mislead opponent decision makers into taking specific actions or lack of action that contributes to the success of one’s own efforts, is a timeless aspect of warfare with varying degrees of reception in theories, and nuanced acceptance in doctrine.[i] Perhaps deception is in conflict with some foundational western cultural and moral connotations with deceit that disinclines its emphasis. While military deception is not only a key aspect of successful operations, but so integral as to deserve inclusion in operational art doctrinal precepts, where it is currently absent. The inclusion of military deception in operational art of the 21st Century is a natural evolution and should also include individuals receiving increased exposure to military deception precepts through direct education and training and the establishment of codified, specialized institutional military deception requirements for operational planning positions.

Deception in Military History

There is an inarguably long and rich history of deception in warfare. From the early records of military history, deception played an integral part in multiple successful operations, some of which it played a decisive part, in others a key supporting effort leading to victory. Early history records several examples, like the infamous, legendary Trojan horse which led to the Greek seizure of the seemingly impregnable fortress of Troy in classic literature, ending the decade-long ineffectual siege. As the story goes, the Greeks convinced the Trojans to bring a gift of a large wooden horse, unknowingly filled with select warriors, inside the city as an offering towards peace. Once inside the walls, the chosen Greek warriors were able to open the gates to the city and allow the hidden Greek forces to breach the city as the Trojans celebrated the false peace.[ii] Examples also exist in the shared Jewish Tanach and Christian Old Testament where deception and cunning were used to place the outnumbered Jewish warriors in positions of advantage.[iii] During the Seven Years War, known as the French and Indian War on the North American continent, deception allowed British General James Wolfe’s successful maneuver to draw out French General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm from his stout defenses at Quebec. In this manner, Wolfe achieved his decisive, though costly, battle of the Plains of Abraham. He achieved this by sailing his troops ships past the Quebec defenders to land north of the fortress city by having French-speaking sailors answer the defenders’ hails and critically playing on the defender’s anticipation of a French resupply flotilla. Once on the northern plains of the city, Wolfe effectively closed off the city and forced Montcalm to sally forth for a set-piece battle to British strengths. Prior to this, Wolfe had been unable to crack the deliberate defenses of Quebec and risked stymied defeat.[iv]

Military deception in warfare is not restricted to classical or early modern military history and is only growing in importance for ever-increasingly complex military operations. Several major examples of military deception in 20th Century military operations show that deception remains integral to military victory. During the Second World War contested amphibious operations stood apart as some of the most complex, risky, and decisive operations of the war. In two cases military deception played a major role in their successful execution. In support of the invasion of Sicily in 1943, British intelligence planted false information on a corpse and deliberately orchestrated it to fall into German possession. Operation Mincemeat played a large role in deceiving the Germans regarding the next Allied operation, allowing the invasion of Sicily to surprise the Germans who expected the next move to be an invasion of Corsica, Sardinia, or Greece.[v] Deception played a major role in the success of Operation Overlord and the landings in Normandy in 1944. Within the overall deception coordination within Plan Bodyguard, Operation Fortitude was a major deception effort. Fortitude was broken up into two focuses, Fortitude South towards France based out of Dover, England and Fortitude North towards Norway based out of Scotland. In the case of Operation Fortitude South the deception was with the fake First United States Army Group, the “Ghost Army”, led by American General George S. Patton. With a headquarters deception unit, this made-up army group produced fictitious radio traffic, displays, and falsified media coverage, including faux wedding announcements between American soldiers and local English and amateur sport team records from alleged unit teams. Through the military deception of a fake army across from the Pas-de-Calais, the German western front defenders remained fixed even as the invasion of Normandy unfolded, still anticipating the Patton’s army group assault. Providing the Germans exactly what they anticipated from location (Pas-de-Calais the shortest cross-channel distance and most direct path to Germany) to Allied leadership (the aggressive and successful Patton). Similarly, Fortitude North created a fictitious combined Anglo-Canadian army oriented towards Norway, likewise achieving the commitment of limited German army groups in defense of the occupied Scandinavian countries.[vi] In later wars, the Egyptians deliberate and extensive military deception prior to the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur War through releasing false poor equipment maintenance reports to the multiple exercises, which they used to move troops and lull Israel into complacency, allowing them to achieve fundamental surprise over the Israelis in the Sinai. Much like in the 1973 war, the US Coalition in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm achieved surprise against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with the United States Marine Corps amphibious demonstration in the Persian Gulf and the VII Corps deception efforts with the First Cavalry Division’s feint through the Wadi al-Batin covering the famous “left hook” through the desert into Kuwait.[vii]

In 21st Century conflict, Israel’s alleged military deception activities in the summer 2021 conflict with Hamas provides a cautionary example for the saturated information environment, as well as one that is not in a major, large-scale war. The Israeli Defense Force reportedly created a General Staff Deception Unit, and the international media allegations indicate they, in coordination with official Israeli military spokespersons, leveraged the media to portray that an Israeli ground assault had begun into the Gaza Strip. This was meant to trigger Hamas to react by uncovering their anti-tank teams early and massing their troops in underground tunnels previously identified by Israeli intelligence. Israel then conducted sustained strikes against the tunnels and the anti-tank teams moving in the open until two hours later the Israeli military released a corrected report that no Israeli forces had crossed the border, but rather air strikes and ground strikes had occurred into Gaza but only from the Israeli side with no ground forces having physically entered Gaza, as previously reported. The Israeli use of calling up reserves, massing along the border with Gaza, and conducting noisy positioning of vehicles and limited artillery strikes was directed towards reinforcing the Palestinian’s belief an invasion was imminent. Then, through social media announcements and the spokesperson comments, Hamas was led to believe the invasion had begun and reacted accordingly, opening them up to an effective Israeli surprise attack, damaging the Palestinian defense.[viii]

While the controversy over the reported ground invasion that never happened grew, the Israeli military claimed it was over a communication misunderstanding, while at the same time many analysts applauded the Israeli’s effective deception and surprise. Regardless of the truth, the credibility of the Israeli military public affairs apparatus was deliberately and aggressively questioned by the international media, revealing a cautionary warning of leveraging media through public affairs activities in support of modern military deception, even if it supports successful operational surprise.[ix] With this example, the information saturation that mass media with social media in real time offer provides both an effective venue for military deception, but also demands careful application. The alleged Israeli military’s manipulation of media to reinforce the already perceived expectations of Hamas of an imminent ground invasion could have been achieved without pulling in the official public affairs apparatus of the Israeli military, thereby preserving the military’s official spokesperson credibility while still deceiving the opponent through other methods of information operations. Likewise, the US military could leverage similar “tricks” through social media account postings, Tweets, and manufactured videos and posed pictures, using the venues known to be monitored and analyzed by the opponent, presenting them a picture they already expect to see before surprising them. This takes deliberate planning, preparation, and execution as part of the overall operation, and is not something stapled on at the end as an afterthought without adequate resources – including the correct authorities, time, people, equipment, and financing. Much as the nature of war is unchanging but its character evolves, the fundamentals of deception have not changed from the industrial age to the information age to the social media age, only the tools and methods by which to employ them.

Theorizing On Military Deception

Deception has played a large, timeless role in military theory as well. As far back as the classical Chinese military philosopher Sun-Tzu who mentions deception’s importance, “Warfare is the Way of deception. Thus although capable, display incapability to them. When committed to employing your forces, feign inactivity. When [your objective] is nearby, make it appear as if distant.”[x] However, in contrast to finding it in the Asian way of war, military deception received a lesser welcome from the classical western military philosopher, Carl von Clausewitz. In his seminal book, On War, Clausewitz denigrates the role of deception “cunning”, saying, “To prepare a sham action with sufficient thoroughness to impress an enemy requires a considerable expenditure of time and effort, and the costs increase with scale of the deception…. [A]nd consequently so-called strategic feints rarely have the desired effect.” Elsewhere Clausewitz writes, “The use of a trick or stratagem permits the intended victim to make his own mistakes, which, combined in a single result, suddenly change the nature of the situation before his very eyes” but makes sure to caveat this with, “It is itself a form of deceit… yet not deceit in the ordinary sense of the word, since no outright breach of faith is involved.”[xi] This idea found in a foundational western military theorist’s work, perhaps explains the lack of military deception’s high regard as that in other cultural military theories from a western cultural aversion to deception is in some way tainted by immorality or ungentlemanliness, as to be careful that “no outright breach of faith is involved”. While Clausewitz applauds surprise as an essential element (and indeed it is a principle of US joint operations), he is wary of deception (which is not a US joint principle of operations).

Even with this less than enthusiastic support for deception planning from Clausewitz without question deception plays a large role in 20th Century American John Boyd’s military theory with interrupting to deconstruct the opponent’s strategy and their observe, orient, decide, act (OODA) loop, thereby confusing, paralyzing, and disrupting the adversary’s decisions and actions.[xii] Also, deception fulfills a critical part in achieving Israeli theorist Zvi Lanier’s theory of fundamental or situational surprise over an adversary, another key factor of many successful military operations, exemplified throughout military history across cultures. Lanier defines fundamental surprise as when there is a mindset failure, things did not go according to plan – a failure of the imagination – leading to deeper questions beyond just a specific singular circumstance. Situational surprise is understood to be a singular event where surprise is caused by failure of processes, the signal was lost in the noise. With fundamental surprise, the signal does not even register within the noise because “it just is not possible”.[xiii] It is when one learns the mindset of their opponent through diligent study that they can then craft a deliberate, planned, resourced and executed deception to exploit fundamental surprise in their opponent, achieving operational success.

Deception in United States Army Doctrine and Practice

Although deception has a deep record in military history and theory, as enumerated above, it is lacking in foundational US military doctrine. In current US Army doctrine, deception is rarely seen in emphasis outside the information operations doctrine. Deception is absent in the principles of joint operations, principles of unified land operations, and, perhaps most importantly, in the elements of operational art.[xiv] In both common intermediate staff college curriculum and the advanced military studies programs for American staff officers, military deception is not directly instructed, and its emphasis, if at all, in wargames and planning exercises is individual-specific. This is not only a US military concern as well. There are even commentators on the British military’s atrophy in the art of military deception. This is notable as in the West, Britain always held a strong military deception reputation throughout history and deliberately incorporate deception into their planning process.[xv] With the information saturation of the current battlefield and the historic case for pivotal success from deception and its inclusion in theory, military deception’s place is growing in importance and benefit to 21st Century operational art planners more than ever before. This growth is exemplified in observations of current conflicts, such as the 2022 Russo-Ukraine War where the application of military deception is starkly illuminated and analyzed in assessments of combatants’ successful, or lack thereof, operations.

Beyond the institutional intellectual emphasis on military deception that elevating it within doctrine from the niche to the fundamental, there are additional steps that could be taken to improve deception in the US Army. Increasing educational exposure across staff courses and senior non-commissioned officer courses, expanding access to and material covered in current US military deception courses, and coding planning positions to require institutional military deception education and training for brigade and above units with battalion staff’s having it as an additional duty. First, the current US Army Deception Planners Course is an 80-hour course. This curriculum should be included as a week of instruction in all US Military staff college and course curriculums, preparing all future staff officers and non-commissioned officers for a base understanding of military deception. In the US Army this should also include the senior non-commissioned officer courses as well, such as the Battle Staff Course and Sergeants Major Academy. Secondly, if the fundamentals of military deception covered in the current military deception course is covered in staff schools, then the specialized course should expand in material, deeper into understanding the application and process of military deception. The current US Joint MILDEC Training Course at the Joint Forces Staff College is a two-week long course, possibly the services could expand theirs to even more align with rigor and detail of the Joint Forces course.[xvi] Additionally, these courses are limited in their cycles and attendance, both should be expanded to support and increased throughput and broadened exposure of military deception practices to the force. Lastly, to ensure military deception planner availability to commanders and staffs each brigade and higher headquarters should have their operational section planner positions coded for required attendance to these expanded military deception planner courses, and battalion staffs would have an operational planner with the additional duty as a military deception planner to facilitate coordination and essentially provide a gradual exposure to deception operations. This way, every staff is guaranteed to have planners trained and educated in deception practices and not fully rely on a small section of the planning staff, typically the information operations cell. Instead, all planners would be able to have a working knowledge of it with the information operations cell the specialized lead planners, while all staff officer and non-commissioned officer graduates having received basic fundamentals of deception in their curriculums.

Military deception is highly sought and emphasized in the military doctrine and theory of the US military’s primary adversaries. A prominent example of this is how the Russian Federation armed forces espouse and prize military deception, placing it among their foundational principles for successful operations, though it was arguably absent in the outbreak of hostilities on February 2022 in Ukraine, as opposed to other recent Russian military operations.[xvii] The military professionals stand to benefit from an increased emphasis and practice of the art of military deception as exemplified through military history, theory, and a further incorporation into the operational doctrine in the 21st Century with increased exposure to military deception across staff colleges, senior non-commissioned officer courses and expanded detailed military deception courses for required staff operational planners.

If Western militaries, particularly the United States, who generally are deception-averse seek to increase probability for operational success in future large-scale combat, then a shift in prioritizing planning, resourcing, and execution of military deception is warranted. A start for this is the elevation of deception from a niche doctrinal approach, to inclusion in the foundational principles and elements of doctrine. While the risks remain to faulty deception operations in military activities, the opportunities also grow from achieving surprise, indecision, and stagnation in opponents from successful military deception, and fortune favors the bold. It will require a fair allocation of resources in both training and educating the force appropriately but also in resourcing the military with the technology and assets to make deceptions believable. Both in resource allocation and in battlefield implementation it is a notable risk military leaders and civilian decision-makers must be willing to accept.


[i] Definition of military deception is paraphrased US Joint Staff definition found in US Department of Defense, Joint Staff Joint Publication (JP) 3-13.4, Military Deception (Washington, DC: Government Publishing Office, 2012) I-1.
[ii] Vergil, The Aeneid, trans. Patric Dickinson, (New York: Penguin Books, 1961), 28-46.
[iii] Judges 7:17-23 and Judges 20:29-45 (New International Version) for two examples.
[iv] Fred Anderson, Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766, (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), 353-362.
[v] Weaving the Tangled Web: Military Deception in Large-Scale Combat Operations, ed. Christopher M. Rein, (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Army University Press, 2018), 63, 66-68, 71-76.
[vi] Weaving the Tangled Web, 137-143, 146.
[vii] Weaving the Tangled Web, 175, 178-188 and Rick Atkinson, Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), 239-240, 332-334.
[viii] Josef Federman, “Israeli military accused of using media to trick Hamas”, ABC News, 15 May 2021, accessed 6 June 2022.
[ix] David M. Halbfinger, “A Press Corps Deceived, and the Gaza Invasion That Wasn’t”, The New York Times, 14 May 2021, updated 18 May 2021, accessed 6 June 2022.
[x] The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China, ed. Ralph D. Sawyer, (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 158.
[xi] Carl von Clausewitz, On War trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976), 202-203.
[xii] John R. Boyd, A Discourse on Winning and Losing ed. Dr. Grant T. Hammond, (Maxwell, AL: Air University Press, 2018), 232-233, 299.
[xiii] Zvi Lanir, Fundamental Surprises, (Ramat Aviv, Israel: University of Tel Aviv, 2010).
[xiv] US Department of the Army, Army Doctrine Publication (ADP) 3-0, Operations (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 31 July 2019), vi; US Department of Defense, Joint Staff Joint Publication (JP) 3-0, Joint Operations, Change 1 (Washington, DC: Government Publishing Office, 2018) I-2. Military Deception doctrine is found specifically in detail in Joint Publications and Army Doctrinal Series 3-13.
[xv] Dom Wiejak, “We’re Only Deceiving Ourselves”, Wavell Room, 12 May 2021.
[xvi] For US Army military deception planning courses, see, additionally the Information Operations various courses include military deception components, see, for the Joint Forces Staff College course, see
[xvii] Oscar Jonsson, The Russian Understanding of War: Blurring the Lines Between War and Peace, (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2019), 113-114.