May 29, 2024

Role of Deception in Warfare: A Theoretical Case Study

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By: Darshan Gajjar, Research Analyst, GSDN

Russian tank camouflaged in the 1943 Battle of Kursk: source Internet

“All warfare is based on deception.” ~ Sun Tzu

Wars and conflicts are intertwined with the growth of human civilization. From the Peloponnesian wars of ancient Greece to the War on Terror in modern times, wars have been part of human societies for centuries. The famous historical dictum “Only the dead have seen the end of war,” which is widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, elucidates the innate struggle for human existence that manifests in the form of wars and conflict.

While everyone will agree with the enduring nature of the war, not everyone may agree on how wars could be fought. For some, means are as important as ends in the battle, while for others, their ends justify their means. Throughout history, in every major battle, “deception” has been used as a tool to achieve victory; however, different military generals have different conceptions of using it. The aim of this piece is to dig deep into the historical underpinnings of the role of “deception” in warfare while simultaneously highlighting its relevance in modern warfare.

Ancient China and Deception

The ancient Chinese military general Sun Tzu is widely respected in strategic circles for his realist foresight and understanding of the nature of warfare. In his sentimental work “The Art of War,” he notes different ways by which a conqueror can defeat the enemy.

In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory,” he writes. Here, indirect methods may include an act of deceit or deception. The teachings of Sun Tzu are mostly end-oriented, which means that to him, the outcome of the battle was more important than the methods used to achieve such an outcome. Winning the war without fighting is one of the prime pillars of Sun Tzu’s military doctrine, and one should not shy away from employing all the possible means to achieve favourable outcomes.

Further, during the period of the Warring States (475 BC–221 BC), tactics and tools such as feigned retreats, spreading misinformation, sudden ambushes and propaganda, in addition to strategic deception, were widely used by emperors at that time.

Thucydides and Peloponnesian War

Thucydides, an ancient Athenian historian and military general, pens down in “The History of the Peloponnesian War” a series of battles and events in which various deceptive measures have been used to gain victory in the battles.

While Thucydides does not explicitly write about deception, his writings suggest that he viewed deception as a common and expected aspect of human behaviour, especially when it comes to warfare and politics. As a political realist, he highlights how states and leaders, driven by their own interests and survival instincts, would employ deception for the betterment of the results.

Fought between 431 BC and 405 BC, the Peloponnesian War was one of the foremost wars of human history. A series of battles, conflicts, and treaties formed the war, the end of which led to the eventual downfall of both Sparta and Athens in the subsequent years.

Throughout the war, Thucydides described instances where states made false promises and used deceptive diplomatic tactics to manipulate their adversaries. Athenian leaders, for example, would offer peace and talk about further negotiations while secretly preparing their armies for military action.

He also adds how states use propaganda and manipulation to influence public opinion in their favour, which can be helpful in maintaining high morale during the conflict.

Arthashastra of Kautilya

The ancient Indian political thinker and strategist Kautilya, in his magnum opus, the Arthashastra, provided tools by which the king could maintain his power. Kautilya, yet again another realist, believed in the paramountcy of the state. The existence of the state presupposes everything in the Kautilyan governance matrix.

Divided into 15 books and a total of 150 chapters, it contains 180 topics and around 380 verses that deal with various issues of statecraft, from economics to governance and from the security of the state to foreign policy.

He advised using the tactics of sama, dana, bheda, and danda (i.e., adopting a conciliatory attitude, placating with rewards and gifts, sowing dissension among enemies, and using force, respectively). Based on the strength of the enemy, the king should employ any of the four or a combination of them to achieve the desired victory.

Here too, deception was one of the key pillars of Kautilyan statecraft. “Miraculous results can be achieved by practising the methods of subversion,” he writes, highlighting the importance of covert operations in warfare. The Arthashastra further notes down a range of clandestine deceptive operations. It suggests using deception to test the integrity of ministers and military commanders.

During peacetime, Kautilya suggests, the king should make sure to indoctrinate the enemy’s population and ministers through subversion, paving the way for moral chaos when the war happens. Again, here too, spreading misinformation and propaganda is considered necessary in order to negate the psychological reasoning of the enemy.

Carl von Clausewitz and “On War”

The Prussian military general Carl von Clausewitz is perhaps one of the most widely studied military theorists and generals of all time. Even today his tactics and theories are being studied by military academies across the world.

In his seminal book, On War, Clausewitz considered war to have a moral force, thus denigrating the role of deception, considering it to be “cunning.” He writes in this context, “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 the scale of the deception… And consequently, so-called strategic feints rarely have the desired effect.

Clausewitz did not explicitly endorse or condemn deception in warfare; he recognised its presence and discussed its role within the larger framework of politico-military strategy.

The inherent uncertainties of any war were analysed by Clausewitz, and thus, according to him, deception can be useful in taking advantage of such uncertainties. Unlike Sun Tzu and Kautilya, Clausewitz talked about the limitations of using deceptive measures in warfare, citing operational and moral reasons.

Machiavelli and the Art of War

Any work on deception, be it military or statecraft, will be incomplete without mentioning Italian political thinker and diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli. Famous for his work, The Prince, Machiavelli is considered to have reached an epitome of realism through his writing. In his work “The Art of War”, which focuses on significant aspects of warfare and strategy, Machiavelli highlights the role of deception.

Machiavelli argued that deception was a crucial element of warfare and that a successful leader should be skilled in the art of deception to outmanoeuvre the enemy. He explained how surprise attacks and ambushes could lead to a decisive victory. Just like Kautilya, Machiavelli too believed in employing deception in diplomacy and negotiations. Skilful diplomacy can sow discord among enemies, which can be utilised to gain a victory.

Psychological warfare was another aspect of deception that Machiavelli suggested using. He explains through various case studies how creating fear and confusion in the enemy’s ranks could undermine their morale and decision-making, ultimately weakening their whole defence.

The World Wars

The twentieth century was devastated by two disastrous world wars, followed by the clandestine Cold War. It was during World War I and thereafter that we saw the doctrinal approach of using deception by means of propaganda and psychological warfare among other things.

For instance, during World War 1, both central and allied forces performed “false-flag operations,” in which the soldiers of the army disguised as enemy soldiers would cross the enemy lines and create disruption. Another such example is creating falsified trenches and giving misrepresented communications to the enemy.

Likewise, during World War II, we not only observed the use of deception for military purposes but also for political and ideological purposes. Hitler’s Third Reich and Stalin’s Soviet Union excessively exploited deception and propaganda for ideological and political outcomes.

In the initial phase of World War II, during the German invasion of France, the Wehrmacht, through Operation Fall Gelb (also known as Case Yellow), misled, through various deception techniques, about its intentions, which drew the attention of British forces away from the invasion that eventually resulted in the rapid fall of France.

Another of such famous examples is Operation Fortitude in 1944, the goal of which was to make German military leadership believe that the main Allied invasion of Europe will occur towards Norway and not at Normandy, paving the way for the D-Day.

Deception and Modern Warfare

With the advent of information and the digital age, the battlefield has transcended beyond conventional realms. Every person using a smartphone and the internet is a potential target of misinformation and deceptive actions by the adversary.

The widespread use of social media further augmented the possibility of waging psychological and cognitive warfare. Countries around the world are exploring ways to operationalize deceptive measures through a doctrinal approach. China’s “Unrestricted Warfare” and three warfares strategy, Russia’s “New Generational Warfare”, along with its famous Gerasimov Doctrine, propounded by General Valery Gerasimov, that talks about combining military, information, economic, technological, diplomatic, cultural and other tactics for the purpose of achieving strategic and kinetic goals, are a few such examples.

As we have seen throughout this piece, deception is an inalienable part of the spectrum of warfare, and it will be for the foreseeable future. With the rise of disruptive military technologies, the use of such measures will further see advancements in the non-kinetic measures of warfare that can be leveraged by developing offensive and defensive capabilities against such threats.


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Sumedh Desai
Sumedh Desai
7 months ago

Wow. Just the Historical explanation forced me to re-think a lot about warfare. Well done Darshan.

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