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Surprise and deception in war (Carl von Clausewitz expanded)

Posted by Picard578 on September 17, 2018

This is an expansion of Chapters 9 (Surprise) and 10 (Deception) of Clausewitz’s Book 3 of “On War”.

3.9. Surprise

Surprise is a key factor in war, for without it there is little possibility of achieving superiority at the key point. Other than being a tool for superiority, it is also useful by itself due to its psychological impact. Successful surprise causes confusion and breakdown of the opponent’s command and psychological structures. Surprise itself can be tactical, operational, strategic, political or even grand strategic, but regardless of the level it is based on two key factors: speed and secrecy. Both require great energy and serious character. While in theory surprise makes it easy to achieve decisive successes, in practice there are always factors such as friction and chance which may reduce its impact.

Surprise is much easier to achieve in ground combat tactical scenario due to time and space being limited. Naval and especially space combat offers much more limited capacity for surprise as there is no real way to hide: surprise there will be operational and strategic, while tactical surprise is much harder to achieve (but still not impossible). Yet compared to tactical scenario, strategic surprise is much more difficult as preparations last long time and are massive in scope, making them nearly impossible to hide, and still difficult to mislead the enemy as to their purpose. But difficulty is connected to effectiveness: strategic surprise is much more difficult, but when achieved it is also much more effective.

Surprise alone does not produce success. It has to be specifically aimed and achieved in favourable circumstances. Strategic surprise particularly requires a good deal of luck and favourable circumstances, precisely because potential success is so great. Surprise itself much be aimed correctly and achieved at specific points; otherwise it merely offers the opponent an opportunity to use it for a counterattack. This of course assumes that the surprised opponent keeps the presence of the mind and the spirit, which is by no means certain, especially since surprise has the effect of weakening the unity of organization and command.

In order to keep surprise one must keep moving. A side that relies on surprise and mobility, in particular, must not allow itself to become bogged down in static siege warfare. This also applies to mental-strategic side of affairs, as mobile strategic game can prevent the enemy from figuring out one’s own true goals.

3.10. Deception and psychological warfare

Deception supposes hidden intent, and is therefore different from negotiations and force. Unlike fraud or a trick, it does not involve directly breaking the word; enemy misleads himself. Deception is crucial in strategy, especially since it is a basis of surprise. Deception in strategy is by nature of things both significant and comparatively long-lasting, but also difficult and resource-intensive. It is thus also risky, as forces utilized for strategic deception may prove the “missing nail” elsewhere while success of deceptive measures is by no means certain. Where successfuly used, it can prove crucial, but often simple ambiguity of intent serves the purpose well enough and at far less risk. However, the weaker one side is compared to the enemy, the more beneficial deception becomes, simply because other options are that more constrained. Deception need not utilize physical assets, and when it does utilize physical assets it need not utilize military assets. Therefore, deception should be used carefully, but also aggressively and extensively.

Deceptive measures can include concealment, imitation (decoys), maneuvers, denial and disinformation. Aims can be to mislead the enemy with regards to the size, composition, location and movement of forces; nature, extent and the goals of tactical, strategic or political effort; nature, location and importance of various resources, support or logistical structures, mechanisms or operations; vulnerability or defensibility of possible targets. This misleading can be then used to prevent the enemy from taking correct course of action; to induce the enemy to take self-damaging course of action; to prevent the enemy from threatening tactically or strategically important resources; to damage enemy’s political stability and international alliances; to induce additional friction into enemy’s military (tactical, strategic), diplomatic and political decision making (misinformation, mistrust, internal conflicts). It can also be used for positive purposes, utilizing strategic, political and diplomatic means to affect opinion of friendly, hostile and especially neutral parties in order to facilitate tactical, strategic and grand strategic (national, international) goals. Whatever the scale, nature and the purpose, successful deception significantly increases the effect of available resources, acting as “force multiplier”.

To achieve deception, all troop operations must be accomplished with greatest concealment and speed. This often requires distributing the forces into small groups, thus requiring decentralization of command. Concealment is attained by confusing the enemy with movements, camouflage, use of terrain, speed, use of weather, and secrecy. Any concentration of forces must be either concealed, or created at the very last moment; forces must be mobile and maneuverable; enemy must be misled, and own forces screened with smoke and technical deception. Surprise thus achieved can be tactical, operational, and rarely strategic.

Strategic deception is carried out at national and theater levels to mislead the enemy as to political and military capabilities, intentions and timing of actions. Since war is but an extension of politics, strategic deception includes military, political, economic and diplomatic measures. The goal of deception is one one side surprise as an immediate goal; but overall goal must be to confuse and eventually control the enemy, to influence his inner thought and decision processes in a manner that would be complementary (beneficial) to our own goals, or at least significantly reduce resistance to them.

Deception has to be utilized at all levels – grand strategic (political, diplomatic, economic), strategic, logistical, operational, tactical and individual / physical. It includes both active and passive measures. Since war is an extension of politics by other means, deception has to have continuity with political thought and behaviour before the war, and has to be used in politics first if it is to work. Only once political-diplomatic deception had gained foothold can other levels of deception be initiated. Deceptive measures are concealment, imitation, simulation, disinformation and demonstration.

There are many examples of deceptive measures in practice. Concealment (camouflage) includes smoke screens, nets, emissions control. It can be a military depot or unit hidden by camouflage netting, or building tanks in an automobile factory. Imitation (mimicry) includes decoys and dummies. It can include dummy tanks with radar reflectors, or warship modified with external hull plating to look like a transport ship. Simulation includes decoys that simulate normal behaviour of things being imitated – e.g. dummy artillery battery complete with noise and smoke, or warship mimicing a transport being equipped with functional cargo bay and used to actually transport goods. Disinformation includes manipulation of information – false public(ity) statements, false information given to journalists, inaccurate maps, false orders, cyber attacks. Activities which include disinformation by nature are “yellow” journalism, public relations and politics; thus any disinformation coming from these quarters may well pass “under the radar” even if discovered to be false. Demonstrative maneuvers (feints) include attacks away from the main routes, attacks that initially move towards the targets different from those actually being attacked. False radio communications can, depending on nature, be either simulation (if mere presence of communications is important) or disinformation (if information contained within is important).

Special operations forces, proxy forces, civil media and cyber capabilities are used to influence actors, disturb communication and destabilize key regions. Enemy leaders and areas targeted should be brought to a state of confusion and despair in whole society in order to, with smaller state, bring about cooperation with Laigin goals. Reflexive control utilizes cultural and psychological characteristics of the populace to alter perceptions of populace as a whole and leadership in particular, using mechanisms based on history, culture, social conditions and mentality to deceive, tempt, intimidate or disinform. Mechanisms of reflexive control are deception, deterrence (perception of superiority), distraction, division (conflicting coalition interests), exhaustion (forcing useless operations), overload (inducing large amounts of conflicting information), pacification (making the enemy more passive by reducing apparent threat level of operations), paralysis (creating the perception of threat to a vital spot), pressure (discrediting enemy political leadership), provocation (forcing the enemy in taking hasty or self-damaging action), suggestion (offering the information that affects the enemy).

SOF are used to destroy key infrastructure in preparation to the attack, carry out and support unconventional, information, psychological and cyber operations. They can be used to support and organize riots and revolts in enemy areas, particularly areas with large minorities or where majority is culturally and/or biologically is distinct from the group which politically rules the area (as is the case with occupied/conquered territories). Multicultural states and entitities are in particular vulnerable to such activities, especially when central or supranational governments takes it for its right to interfere into internal workings of member states or local government. Cyber attacks should be carried out simultaneously against government, financial, economic, news and military networks, in order to acquire and/or delete data, and deny usage of communications networks both within the country as well as connections to external entities. DDOS attacks should be carried out right before any physical actions in order to hamper and disrupt ability of enemy to respond to the incursion. Media campaign should be used to gain support, aimed likewise at internal publics, international community and populace in the attacked area. Any dirty acts of the enemy should be brought to fore, such as violating sovereignity of other countries, or of agreements.

Mobility is important in deception, as it allows making location and direction of forces, and thus estimating their goals and objectives, much harder. If troops can mass at moment’s notice and deploy across great distances, their objectives become much harder to decipher. Deception itself is an important part of psychological warfare and warfare in general, as it immobilizes enemy’s psyche. Every action, tactical, operational and strategic, should be considered through its impact on enemy’s morale, with aim of psychologically incapacitating the adversary.

Deception has to be coordinated over many areas – land, air, space, cyberspace, politics – so as to prevent a failure in one area from unveiling the whole deception campaign. It should also be aware of the fact that it is easier to convince an adversary to hold onto a preexisting belief than to convince him of a new one. Therefore, enemy’s most strongly held beliefs should be identified and then utilized for our own goals (anyone believeing their political/military doctrine to be absolute and/or the best is easily misled) – reinforcing enemy’s beliefs while planning an operation that subverts them. Likewise, one should identify one’s own patterns of behaviour, tells and tendencies in order to figure out what the enemy will expect, and then, by varying his plans, catch the opponent off guard. If possible, enemy should be left to deceive himself – “never interrupt an enemy who is making a mistake” is just as true in psychological warfare as it is anywhere else.

In the end, it must be understood that psychological warfare has no beginning and no end – as war is but an extension of politics, psychological warfare and, more importantly, defense against such, has to be carried out full-time. Irregular warfare in general, and psychological warfare in particular, is not a campaign – it is a way of life. There can be no desire for quick resolution (indeed, quick resolution of any kind of conflict should be treated as a gift of Heaven – good if it happens, if not, who cares), or, in case of psychological warfare, resolution at all.


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