Intelligence: Blowing Up Fakes


April 17, 2010:  While the Russian armed forces has not been able to buy many real tanks or warplanes in the last two decades, they still buy fake ones. Russian firm Rusbal designs and produces inflatable tanks and aircraft that are real enough looking that they can deceive analysts who scrutinize aerial photographs. Actually, Russia had lots of these in storage, but now that they are buying more tanks and aircraft, they are replenishing their stock of fakes as well.

All this goes back to World War II era, when dummy tanks and trucks were made of wood and cloth. But these were fragile and difficult to set up. Soon came the rubber, inflatable decoy. These were much lighter, easier to set up and could be easily moved about once deflated and packed. In addition, a special trailer was built that created realistic marks on the ground showing characteristic tank "track" marks. The trailer would be towed to where each rubber tank was to be set up. With that, the enemy photo analysts would be convinced that the rubber tank was real, for there behind it were the characteristic marks on the ground that only a heavy tank would leave behind it. The military advantages of this deception were substantial. If the enemy recon aircraft spotted hundreds of tanks, enemy plans would have to be changed to deal with this threat.

The Allies used the rubber tank ploy against the Germans many times and as a result, the Nazis always overestimated the number (already substantial) of tanks the Allies had. The Germans could have been a lot more aggressive against the Western Allies were it not for the rubber tanks. The presence of these "additional" tanks forces the Germans to hold back large numbers of their own armored vehicles as a reserve for when the Allies sent the rubber tanks into combat.

Of course, the rubber tanks never saw combat (aside from being shot up by German aircraft a few times) and the German armored units being held in reserve were often pounded by Allied aircraft before the panzers ever got to shoot at Allied troops. Many an Allied soldier in 1944 and 1945 owed his life to rubber tanks, and most were never aware of it. For example, in preparation for the final Allied offensive in Italy in 1945, an entire dummy armored division was assembled in the rear of the 92nd Infantry Division (a mostly black outfit with a Japanese-American regiment attached), convincing the Germans that the blow was to come on the west coast, rather than in the center. Like any good deception, the use of the rubber tanks was kept secret as much as possible.

The rubber tanks are still in use. In the late 1980s the U.S. Army developed a decoy version of the M 1 Abrams tank. It costs only $3,300 and weighed about 50 pounds. When disassembled the dummy tank is about the size of a duffel bag, while its portable generator is about the size of a small laser printer. When erected, which can be accomplished by two men in a few minutes, the decoy not only looks like a real M-1 (at least from the front), but also simulates its heat signature, to fool infra red detectors. What's more, it can take several hits and remain standing, giving the illusion that you missed, or that there are more enemy tanks around than you thought. 

While rubber aircraft were not a big item during World War II (tanks are easier to build and inflate to the right shape), they are today. And with the high speed of modern combat, attacking bombers often don't notice the peculiar effect their bombs and missiles are having on the aircraft they are hitting on an enemy airfield. During these attacks, the parked aircraft may be fake, but the anti-aircraft fire isn't. While the aircraft lost on the ground are cheap imitations, the aircraft shot down are not. Rubber aircraft, then, can be quite lethal. Sort of like cheap bait.






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