Coherent, Credible, and Wrong

The best strategist is not the one who knows he must deceive the enemy,
but the one who knows how to do it.

Polish SciFi master Stanislaw Lem (1921 – 2006)

We often think of Soviet doctrine as tanks lined up tread to tread, rolling forward until either they conquer or fall. Mass makes might. While there is a lot of truth to the Soviet, and so presumably Russian, respect for mass, it may surprise you to learn that the Soviets had, and so presumably the Russians have, a well thought-out doctrine of deception called maskirovka. The BBC ran a nice piece on the subject a few days back, “How Russia outfoxes its enemies,” by Lucy Ash.

Boyd had great respect for deception, “an impression of events as they are not,” as he wrote on Patterns chart 115, “Essence of Maneuver Conflict.” A person who is being deceived is not confused. He knows what the situation is. His orientation is coherent; his mental model of the world fits all the facts. It’s just wrong. Boyd’s primary vehicle for using deception was the cheng / chi maneuver, which he borrowed from Sun Tzu and reformulated in more modern terms as the Nebenpunkte / Schwerpunkt concept (see charts 78, 114, and many others). Basically, the deceiver shapes the orientation of the victim to expect (cheng) certain actions to take place. Think all of the stuff the allies did to shape Hitler into expecting the D-Day attack across the Pas de Calais. The deceiver then springs something entirely unexpected, the chi, and tries to exploit the resulting shock and confusion.

A neat trick, but sometimes overlooked is Boyd’s even greater emphasis on ambiguity, “alternative or competing impressions of events as they may or may not be.” The “fog of war,” in other words, a concept that he originally took from Clausewitz.  To appreciate the distinction between the two, think of deception as like a bomb. When it goes off, that is, when the opponent springs the trap, you’ll be surprised and shocked. If the opponent can exploit before you recover, it can be decisive, although its effects often wear off before such objectives can be achieved.

On the other hand, ambiguity is, as Clausewitz noted, a climate, a state of the mind. It manifests as anxiety, unease, terror, and trauma. You construct your own demons to round out those provided by the opponent.  Some commanders — Genghis Khan and Nathan Bedford Forrest were two examples that Boyd often cited — raised ambiguity and its consort, terror, to such high art forms that they routinely defeated much larger forces. On Patterns 132, Boyd makes his case that the tactic of “operating inside the OODA loop” plays a vital role in both deception and ambiguity, so it isn’t an either-or sort of thing. Clearly each can reinforce the other. Perhaps a reader can comment on whether the Soviet / Russian concept of maskirovka includes what Boyd called “ambiguity.”

Can the Russians actually pull off effective deceptions? Apparently they had little difficulty against Ukraine, although that militarily weak country is a special case, with large Russian-speaking minorities and political turmoil from having just overthrown an elected government considered friendly to Moscow. Against NATO? Who cares?  We’re not going to fight them over anything of significance, nothing approaching Sun Tzu’s definition of war as “of vital importance to the state … the road to survival or ruin.”

It might be useful to consider our own policy regarding deception. From the BBC article:

So what sets Russia apart? Maj Gen Skip Davis [Chief of intelligence and operations at NATO HQ in Brussels] argues Western forces are sometimes economical with the truth but says they don’t tell outright lies: “We are talking about denial of information – in other words, not confirming facts – versus blatantly denying. Saying, ‘No that’s not us invading, that’s not our forces there, that’s someone else’s.'”

I don’t need to point out that General Davis’s denial that we use deception only adds to its effectiveness.

As strategists from Sun Tzu to Boyd have insisted, deception isn’t dishonorable or evil. It’s the only humane way to conduct military operations.  All of you are familiar with Sun Tzu’s maximum that “All warfare is based upon deception.” A logical consequence of this is that if it isn’t based upon deception, it isn’t war. It’s probably not even magnifique (speaking of the Crimea). More likely it’s just going to kill a lot of people on one or both sides and thus flunk one of Boyd’s tests of effective grand strategy because it will likely set the stage for future (unfavorable) conflict (Patterns 139).

One final thought. Planning and executing a successful deception is difficult. It requires considerable creativity, because we’re trying to deceive a clever opponent, after all, and at the operational and strategic levels, large numbers of people must be trained to execute and exploit before the opponent recognizes what we’re up to. Obviously we have to deceive the opponent about what all this training means. Unless you have a truly clueless opponent — always a dangerous assumption — it takes a force built around people, ideas, and hardware in that order.

4 thoughts on “Coherent, Credible, and Wrong

    • Fabius,

      Thanks. Quite true. As Boyd put it, you can’t deceive anyone. All you can do is take actions that you intend (hope) to produce surprise in the opposing commander. As with so much of maneuver warfare, this requires a lot of Fingerspitzengefühl.

      Everest (Rich) Riccioni, a retired USAF colonel and colleague of Boyd’s, once told me that the fog of war billows between the commander’s ears.

  1. Rich is also distinguished fighter pilot, who once went head to head with Boyd in a Rand
    Corp. Air combat simulator (in those days “supercomputer”) Rich has told me, it came
    to a draw, for which he was greatfull. Had he lost, he’d never have heard the end of it from
    Boyd, had Boyd lost, Rich would have lost a treasured friend, and collaborator.

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