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The importance of deception in modern conflicts

11 min read + Video

With the world in a state of flux, it’s never been more important for armed forces to be able to deceive and confuse the enemy. While an explosion in sensor technology is presenting challenges, high-tech camouflage solutions can help you achieve a tactical edge.

Deceiving the enemy has been a crucial part of successful military campaigns since the earliest days of human combat.

Being able to divert an opponent’s attention – to make them overlook potential threats – provides armed forces with an invaluable strategic advantage. Just think of the Greek warriors who famously conquered their Trojan enemies by concealing soldiers in a wooden horse. Or of the use of dummy tanks and aircraft to fool aerial reconnaissance during World War II. If you can hide your presence and true intentions from the enemy long enough, chances are that you will find yourself in a position to deliver a truly devastating blow.

While deception has always been important, recent changes in the military and socio-political landscape have highlighted the need for Western countries to step up their deception game. The West’s adversaries are rolling out advanced networking, drone and sensor technologies, making it harder than ever for NATO and its global partners to keep their intentions – and armies – hidden.

A new approach to combat

A key turning point in years was the September 11 terror attacks on the United States and the subsequent war on terror.

Prior to 9/11, armed forces across the planet had been excitedly investigating the potential of a networked approach to combat. With Industry 4.0 revolutionising the industrial sector, military strategists began developing doctrines under which machine-to-machine communication, remote sensors and AI would revolutionise combat.

That changed to some degree when the US and its allies found their attention suddenly focused on conflicts in the Middle East. The asymmetrical form of combat meant they were engaged in meant western forces were dealing largely with IEDs and RPGs rather than sophisticated technologies, and they armed themselves accordingly. The focus was largely on having sufficient fire power in the field to neutralise the enemy.

However, countries not involved in the war on terror were able to increase their focus on new networked approaches to combat, involving remote sensors and indirect firing capabilities. The result has been a new, highly effective approach to combat that needs to be addressed.

Lessons from recent conflicts

A clear example of this came with the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war in 2016.

After entering Crimea, Russian forces rapidly overpowered their Ukrainian opponents using a sophisticated networked approach to the conflict. Drones equipped with a range of electromagnetic sensors were used in combination with satellite surveillance to direct the actions of a large number of remotely located firing capabilities. Russian forces were in this way able to devastate the Ukrainian army from afar without sustaining major losses or even needing to achieve conventional air dominance.

A similar example has played out in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict involving Armenia and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani forces have achieved major successes in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region using both weaponized and surveillance drones in combination with long-range fires, rather than sending in infantry units. A number of well-fortified Armenian positions have been destroyed resulting in the loss of destroyed hundreds of armoured vehicles and air defence systems. Again, this has been achieved without conventional air dominance.

The view from a drone camera

Sensors now widely available

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of this emerging trend is how easily it can now be replicated elsewhere. An explosion in civilian satellite, drone and sensor technology in recent years means that armed forces face an unprecedented level of scrutiny by the enemy, from the reaches of space right down to five metres above the ground.

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of this emerging trend is how easily it can now be replicated elsewhere. An explosion in civilian satellite, drone and sensor technology in recent years means that armed forces face an unprecedented level of scrutiny by the enemy, from the reaches of space right down to five metres above the ground.

For example, anyone with a credit card can now buy not only a sophisticated drone, but also advanced sensors to place upon it. Such a drone equipped with a camera and near-infrared detectors will deliver enhanced images of targets, while a thermal detector will relay back information on heat signatures.

Barracuda Academy
The view from a thermal camera

At the same time, commercial satellite services are now readily supplying customers with detailed images of any part of the planet’s surface within a few hours of them ordering. For established armies, this surveillance data can also be supplemented with images from high-altitude spy planes, military UAVs and military radars, creating an extraordinary multi-layered picture of the operations of their opponents.

The view from a satellite

Meanwhile, civilian drone technology has advanced at an extraordinary rate. Just a decade ago, military scientists were speculating on the potential use of synchronised drone swarms in combat sometime in the future. Before such plans could be fully realised by defence forces, civilian technology leapt ahead. The peace dove formed by a massive drone swarm at the Seoul Winter Olympics in 2018 and the floating globe formed at the recent Tokyo games demonstrate how far networked drone systems have come.

An increase in the number of remote firing platforms has also changed the equation. While in previous eras armies might have held their fire – and conserved their ammunition – until a potential threat was clearly identified, today there is less hesitancy. With countless remote fires in place, anything that might constitute a threat – even a simple decoy – can be immediately fired upon and neutralised. This has been demonstrated many times both in the Russo-Ukrainian and Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts.

The challenge to remain concealed

Collectively, these advances present a major challenge to the ability of armed forces to operate unobserved.

Deception remains one of the most important military capabilities.

This is significant because deception remains one of the most important military capabilities. The best equipped military unit manned with the finest soldiers is useless if it is discovered and wiped out before it can execute its mission. Effective concealment allows armies to approach within lethal distance of their enemies and strike offensively before they themselves are attacked. By seizing the initiative in this way, a military force can greatly increase its chance of victory.

Signature management

If sensor technology is improving and the number of sensors is exploding, then better forms of camouflage and deception are needed to maintain a tactical advantage.

In terms of camouflage, this work largely involves working on signature management.

Every soldier and every piece of military equipment on the planet’s surface is constantly interacting with radiation from within the electromagnetic spectrum. Light waves bouncing off the surface of an object form an image in our eyes or which can be captured by a camera, while reflected waves within the infrared band can be detected by dedicated sensors and films. Objects may generate, emit and absorb heat radiation in a way that can be detected by thermal imaging sensors, while radar waves are reflected off surfaces in distinctive patterns. Together this emitted, reflected and absorbed radiation creates an object’s electromagnetic signature. Enemy forces can use such signatures to remotely identify objects, assess their level of threat, and take action to neutralise them.

Signature management is the process of altering an object or individual’s signature in a way that delivers a military advantage. Most often this involves changing the signature in a way that helps an object to blend in with its environment so that it can’t be identified as a threat. Because of the wide range of sensors in use, modern signature management requires a ‘multispectral’ approach with changes made to object’s signature in several electromagnetic spectrums.

Because of the wide range of sensors in use, modern signature management requires a ‘multispectral’ approach with changes made to object’s signature in several electromagnetic spectrums.

In the visual part of the electromagnetic spectrum, signature management involves ensuring an object looks like its environment to the human eye or a regular camera. Not only should the colours of the object match those of its surrounds, the object should not appear to have any sharp edges or reflective surfaces that are out of place with the environment. If being used in woodland environment, an object should blend in with the woodland. Completely different colours are needed for, say, desert or arctic environments.

In the near-infrared spectrum, the object to be concealed should reflect light in a way that resembles that of the surrounding vegetation, rocks, sands and soils. To address thermal infrared detectors, an object to be concealed should absorb and emit heat radiation in a similar manner to the surrounding landscape. Finally, signature management for radar involves absorbing some of the radio waves emitted by radar arrays to create a smaller profile.

Advanced solutions

Saab is a world leader in signature management and concealment technologies. Our Barracuda range of camouflage solutions is providing modern armies with the technologies they need to address the threat posed the explosion in sensors and remote fires. Technologies including special pigments and matrixes allow us to product camouflage products that alter an object’s signature across multiple spectrums, concealing it from detection.

The flag ship of our Barracuda range is the Ultra-Lightweight Camouflage Screen (ULCAS). Arguably the most innovative camouflage technology on the market today, ULCAS is designed to camouflage deployed assets from groups of personnel to static vehicles and command posts. It delivers a high level of multispectral protection and features a 3D surface structure made up of two layers of textiles. At a visual level, patterns and colours are used to mimic the background of the surrounding terrain, while special pigments help the system to avoid detection by near infrared and short-wave infrared sensors. ULCAS’ thermal qualities help it to obstruct reconnaissance using thermal sensors, reducing the risk of detection in all climates. It also features radar properties not seen in any other camouflage net and protects against radar reconnaissance and homing missiles in the 1–100 GHz range.


The ULCAS system is lightweight, weighing just 250 grams per square metre and is designed for operation in terrains as diverse as tropical jungle, desert and forest. A garnish layer is quilted on a backing to give the net its non-snagging properties. This provides a long-life expectancy and facilitates rapid deployment and re-deployment.

Meanwhile, our 2D camouflage system for deployed assets, the Advanced Reversible Camouflage Screen or ARCAS, delivers highly affordable multispectral protection. It’s reversible design means two different camouflage patterns can be carried into the field in the one net, allowing teams to respond to rapidly changing environments.

Technology for all situations

Because vehicles on the move need to be concealed, we also provide an advanced Mobile Camouflage System (MCS). Suitable for most platforms, including tanks and armoured personnel carriers, it delivers multispectral protection and includes dust cloud protection.

Woodland MCS 360

A key option for MCS is the Cool Cam system which is designed to reduce heat stress on soldiers and equipment in hot operating environments. In conditions such as those found in deserts, daytime temperatures can exceed 50 degrees Celsius. A combination of insulation and solar radiation reflection is used to prevent the surface of vehicles heating up excessively. As well as reducing the internal temperature, the cooler exterior surface improves conditions for personnel working on and around the vehicle.

A variety of other options are available for improving and customising our Mobile Camouflage System. Multispectral Shading Umbrellas can be used to obstruct thermal and visual reconnaissance by enemies, including snipers, while still allowing for outward user observation. The Vehicle Load Carriage System offers an easy way of stowing extra materials, such as ammunition, water and personal equipment, on the vehicle’s exterior.

When a vehicle with MCS is placed under an advanced Barracuda camouflage net, maximum camouflage efficiency is achieved. The vehicle is all but invisible to sensors.

Meanwhile our personal net solutions provide a high degree of protection from detection for individuals. Designed for soldiers conducting missions in high-risk environments, personal nets are light, water repellent, non-snagging and easy to use. The nets can be tailored to the terrain, with the winter configuration offering unrivalled UV-properties. The unique coating pigments are developed to match the background reflection curve, challenging any night vision device. Meanwhile, the solution’s thermal properties reduce the thermal signature of a soldier by up to 70 percent.

Our Camosphere solution is a deployable camouflage-covered structure that can be used to conceal ground-based weapons systems and sensors. Weighting just 18 kilograms, the structure is designed for use with our RBS 70 NG air defence system and can be rapidly open and closed as required. It provides a 360-degree spherical see-through working space while delivering multispectral protection from 10 nm to 1 m wave lengths, and for UV to GHz radar frequencies.

So, while the sensor threat to Western armies is rapidly increasing, there are viable solutions.

By exploring and embracing the wide range of solutions that Saab provides for camouflage, armed forces can maintain and even expand their ability to deceive the enemy. This will ensure a tactical advantage no matter what socio-political changes may lay ahead.

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More about Niklas Ålund

Niklas Ålund

Director Strategy & Business Development

joined Saab´s Bussiness Unit Barracuda 2010. Responsible for Strategy, Doctrine generation and Business Development on our 20+ market and main B2B partners. Degrees in physics and military science. 20 years in the Swedish Army; leader on platoon to battalion level in Infantry Brigade Combat Team, Armored Brigade Combat Team and Combat Engineering. From 2004-2007 serving as the joint system manager for deception and signature management at the joint HQ.