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Military tent without camouflage

It’s not if they’re looking. It’s if you let them see you.

6 min read + Video

The world is going through a period of instability and conflict. Information gathered via surveillance is enabling brutal action. By mastering the art of deception, armed forces can seize back the tactical and strategic advantage.

Somewhere, a senior army General is getting ready for a new day. In the grey morning light, he finishes his cup of coffee, holsters his side arm and heads out the door to the car.

Everything seems normal.

For decades focusing on international operations, armed forces have allowed large gaps to open up in how to manage peer-on-peer surveillance, particularly in grey-zone situations. War may not be war and peace may not be peace.

While the General does not know it, he is the focus of a highly intrusive digital surveillance operation. An array of electronic ‘eyes’ is tracking his every move. Thermal, radar, and visual sensors relay real-time information to his adversary. Uninvited watchers are right there with him.

As the General arrives at his command post, sensors close in to determine his position, his conversations and his full electromagnetic signature. Long- range fires with global reach could engage in minutes.

Since the end of the Cold War, armed forces have grown accustomed to counter insurgent operations where they are able to define and restrict the theatre of engagement. While they have faced tough opponents on the ground, their dominance in the air, space, maritime and the electromagnetic domains has allowed them to set the game rules.

Unfortunately, this lack of symmetry has had a harmful effect upon the capabilities for to camouflage, conceal and decept (CCD). A lack of apparent consequences has led armies to become careless about managing their electromagnetic emissions and to neglect CCD at both a tactical and strategic level.

The perception of changed realities has failed to understand and prioritise CCD, demonstrated by the fact that armed forces have spent several orders of magnitude more on sensors to detect the enemy as they do on technologies to counter enemy sensors.

Sensor-enabled operations

Meanwhile powers not engaged in the counter insurgent operations have been fine-tuning their surveillance game, with offensive strategies built around the use of sensors.

There are capabilities developed that can facilitate the seize of territory and dominate the battle space without having a force-structure on the ground. A sensor enabled engagement just need “eyes” and fires. An educated guess is that a catastrophic 80 percent of the casualties if those capabilities where unleashed never would even see the enemy. Long-range sensor enabled effectors have been proved to have global reach.

Modern forces can observe, detect, prioritize and engage with long-range fires from any platform in any domain, against any other platform in any other domain.

The future starts at the same time you read this and development is exponential. Recent examples unveiling highly sophisticated thermal-surveillance drones and simple weaponised drones causing devastation on the battlefield is history. Today the sensor could be a real time satellite born SAR initiating a sub-marine launched cruise missile. Tomorrow the engagement cycle is an effector network where sensors and effectors communicate and coordinates just waiting for the man-in-the-loop to fire!

Commercial sensor and drone technologies are drives the revolution of sensor-enabled warfare capabilities. Also giving proliferation. For just a few hundred US dollars, anyone can buy a small, nimble drone and equip it with advanced visual and thermal sensors. For about one thousand dollars, high-resolution SAR data from across the planet can be purchased from the operators of commercial satellites. Areas measuring 10 by 15 kilometres can be seen in remarkable detail. Nowhere is beyond the reach of sensors, and never before have they been so affordable.


Taking back the initiative

So how can those capabilities be disrupted and challenged? Interestingly, while the problem is a modern one, one of the key answers lies in an ancient strategy: deception. There is no escape from an adversary’s eyes, but that does not mean that those eyes can’t be deceived.

By using sophisticated multispectral signature management and decoys, high-value assets can blend in with the background clutter. Intentions can be concealed and formations and positions camouflaged, disrupting enemy decision-making processes and taking back the initiative. Camouflage, concealment and deception provides the strategic and tactical advantages needed to win. In other words, the tide of the battle can be reversed by going back to the future, leveraging ancient doctrines supported by state-of-the art systems.

Deception is an Inter-domain capability on all levels, from the decision maker in the HQ to the platforms and soldiers. Assets and formations reliant on land to operate in, landing on, bunker on and sustain on. All military on doctrinal to the lowest tactical level can leverage on deception.

A platform crew, being able to see the enemy before they are detected equals the ability to stop time for some seconds. Initiative won, engagement won.

The primary goal of camouflage is to allow for military deployment, preparations and manoeuvres to take place unnoticed. Effective camouflage fools enemy sensors, giving them the false impression that no assets or troops are present and that an area is not worth further inspection. Decoys, meanwhile, are used to trick the enemy into making poor decisions and into undertaking useless actions – robbing them of the initiative.

Military history shows the key role decoys played World War II. Dummy tanks, aircraft, paratroopers and landing craft were used to direct the enemy’s attention away from the real battle strategy.

In order to be effective today, decoys need to display appropriate signatures and emissions in the bands being scanned by threat sensors. Deceptive camouflage and the use of false signatures can help disrupt decision-making processes, reducing the risk of the enemy taking a closer look. This helps to neutralise sensor-enabled engagement cycles.

Saab produce multispectral and RF-absorbing Barracuda camouflage systems and also designs advanced decoys representing everything from troops and tactical platforms through to high-value assets. We understand that effective deception relies on comprehensive signature analysis. Our engineers analyse the thermal, visual and radar signatures of assets that need to be hidden. They then devise technologies to help assets blend into the background. Our Barracuda range of camouflage solutions, including camouflage nets, soldiers systems and platform-integrated systems, provides the capabilities needed to address the threat posed by sensor-enabled fires.

In summary, deception is a state of mind that creates the prerequisites to defeat an adversary. Advanced deception technologies involving signature management and decoys can be a highly disruptive force. When used in combination with appropriate operational behaviour, passive sensors and intelligence, they can break the kill chain of a peer adversary.

Back to our General. What message do we have for him?

General, don’t be the target. If we can see you, anyone can. Protect yourself, your troops and your assets and stop those prying eyes from reading your intentions. Seize the strategic and tactical advantage.

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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.