Operation Desert Deception

The Coalition - with the primary use of Army VII Corps, XVIII Airborne Corps and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Unit - executed a wide scale deception of the Iraqi army.

Not only did elements of the 3 forces build a fake camp (FOB Weasel) near the planned phony invasion area South East Kuwait at Al Wafrah, we also setup decoys such as M1 Abrams, cargo vehicles, helicopters with fiberglass rotors, cammo netting, Humvees and fuel bladders using plywood and inflatable materials as well as road flares to provide heat signatures. Smoke generators and loudspeakers were used to simulate engine exhaust and noise.

Soldiers used radios operated by computers to create radio traffic sending fake messages between fake headquarters.

Deception in Operations DESERT SHIELD / DESERT STORM

MSG Richard Steele

United States Army Sergeants Major Academy

Class #58


"Deception is an attempt to purposefully manipulate an adversary’s perceptions in order to gain a competitive edge (Handel, 1989). The Allied forces were successful in deceiving the Iraqis of their true intentions through a calculated deception campaign that led to the mis-allocation of many Iraqi divisions and ultimately paved the way to an allied victory. The use of deception in this war greatly reduced the duration of the ground campaign and coalition casualties.

Deception in Operations DESERT SHIELD / DESERT STORM

Even though the U.S. technological superiority would have resulted in an ultimate defeat of the Iraqi army, the use of deception during the operation expedited our victory while preserving lives. Military leaders, from as early as the Trojan War, have used deception to achieve tactical and strategic surprise. The importance of surprise has increased with technological advances that increase the tempo of war and make effective deception more difficult to achieve (Mattox, n.d.). The Allied coalition displayed a mastery of deception enabling them to affect the Iraqi order of battle. Through calculated deception operations, the Iraqi leaders displaced their forces to defend areas that were irrelevant to the allied operational plan. The Iraqi miscalculations allowed allied forces to move rapidly around the Iraqi defenses and achieve their goals with minimal casualties. Without the use of deception the ultimate goals would have been met, but it could be argued that the increased concentration of Iraqi forces in key areas would have prolonged the war and increased coalition casualties.

Deception Plan

During the build up of forces in Saudi Arabia the Russian trained Iraqi officers could see the most probable course of action was to march around the open Iraqi western flank (Dunnigan & Bay, 1992). Iraqi combat forces outnumbered Coalition combat troops by a 2:1 ratio, and the Iraqi command was moving more units onto the Kuwait-Saudi border to the west of their dug-in infantry (Dunnigan & Bay, 1992). The United States placed a high priority on deception operations in order to deceive Iraq. Their purpose was to convince the Iraqis that the main attack would be directly into Kuwait and a supporting effort would come from the sea in the form of an amphibious assault (Parker, 1991). The coalition planners focused on two main geographical areas to achieve this intent.

Wadi al Batin

CINCCENT’s primary objective was to influence the Iraqi command to believe they would attempt an Iranian style frontal assault supported by artillery in the Wadi al Batin area (Dunnigan & Bay, 1992). The Iraqis saw this area as a prime approach corridor for a coalition advance. The 1st Calvary Division received the mission to exploit this perception by conducting combined signal and ground deception operations (Dunnigan & Bay, 1992). The 1st Calvary Division immediately started generating bulk radio communications in an attempt to appear as several divisions preparing to advance (Dunnigan & Bay, 1992). Iraqi radio intercept personnel picked up these transmissions and believed, until it was too late, that the U.S. was not planning on pushing through southern Iraq (Dunnigan & Bay, 1992). 1st Calvary used two brigades to recon and then assault the Iraqi lines (Dunnigan & Bay, 1992). Their aggressive frontal raids on Iraqi positions, supported by artillery and rotary wing attack aircraft, achieved the desired results. The Marines were simultaneously conducting similar operations to the east of Wadi al Batin with similar results (Dunnigan & Bay, 1992). These actions resulted in the movement of Iraqi mechanized and armored divisions to the south, instead of the west, to meet the perceived main coalition effort at Wadi al Batin (Dunnigan & Bay, 1992).

Persian Gulf

The second focus area for military planners was to deceive the Iraqi forces into believing the coalition would attempt a Normandy style amphibious assault in Kuwait. Marine beach landing exercises in Oman reinforced Iraqi perceptions that the Kuwaiti beaches must be defended (Dunnigan & Bay, 1992). Parker (1991) asserts that by positioning a Marine Expeditionary Brigade in the Persian Gulf, Iraqi commanders formed a false impression. This assumption ultimately forced four Iraqi divisions to sit on the beach and out of the battle. Deception 5 Dunnigan and Bay (1992) reinforce Parker’s research by stating that the coastal exercises in Oman caused the Iraqis to perceive an attack into the teeth of their defenses.


The operational and tactical deception plans led to the overwhelming success of Schwarzkopf’s “Hail Mary play” (Dunnigan & Bay, 1992). The Iraqi defenses were completely dominated due to the achievement of surprise and the overwhelming tempo of the coalition advance (Dunnigan & Bay, 1992). Our use of deception taught Saddam a valuable tactical lesson; if you attempt to defend everywhere you actually defend nowhere (Parker, 1991). The miscalculations of Iraqi commanders allowed for the quick seizure of Iraqi munitions stockpiles and artillery preventing their ability to use chemical munitions (Dunnigan & Bay, 1992). Parker (1991) suggests the factors of surprise, secrecy, and deception were the key elements to the ultimate success of Operation DESERT STORM.

Need for Deception

I would argue that although deception played a key role in the expeditious victory it was not a necessary contributor to success. The psychological effects of the extended air campaign greatly affected the capabilities of Iraqi ground units, setting up optimum conditions for the ground invasion (Dunnigan & Bay, 1992). Artillery barrages during this preparation increased the physical and psychological toll on Iraqi units allowing successful direct frontal assaults on Iraqi positions in Wadi al Batin (Dunnigan & Bay, 1992). The 1st Calvary Division and Marine units experienced limited losses while inflicting high numbers of casualties upon the Iraqi forces and taking over 1000 prisoners prior to the official start of the ground campaign (Dunnigan & Bay, 1992). These initial actions resulted in 14 of 42 Iraqi divisions being reduced to less than Deception 6 50% strength. Another 11divisions were only at 50%-75% effectiveness (Dunnigan & Bay, 1992).


Military leaders have used deception throughout our recorded history to provide a tactical advantage. Its effective use during Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM paved the way to an expeditious allied victory. The ability of coalition planners to analyze the enemy’s perceptions and capitalize upon their assumptions resulted in a misallocation of resources that could be easily overwhelmed. The lack of casualties and limited duration of combat operations are two direct results of the effective implementation of the deception plan."

- MSG Richard Steele


Dunnigan, J.F., & Bay, A. (1992). From Shield to Storm. New York: William Morrow.

Handel, M.I. (1989). War, Strategy, and Intelligence. London, England: Rutledge.

Mattox, J.M. (n.d.). The Moral Status of Military Deception. Retrieved Oct 20, 2007, from http://www.usafa.edu/isme/JSCOPE00/Mattox00.html.

Parker, R.R. (1991). Deception – The Missing Tool. Retrieved Oct 20, 2007, from http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/1991/PRR.htm.

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