In August 2011, a US CH-47 Chinook helicopter began its descent in a remote corner of Afghanistan to insert elite Special Forces soldiers at an important objective. Unseen by the aircrew or US reconnaissance drones, a Taliban operative fired a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) at the landing Chinook aircraft, causing it to lose control and crash, killing all 38 service members on board.

This situation could be prevented through the use of creative tactical deception relying on UAVs. In this scenario, the Taliban operative—still unknown to US forces—remains hidden. He watches multiple helicopters overfly his position and start decelerating to land in areas near him, in numerous directions. A more vulnerable helicopter catches his eye as it attempts to land. With deadly accuracy, he fires his RPG and destroys it with a single rocket shot. Yet not a single life is lost. The enemy has only destroyed an unmanned, half-size variant of an actual Chinook helicopter.

This drone helicopter was one of twelve drone helicopters accompanying three manned helicopters, which successfully deployed the US soldiers at the desired objective. This is an example of a UAV, or drone, performing a physical deception role in combat by deceiving an adversary’s “eyes and ears” at an opportune time. Unfortunately, on the actual night in 2011 in Afghanistan, these types of deception drones had not been envisioned.

To date, the primary deceptive role of UAVs has been in electronic deception, such as deceiving the radar of an adversary’s integrated air defenses into believing the unmanned aircraft were manned attack aircraft during the opening of an air campaign. This was exemplified by the Israeli Air Force in 1982 as well as the United States Air Force in 1991. These tactics caused the adversary to expend surface-to-air missiles against deceiving drones. While electronic deception will continue to be an important role for UAVs in future conflicts, the maturation of UAV deception is warranted.

One aspect of deception for which modern UAVs have not been developed or used effectively is in the physical realm of deception. As described in the scenario above, this entails fooling the actual human “eyes and ears” of an adversary, rather than their electronic radar and tracking systems. UAVs can operate in hostile environments with minimal risk to personnel and can deceive and increase the “fog of war” against opponents of the US military with innovative and effective physical deception methods. Since 2001, the US has mostly faced opponents lacking any air defense capability beyond small arms and unguided rockets. Still, these “technologically-limited” opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan inflicted losses against many US aircraft.

Operations that require an enemy individual’s direct visual observation and orientation to perform, such as aiming a weapon by eyesight, are ideal targets for physical deception UAVs. In particular, two areas related to air combat missions will benefit. One is increasing the survival rate of combat aircraft, such as helicopters, that conduct low-altitude operations in the range of the enemy and are susceptible to low-technology weapons such as small arms. Another is increasing the probability of recovering downed aircrew in enemy controlled areas by enhancing the confusion and reaction of enemy individuals and their command structure.

UAVs can perform deception by fooling sensors operated by an adversary and, regardless of modern-day defenses, a UAV might still effectively penetrate them directly to a target. Likewise, UAVs could be used to disrupt the enemy’s reaction and understanding during tactical operations, thereby increasing the enemy’s “fog of war.” UAVs could also be used to jam fire-control radars and be employed as decoys emulating the radar, infrared, and radio signatures of fighter aircraft to increase manned aircraft survivability.

By developing UAVs for physical deception roles to shape an adversary’s ability to visually observe and orient to situations, the US military can better execute combat missions against future adversaries and decrease risk to air and ground combatants during mission execution by causing adversaries to expend resources, delay their reactions, or react incorrectly to tactical situations. This can ensure higher success rates for both air and ground combat missions by confusing adversaries and causing them to expend resources, delay their reactions, or react incorrectly.

This work was done by Phyllis Nixon for the Air University Air and Staff College. For more information, download the Technical Support Package below. (AFRL-0302)


This Brief includes a Technical Support Package (TSP).
Deceiving the Enemy: These Are the Drones You Are Looking For

(reference AFRL-0302) is currently available for download from the TSP library.

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This article first appeared in the May, 2021 issue of Aerospace & Defense Technology Magazine.

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