A 'decoy arms race' is playing out in Ukraine, where deception is getting harder and troops have to treat fakes like they're real to fool the enemy

A 'decoy arms race' is playing out in Ukraine, where deception is getting harder and troops have to treat fakes like they're real to fool the enemy
Ukrainian soldiers conduct maintenance on a camouflaged tank on the Bakhmut frontline in Donetsk Oblast on July 24, 2023.Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
  • Ukraine and Russia have used fake tanks and weapons to deter or draw fire.
  • The tactic isn't new, but emerging technologies have made it easier to spot fakes.

Both Ukraine and Russia are fielding decoys on the battlefield, hoping to draw fire, waste enemy ammunition, and possibly expose enemy positions, but it's getting tougher. A "decoy arms race" is underway, a war expert told Insider, as technology pushes both sides to make their fakes appear as real as possible to fool the enemy.

Given the long history of fake tanks and weapons in war, "it's very consistent for Ukraine to sort of be having a decoy arms race of its own as the war progresses," George Barros, the geospatial-intelligence team lead and a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told Insider.

Last month, a video filmed by a drone surfaced online, apparently showing inflatable Russian T-72 tanks in a field. Prior to making the rounds on open-source information accounts on social media, the video was first posted on Telegram by a group identifying as part of Ukraine's 116th Mechanized Brigade. The group warned Ukrainian forces should "be careful" to "not spend the ammunition" unnecessarily firing at the decoys.

While the unit was able to distinguish between real tanks and the decoys, the Telegram warning suggests it may not have been immediately clear to all that the tanks weren't real.

After all, that's part of function of these decoys — to confuse and deceive the enemy, possibly prompting them to target and destroy the fake. That eats away at weapons stockpiles, burning ammunition or wasting one-way attack drones in a war that's already stressing the world's reserves and forcing allies to work double-time to meet demands. Ukrainian troops aren't the only ones possibly falling for decoys though.


A 'decoy arms race' is playing out in Ukraine, where deception is getting harder and troops have to treat fakes like they're real to fool the enemy
DJI Matrice 300 reconnaissance drones, bought in the frame of program 'The Army of Drones' are seen during test flights in the Kyiv region on August 2, 2022, prior to being sent to the front line.SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine has also deceived Russian forces with fake targets. Late last year, for instance, they began placing fake High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) made of wood on the battlefield, drawing Russian fire. A senior Ukrainian official told The Washington Post that Russia had wasted valuable Kalibr cruise missiles on the decoys as they attempted to destroy the US-provided rocket artillery systems. Decoy Ukrainian radar reflectors made from cut-up oil barrels, too, have drawn Russian fire.

And beyond the inflatable T-72 tanks seen in the video, Russia has made other fakes to trick Ukraine into wasting ammunition and potentially giving away their position. It's an element of a tactic known as maskirovka, or masking. Earlier this year, Ukraine reported sightings of Russian inflatable tanks deployed near Zaporizhzhia, but it noted some seemed deflated. Russian forces have also developed almost fake MiG-31 fighter jets, decoy S-300 missile systems, and even entire pop-up radar stations. It's something Russia has been doing for a long time, even before the war in Ukraine.

In general though, these tactics are nothing new. The use of decoys in war dates back thousands of years over plenty of conflicts. More modern examples, including crude wooden tanks used in World War I and World War II or dummy mobile Soviet-made Scud missile launchers in the Gulf War, speak to its enduring presence.

But evolutions in technology are making it harder to make convincing fakes.

Modern technology — such as surveillance drones with infrared and thermal imaging — means one side can more easily identify an ill-made decoy. An exposed tank without a heat signature is going to be a dead giveaway. A lack of tank tracks in the dirt is unusual, and it doesn't matter how convincing a decoy howitzer is if it's oddly sitting alone in a field rather than in a realistic firing position with at least basic defenses.

A 'decoy arms race' is playing out in Ukraine, where deception is getting harder and troops have to treat fakes like they're real to fool the enemy
Ukrainian soldiers fire with D-30 artillery at Russian positions in the direction of Klishchiivka as the Russia-Ukraine war continues in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on August 12, 2023.Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Both Ukraine and Russia have demonstrated the ability to build credible fake systems, but as they get better at recognizing each other's dummies, the new challenge is making smarter, more sophisticated decoys, treating them as if they're the real thing.

There are already examples of both sides attempting to do that. In the video of the fake T-72s, it looks like two of the inflatables are positioned near shrubbery and wrapped in camouflage materials, suggesting an extra level of preparation to make the decoys look a little more real, though experts have noted the Russian fakes were still inadequate.

One Ukrainian company producing high-quality fake howitzers, radar stations, and mortars told The Wall Street Journal passable replicas were no longer sufficient, and that decoy tanks, for example, needed to covered in nets and surrounded by dug-out trenches to give away an impression that it was real.

"This concept of increasingly sophisticated decoys being used to offset enemies' weapons systems," the so-called "decoy arms race," has a long history as well, Barros said. Throughout the Kosovo War in the late 1990s, Serbian forces placed sand cans and set fuel alight inside tanks to mimic heat signatures, tricking thermal scans.

With the increasingly prolific use of drone and sensor technology, Ukraine and Russia will both need to get smarter about how they deploy their decoys while taking a closer look at their enemies.