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Deception Is Key to Chinese Military Strategies

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Deception Is Key to Chinese Military Strategies

Despite the long tradition of valuing deception by Chinese military leaders, few studies on Chinese military power touch on the issue.

Deception Is Key to Chinese Military Strategies
Credit: DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released

The role of deception in military operations has long been valued by Chinese military leaders and strategists. Despite this long tradition, few studies on Chinese military power touch on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s use of deception. China regards deception as a key component of national security policy and military planning, and PLA leaders continue to emphasize the widespread use of deception. This is particularly evident at the tactical level, where the PLA actively employs a range of deception measures. While most of the PLA’s deception practices are hidden from view, Chinese military and civilian media sources do provide some insight into how the PLA practices military deception.


One of the primary methods of battlefield deception for PLA ground forces is the use of decoy targets. A decoy, sometimes referred to as a “dummy,” is defined by the U.S. Army as, “an imitation in any sense of a person, object, or phenomenon that is intended to deceive enemy surveillance devices or mislead enemy evaluation.” Decoys have long been used in warfare and have proven their effectiveness in modern combat. They support a wide range of functions on the battlefield for both defense and offense.

A primary function of decoys is to enhance the survivability of friendly troops by confusing the enemy. Used effectively, decoys can draw enemy surveillance and attacks away from high-value targets and deceive the enemy about the number and location of friendly weapons, troops, and equipment. Decoys can also increase friendly firepower by making it easier to locate and target enemy forces once they have revealed their position by attacking the decoy. This also helps friendly forces retain the element of surprise. According to estimates by one Chinese military strategist at the PLA Academy of Military Science, a battlefield ratio of one to one between real equipment and decoys produces the equivalent of a 40 percent increase in friendly firepower.

When used correctly, modern decoys are highly effective at deceiving enemy troops. During a 1987 NATO exercise, an observation helicopter pilot revealed that he was completely fooled by an MCCD (Multispectral Close Combat Decoy) while hovering a mere 200 meters away. He had wasted several minutes observing and reporting the decoy’s position while never discovering the real tanks nearby.

The PLA uses two types of decoys: inflatable and solid. PLA decoys can simulate a wide range of equipment including ballistic missile launch vehicles, tanks, aircraft, artillery, and other various types of military vehicles and equipment. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) also appears to use decoys based on smaller vessels

PLA use of inflatable decoys appears to be widespread as they are cheap and easy to use and transport. An inflatable tank weighs only 35 kilograms, can be folded to fit in a soldier’s backpack, and takes just four minutes to inflate. Inflatable decoys are standardized to match the size and color of real equipment. According to one source, a design institute in the former General Staff Engineering Corps has produced camouflage coatings for inflatable decoys that mimic stone and metal. Chinese media sources claim that PLA inflatable decoys are difficult to tell apart from real equipment even at distances as close as 100 meters.

The PLA’s solid material decoys come in the form of the template model and all-metal decoys. Solid material decoys look more authentic than inflatable decoys because the later have more rounded edges. Solid decoys maintain nearly the exact shape of the impersonated vehicle. Solid decoys are also fast and easy to assemble. During a 2011 cross-military region exercise held by the PLA Engineering Academy, metal decoys in the form of tanks were assembled in five minutes. According to Chinese sources, these decoys are highly effective at imitating military equipment and are said to be difficult to distinguish from real equipment from a distance of 100 meters. Some decoy units are even designed to fool infrared sensors by utilizing heat to imitate the infrared signature of a missile launch. Decoy units can also circulate hot water to mimic the infrared signature of a vehicle in use. Many of these decoys are mobile and can be interspersed and move in tandem with real equipment.

PLA Rocket Force Deception Measures

With its mission to ensure nuclear deterrence, as well its responsibility to operate ballistic missiles and anti-ship ballistic missiles, the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), places great emphasis on deception. The PLARF has its own special engineering and camouflage units, which undertake a wide variety of disguise and camouflage activities. In addition to using decoys, the PLARF often disguises its equipment as civilian vehicles to help avoid detection. DF-21 ballistic missile launchers are often disguised as ubiquitous blue fuel trucks, and DF-10 launchers are disguised as common cargo trucks. The PLA even goes so far as to add company names and contact numbers to disguised vehicles in order to increase the level of realism. The PLA also disguises military trains as ordinary passenger trains to enable them to transport military equipment with less chance of detection.  

Another tactic used by the PLARF to confuse enemy reconnaissance is to employ an entire unit of fake troops. When the real unit moves or changes its launch position, the fake unit will also move at the same time to cause confusion. To ensure authenticity, fake units are equipped with the same special-purpose vehicles as the real unit. The PLARF also places old and obsolete equipment in the open to distract enemy reconnaissance efforts, while real equipment is camouflaged and hidden in areas that are harder to observe, such as mountainous terrain and forests.

Militia Support

China’s local militia forces also play an important role in deception and camouflage support for regular PLA units. The militia fields camouflage protection teams, which deploy decoys, provide camouflage support, and help execute displays, demonstrations, and ruses. These teams can also hide targets and frustrate enemy reconnaissance and targeting efforts by creating large smoke screens, which inhibit laser-guided weapons, and using balloons, which confuse enemy radar by deploying chaff. 

Tasking militia units with deception and camouflage support has also helped the PLA to utilize civilian talent and commercial technologies. In one militia camouflage protection team, members were drawn from the high-tech industry and had expertise in simulation technology. This unit reportedly developed new technologies and materials to help camouflage important targets such as oil depots, power plants, and bridges.


The PLA’s widespread use of deception presents serious wartime and peacetime challenges for the United States and its allies and friends in the Indo-Pacific. In preparing for an attack on Taiwan, the PLA could seriously hinder U.S. and Republic of China indications and warning (I&W) intelligence capability by using decoys to conduct deception measures such as diversions and ruses. These deception measures could slow U.S. decision-making, and in turn, delay the response of U.S. military forces. Maintaining the element of surprise is a key factor in the success of amphibious operations. 

During a conflict, locating and targeting PLA high-value targets, such as the PLARF’s ballistic missiles, would be extremely difficult. During the 1990-91 Gulf War, U.S. and coalition forces had very little success in locating and destroying Iraq’s mobile Scud missile launchers. According to the Pentagon’s post-war study on Gulf air operations, the Gulf War Air Power Survey, there was no indisputable proof that Scud mobile launchers — as opposed to high-fidelity decoys, trucks, or other objects with Scud-like signatures — were destroyed by fixed-wing aircraft.

During peacetime, the PLA also goes to great lengths to conceal the details of its exercises from enemy reconnaissance. During exercises, a warning will be given if an enemy reconnaissance satellite is about to pass over the area. At that point, dispersal and concealment efforts are immediately executed by personnel and equipment to minimize detection. The PLA also uses deception measures such as decoys and disguises during military exercises to hinder intelligence collection by U.S. reconnaissance satellites. 

The U.S. military would also benefit if it employed more deception tactics, including the use of decoys. According to one source, the use of decoys in the U.S. military appears to be at a low. General Charles Q. Brown, at the time commander of Pacific Air Forces and now chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, late last year reinforced this view when he asserted that the U.S. military should rely more on deception and similar tactics, instead of simply trying to counter Chinese military developments solely with expensive weapons.

Aaron Jensen is currently a Ph.D. candidate at National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan.