After a Decade, the Marine Corps Releases New Deception Doctrine

by Braxton Taylor

For the first time in more than a decade, the Marine Corps has published official doctrine on how it employs deception — a tactic used by militaries throughout history to deliberately deceive the enemy through decoys, demonstrations, ruses and manipulation of information.

The doctrine, titled simply “Deception,” was published late last month and supersedes a manual from 12 years ago, according to service officials. The need for a cohesive policy on deception was identified in the 2023 update to the service’s Force Design campaign, a reorganization effort meant to prepare for a potential future fight in the Pacific against China.

Within that campaign, planners said that deception was one of the “issues requiring further analysis,” and last summer Marine Corps officials got to work defining exactly what that would mean for Marines down to the lowest levels of the force.

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According to the doctrine, deception “is a deliberate distortion of reality imposed on another where the deceiver gains an advantage,” and planners intend every Marine to be familiar with its intricacies.

The tactic has logged itself as vital to historical military campaigns, from the legend of the Trojan Horse to a more recent example like the “Ghost Army” of World War II, which used inflatable vehicles and fake radio traffic to dupe German forces.

“Sun Tzu would say that all warfare is based on deception,” Maj. Jeffrey Hill, an intelligence officer and the lead author of the doctrine, told in a recent interview, invoking the Chinese general credited for writing “The Art of War.” In other words, “if you ain’t deceiving, you ain’t fighting,” he said.

In the modern sense, basic tenets of deception have held true and are included in the new policy. The doctrine cites suppressing radio traffic, obfuscating movement timing with false information, and employing “feints” where a supporting unit might draw attention away from an amphibious landing, for example.

Marines have used this before. Hill pointed to the Gulf War, in which Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who led coalition forces against Iraq during the conflict, placed Marine amphibious forces in the Persian Gulf to draw Saddam Hussein’s attention — and troops — to the coast while the main effort attacked from the west.

Force Design, Hill said, was an “obvious recognition” that the Marine Corps needed to reorganize in preparation for conventional conflict, especially after the bulk of the Global War on Terror.

“So the connection and the resurgence in information operations writ large, but military deception specifically, is tied to this recognition that the way that we’ve done business in the last 20 years is not going to be sufficient for the future fight,” Hill said.

The proliferation of widely available information, in which video, audio and data are available to the common user at the touch of a fingertip, has changed the way the military thinks about deception.

“With the information age that we live in, we’re still trying to — as a global society — figure out the implications of just the mass sources and conduits and pathways of information that’s out there,” Hill said. “As you’re going through execution, it is essential to be able to adapt and adjust as the highly dynamic information environment is changing.”

Part of the doctrine is classified, but it broadly outlines the players involved in deception under the umbrella of information warfare, one of the seven warfighting functions that govern Marine Corps operations. They include psychological forces, civil affairs teams, cyber operators, electromagnetic spectrum units, and even space elements.

Some methods involve mimicking the electronic profile of a unit, creating dummy networks and “interactive transmissions” to replicate force size and activity, and emitting chemical or biological odors associated with a specific capability to fool an enemy.

At its basic level, where Hill said Marines on the ground should look at deception as a tool, the doctrine still advises dummy weapons and mines, removing identifications from uniforms, and feigned attacks or retreats.

“If a deception is 99% truth and 1% a lie, that’s fantastic,” Hill said.

Practically, this doctrine is applicable to Marines rotating to the Pacific, where China has deployed its own information tactics. Hill noted that those Marines should be wary of operational security, a practice meant to prevent sensitive information from spilling into adversaries’ hands.

Despite its historical use, the employment of deception has been controversial — and is rife with risk, a point noted in the doctrine. Within the tactic overall lie numerous ethical traps that could result in catastrophic harm if employed illegally or toward an unintended audience.

“Determining legality of a deception operation is a complex process, as some activities or techniques are prohibited by domestic or international law, while others might be legal but are prohibited by various policies,” the doctrine said. “The line of demarcation between legitimate and illegitimate ruses sometimes blurs.”

Last month, Reuters reported that the Pentagon conducted a clandestine disinformation campaign in the Philippines at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic intended to discredit Chinese-produced vaccines through phony social media accounts. At the time, the Philippines had one of the lowest vaccination rates in the region, the publication reported.

Lisa Lawrence, a Defense Department spokesperson, did not deny that the operation occurred, but said that the Pentagon “uses a variety of platforms, including social media, to counter those malign influence attacks.”

The U.S. military cannot target Americans with deception tactics, and Reuters reported that it did not find evidence that the DoD deployed the clandestine operation in the U.S. The Marine Corps doctrine echoes those prohibitions on deception activities, in that the service cannot mislead the U.S. public, Congress or the media, or take advantage of protected symbols such as the Red Cross.

“There are strict, strict guidelines that we have to follow to actually prevent our messages from even getting” accessed by the U.S. population, Hill said. “That’s to ensure we’re operating within a traditional military activity and that we are supporting purely military objectives.”

At the heart of deception lie several questions on how it is employed against an enemy. What does the Marine Corps want its adversary to see? What does it want them to think when they see the deception? What does it want them to do as a result?

The doctrine was developed by a team of planners over a yearlong period, Hill said, including collaboration from the government and military contractor Booz Allen Hamilton.

“Deception is absolutely in our tool kit,” Hill said. “And our adversaries should definitely second-guess what they see, because we know what we’re doing.”

Related: Pentagon Stands by Secret Anti-Vaccination Disinformation Campaign in Philippines After Reuters Report

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