Magicians and generals have had a long-standing relationship – one that produced very real effects during wartime. Harry Houdini snooped on the German and the Russian militaries for Scotland Yard. English illusionist Jasper Maskelyne is reported to have created dummy submarines and fake tanks to distract Rommel’s army during World War II; some reports even credit him with employing flashing lights to “hide” the Suez Canal. At the height of the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency paid $3,000 to renowned magician John Mulholland to write a manual on misdirection, concealment and stagecraft. It was republished in 2009 as “The Official CIA Manual of Trickery and Deception.”
“All warfare is based on deception,” said Sun Tzu, circa sixth century B.C. During World War II, the Allies built a massive army of dummies and inflatable vehicles, used to “strengthen” actual troops on the ground. These fakes were, from the air, similar enough to the real thing to affect Nazi strategy decisions in several different theaters and at various stages of the war. The British army employed a magician, Jasper Maskelyne, to lead their deception development team, called the Magic Gang. They reportedly spoofed German field marshal Erwin Rommel at the Battle of El Alamein by disguising 1,000 tanks in the north as common trucks while “attacking” from the south with 2,000 decoy tanks (plus phony support vehicles).
In 2012, Darpa introduced a $4 million investigation into technologies that will “manage the adversary’s sensory perception” in order to “confuse, delay, inhibit, or misdirect [his] actions.” Darpa calls the project “Battlefield Illusion.” Of course.
“Misleading one’s adversary about the nature, size, and location of your military forces—and disguising your tactical or operational intentions—has been part and parcel of military strategy since its inception,” said William Casebeer, from DARPA.
Casebeer asserted that illusions—from those affecting basic sensory input to ones shaping high-order cognition and driving judgment and decision making—have helped many nations sidestep the formation of war zones. When conflict was inevitable, illusions also helped soldiers egress from war zones safely.
“The current operational art of human-sensory battlefield deception is largely an ad-hoc practice,” the agency sighs as it lays out the project’s goals. But if researchers can better understand “how humans use their brains to process sensory inputs,” the military should be able to develop “auditory and visual” hallucinations that will “provide tactical advantage for our forces.”
Ultimately, the aim is to “demonstrate and assess the operational effectiveness of advanced human-deceptive technologies on military ground, sea, and airborne systems.”
The $3.5 million “Electro-Optical Warfare” effort will look for ways to jam laser-based communications and sensor systems – just like today’s radio frequency jammers mess with cell phones and radars. As adversaries move from old-school radars to newer-school infrared and laser systems to target our planes, these enemies get harder to track; there’s no sonic “ping” to trace back. The goal of the $8.5 million “Multi-Function Optical Sensor” is designed to fill this gap, giving U.S. aircraft “an alternative approach to detecting, tracking, and performing non-cooperative target identification.”
There are all sorts of technical challenges to making such a sensor, Darpa notes. Today, there’s no “inexpensive, multiband, large-format, photon-counting, high-bandwidth receivers,” for instance. But if one can be located – and integrated onto an American jet – missile-armed enemies will suddenly become instantly visible. As if by magic.