Operational Deception—Sometimes It Just Happens

May 17, 2016
By David E. Meadows


Spontaneous reactions may have a great effect on fooling an adversary.


So there I was, having my first cup of coffee when I saw an announcement about Northrop Grumman passing a critical design review for the U.S. Navy on the Navy’s new jammer.

Wow. It made me recall when Raytheon’s AN/SLQ-32 first came into the fleet in the late 1970s. The AN/WLR-1 techs were aghast over the idea of a digital automated electronic warfare suite that would detect incoming missiles and fire Super Rapid Bloom Offboard Countermeasures (Super RBOC) into the air to decoy inbound rounds away from the ship.

Now, bear with me as the early morning logic trail heats up. Super RBOC deploying overhead can mask a ship electronically much like smoke screens did for visual observations during World War II.

It reminded me of U.S. Navy Fleet Adm. William Halsey’s Dirty Trick Department during World War II. Its sole purpose was to think up things to bedevil the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN). Operational deception, or OPDEC, begins at the deck plate level, and Adm. Halsey became a strong advocate that every engagement, campaign or battle required an element of OPDEC in it.

And, sometimes the tools of OPDEC work surreptitiously, such as in the World War II Battle of Komandorski Islands on March 27, 1943.

This battle was supposed to be a turkey shoot for the U.S. Navy task force, which consisted of one heavy cruiser, one light cruiser and four destroyers. Intelligence had told them there would be a minimum of IJN warships escorting the transports heading toward the occupied Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska.

Surprise!

The IJN task force consisted of two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and four destroyers. This shocked the U.S. Navy task force, which immediately turned in an attempt to leave the area. But it wouldn’t be that easy.

The IJN task force immediately formed up in pursuit. Its guns, with more range than those of the U.S. task force, began firing as the superior Japanese force began to close.

Twenty-five minutes into the battle, at 0910, the USS Salt Lake City (CA-25) took its first of six hits from eight-inch shells. It lost power and began to lose speed toward becoming dead in the water. Rear Adm. Charles McMorris, USN, ordered the force’s destroyers to lay a smoke screen, which hid from the IJN view the dilemma facing the outgunned U.S. task force. The admiral, on the light cruiser USS Richmond (CL-9), took a defensive position near the Salt Lake City.

The battle was the IJN’s to lose. Adm. McMorris ordered what many believed to be a suicide attack by three of the U.S. destroyers. At 11:54 on this clear, cold day as the Richmond became dead in the water, the USS Bailey (DD-492), USS Coghlan (DD-606) and USS Monaghan (DD-354) surged into the smoke screen line abreast, emerging moments later together like ghosts appearing.

At full speed, they charged the enemy forces, their five-inch guns blazing, and at 12:25 the Bailey fired a spread of torpedoes—all of which missed. But this surprise U.S. action caused the IJN task force to disperse against a threat that consisted of only three U.S. destroyers. By now, the Salt Lake City had regained power, but the IJN had turned away from the battle and at 12:30 retired westward. Adm. McMorris—exhibiting smart thinking—did not pursue.

The surprise was complete on both sides. The IJN lost situational awareness caused by the surprise U.S. destroyer attack, little realizing that it had given the victory to the U.S. forces. And, it probably took Adm. McMorris a while to recognize that he was the victor and though his ships were badly damaged, they were all still afloat and sailing under their own steam.

OPDEC is more than just one element. It is using every tool available to the battle group commanders to deceive, decoy and “bedevil” the adversary.

And sometimes—like at the Komandorski Islands—OPDEC just happens. 

David E. Meadows is a retired U.S. Navy Captain and the author of the Sixth Fleet series, along with Seawolf, Joint Task Force Liberia, Tomcat, Final Run and other action-adventure novels. He is currently working on a non-fiction effort titled Red Crown, Charger Horse, and the Cryptologic Tide.

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