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Deception, Diversion & Disguise (3D): Amphibious Operations Success in the Third Decade


‘Be mysterious to the point of soundlessness, then be the director of your opponents fate’

An Australian Amphibious Task Group (ATG) assembled undetected in the dead of night somewhere in the Southern Ocean. The operational deception plan served its purpose and as the Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) began is circuitous track northwards it was flanked by a SEA5000 Frigate and a recently upgraded Air Warfare Destroyer. North of their position the first of class SEA1000 submarine slid silently through the murky depths providing subsurface security. It’s the year 2032 when conflict between nation-states has erupted in the Indo-Pacific and Australia has been asked by allies to secure an island for use as a forward coalition base. Army land forces tasked to occupy the island are embarked on the LHD and consist of a battalion group equipped with the latest land combat equipment, including artificial intelligence (AI) enabled semi-autonomous drones and robots. These smart machines were acquired during a major reorganisation of the Army that began in the late 2020’s. This institutional upheaval included mechatronic manoeuvre and bespoke drone defence tactics as prominent features of foundation warfighting doctrine.

Solar powered scout drones tracking at high altitude scan ahead with advanced sensors providing persistent surveillance with thermal and quantum detectors, including AI enabled facial recognition. However, these strategic overwatch drones are directed through sovereign satellite links from ground stations in Australia, so detectable digital control signals are not emitted from the ATG.[1] A constellation of small sensor satellites[2] recently launched from the Northern Territory also provide strategic early warning for the joint task force. To mask their electromagnetic and acoustic presence, ATG warships employ undetectable passive sonar[3] and radar, while laser communications are frugally used in lieu of conspicuous radio frequencies. In addition to active emissions lock-down, naval vessel physical identifiers are masked by enhanced signature suppression technologies, further lowering detection thresholds and contributing to a multi-layered survivability effect.[4][5] So this combination of effects conspires to keep the ATG safe from threat surveillance and target acquisition efforts during transit.

To compliment operational and ambient emissions reduction, the joint deception effort had been precisely scheduled by operational planners to obviate coordinating communications that might compromise the stealthy evasion plan.  The ‘elaborate sham’ commenced with ‘fake news’ releases and social media posts highlighting false ship movements and fabricated military exercises along Australia’s East Coast.  In Townsville another LHD had been docked in the city’s port as a diversion, which was being loaded with Army equipment and troops to give the appearance of combat preparations and an imminent departure. However, the LHD actually destined as the ATG flagship in the south was secretly loaded by night using landing craft from remote beach locations along the East Coast and far away from heavily populated areas.

Military equipment was road transported in small civilian convoys concealed under tarps or in commercial shipping containers and soldiers wearing civilian attire travelled to embarkation points in tourist buses. Moreover, all of the ATG ships departed after dark from different ports at dissimilar times and took alternate routes to the Southern Ocean rendezvous location. While other ships steamed overtly towards Townsville to further confuse the operational picture for adversaries who would certainly be watching. Then when the Diversion Task Group (DTG) sailed from Townsville it attracted threat intelligence ‘attention’, thereby allowing southern ATG forces to slip quietly away. Also to compliment these deception measures, cyber offensive operations targeted adversary spy satellites in low-Earth orbit.[6] Machine intelligence software covertly altered threat satellite images to display only open-ocean, thereby screening ATG warships and their ocean wakes from space observation. This same machine intelligence software was configured to protect Australian small satellites from disruption by threat hackers, as like the maritime domain, the space domain had become contested and rich with high value targets.

Days after departure from Townsville the DTG tracks north east then suddenly turns west along the north coast of Papua New Guinea. This fish-hook manoeuvre draws threat maritime forces away from the ATGs avenue of approach and into a defensive line of coalition submarines and underwater assault drones.[7]  A feint manoeuvre ‘flypast’ or demonstration by long-range reconnaissance drones on an enemy occupied island also distracts threat intelligence efforts. So these deception tactics prove to be decisive events as they set favourable conditions for the ATG to avoid a high-risk maritime battle, including deadly hypersonic missile strikes enroute to the objective. Also by taking a minimalist approach to use of the electromagnetic spectrum it provided mitigation against maritime cyber attacks[8] designed to interfere with critical communications, weapons and navigation systems. So in this operation thejoint deception doctrine is proven resoundingly successful.[9] If the deception plan had failed it may have resulted in early compromise of ATG force elements and manifested in the complete loss of or serious damage to the embarked land force.

Accordingly it is evident that accepting our forces will always have to fight to get to the fight[10] in kinetic terms is not a foregone conclusion and risk reduction options do exist. Hence after arriving at the objective unimpeded, land forces can deploy ashore from the LHD and prepare for potential counter-attack(s) from an advantageous position.

The Royal Australian Navy will then have fulfilled its vital condition of the amphibious contract – that is to transport land forces safely to the area of operations and to facilitate joint land combat.

Furthermore, this notional narrative illustrates the dividends of deception, diversion and disguise at an operational level in the maritime domain, but this 3D approach can also be shaped for land combat missions. However, a seminal point is that with finite strategic depth in terms of amphibious forces, Australia can ill-afford to engage in unnecessary maritime combat during transit to land force mission areas. Therefore, diverting threat focus and disguising our intentions via a blend of deception, emissions control, signature reduction, and cyber operations, with layered AI drone and space surveillance may realise superior force protection. Thus in context of highly lethal naval weaponry, malicious cyber systems and deadly autonomous drone developments,[11] cloaking joint task forces via 3D tactics until the time and place of our choosing may underpin amphibious operations success in the third decade.[12]


About the author

Lieutenant Colonel Greg Rowlands is an infantry officer with 27 years of Army service. He is a graduate of Australian Command & Staff College and the Capability & Technology Management College. Greg has also completed an undergraduate degree and three master’s degrees from the University of New England, University of Canberra and University of New South Wales.


Endnotes:

[1]Surveillance drone command uplinks and downlinks are facilitated via small satellite (smallsat) relay.  Smallsats were launched into low-Earth orbit via multi-stage rockets from the Northern Territory to support the ATG. False media releases were also used to confuse observers.

[2]Sensor satellites might include signals intelligence, passive radar, imagery and magnetic detection functions.

[3]The SEA1000 submarine employs active sonar sparingly to protect the ATG and is supported by undersea air-independent surveillance drones, which are deployed and recovered for recharging from its torpedo tubes.

[4]It is plausible that threat surveillance drones and or reconnaissance aircraft could compromise the ATG enroute, despite efforts to deceive threat intelligence. Thus signature management technologies will be critical to minimise thermal, magnetic and acoustic signatures and to reduce radar cross-sections of ATG warships.

[5]The outer layer of the ‘Survivability Onion’ is ‘Don’t be Seen’, which is the survival layer proposed as the most optimal way to keep a military platform and its human occupants safe from destruction by enemy action.

[6]Rapid Space Support: System Design for Tactical Satellite Launch – https://groundedcuriosity.com/rapid-space-support-system-design-for-tactical-satellite-launch

[7]The subsurface defensive array consists of several coalition submarines and underwater drones cooperating to target any maritime threat forces that follow the DTG.  These submarines and their semi-autonomous drones would be positioned well in advance for the purpose of defending the DTG should it be threatened.

[8]No evidence was found to link cyber attacks to the separate USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain fatal collisions at sea, but cyberspace threat actors were considered as a possible cause. So noting maritime cyber defences were strengthened after these incidents, it is a compelling indicator and warning of what could occur in the future.

[9]When Radio Silence is Not Enough: Signature Suppression and the Fight for Surprise – https://groundedcuriosity.com/when-radio-silence-is-not-enough-signature-suppression-the-fight-for-surprise

[10]37th Commandant to the US Marine Corps General Robert B. Nellor Message to the Force 2018 ‘Execute’.

[11]Hypersonic anti-ship missiles, manoeuvrable super-cavitation torpedoes, air-independent underwater hunter-killer drones and sea-skimming naval assault drones represent a growing risk to ATG surface and subsurface vessels.

[12]This sentiment is equally applicable to the current security situation and for the foreseeable future in relation to ATG mission success during conflict, as achieving surprise in combat is a fundamental Principle of War.