WASHINGTON -- Decoy missile launchers. Phony weapons factories. "Cratered" runways that are really intact.
Iraq may not have impressed the world with its war machine so far, but its military technicians are showing consummate skill at fraud and trickery. The tactics are all part of the science of deception -- maskorovka -- that the Iraqis learned from their longtime Russian advisers and honed during eight years of bloody war with Iran.
"They're quite good at it," Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Pentagon news briefing yesterday. "They have a long history of using dummies to confuse the enemy."
The advantage gained by such deceptions is limited, since military photo interpreters "can tell in two seconds if this stuff is fake," said Col. Ralph Cossa, analyst with the Institute for National Strategic Studies. But the tactics can fool ground-level spotters and pilots, especially those flying in cloudy weather.
General Powell said there have been reports that the Iraqis have been putting out phony Scud missile launchers to delude allied forces into believing they have destroyed the weapons that have rained terror on Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The Iraqis also reportedly have been painting craters on their airfields to convince the allied bombers that the fields are damaged, and therefore not worth bombing.
Conversely, they paper over airfields that are destroyed to make it appear they have been repaired, thus encouraging bombers to waste missiles by firing at them.
In London, British Armed Forces Minister Archie Hamilton said this week that some of the missile launchers that the allies have counted as destroyed may actually have been cardboard and plywood fakes. British military sources have said the Iraqis have changed the contours of some buildings to make them appear to be communications centers, factories and chemical weapons plants.
A Jordanian security source in Amman recently reported that Iraq was using dummy missiles, complete with equipment that emitted electronic signals designed to fool attacking planes.
Iraq's inventory of decoys includes "fake buildings, fake weapons, fake production plants," said Marlin Fitzwater, the presidential press secretary. "It's a well-known tactic, and they've used it throughout their country."
An Italian newspaper, Corriere Della Sera, quoted a Turin manufacturer yesterday as saying that Iraq was probably using life-size tanks, planes and missile launchers that his company built between 1982 and 1988.
The paper quoted Mario Moselli, head of Moselli Vendite Macchine Utensili, as saying the decoys were made of molded fiberglass mounted on metal frames.
The decoys possess a metal mass that can mislead attackers' radar, Mr. Moselli said.
The Iraqis' idea for fake runway craters may have been borrowed from the Vietnamese, who were rumored to have used such a trick during the Vietnam War to dupe Americans into believing their B-52s had already struck.
The Iraqis began practicing their decoy and camouflage skills in 1980, with the start of the Iran-Iraq war, when they feared an air attack by the Iranian air force, says Anthony J. Cordesman, a military analyst on the staff of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
The Iraqis put out some of their oldest, least capable aircraft in hopes that the Iranians would focus their attacks on them.