Md.-made decoys aim to trick enemy


January 31, 1991|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Sun Staff Correspondent

BELTSVILLE -- It may seem strange in this age of "star wars" technology when missiles are shooting down other missiles, but battlefield commanders on both sides in the Persian Gulf war are still making use of a military strategy adopted in the Trojan War more than 3,000 years ago to gain an advantage over the enemy.

Nickolas Vamvakias, a vice president of TVI Corp. related the story of Helen of Troy and and the Greek soldiers hiding inside a wooden horse in describing his own company's business: the production of battlefield decoys.

TVI, situated in the Beltsville Industrial Center, produces tanks, trucks and jeeps that are not really military vehicles but sophisticated decoys designed to trick enemy tank and artillery gunners.

The small Prince George's County company is a master of disguise. It can make the Iraqis think they are up against an armored division when in reality there might be just a handful of tanks and armored vehicles on the other side of the front line.

And, as U.S. and allied forces learned recently, they are not the only ones resorting to trickery. Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, disclosed last week that allied fighter planes have been tricked into wasting some of their rockets and bombs on Scud missile and launcher look-alikes that probably were made of plywood. There have also been reports of the Iraqis using tank decoys.

Because of recent Defense Department restrictions, executives at TVI are tight-lipped about their contributions to the war effort.

In addition to the decoys, the company produces other look-alike tanks that were used for target practice in training tank crews.

"We can't talk about numbers, including how many we have built and sold or exactly where they are being used," said Mr. Vamvakias.

As for the decoys being used by the Iraqis, he said none came from TVI. He said the company has "never sold to Iraq, not even 10 years ago."

The military also has asked that news reports not provide information that can assist the enemy, including ways that the equipment can be defeated, any problem areas in the equipment or any recent product improvements.

The restrictive government policy is causing some torment for the company. "We could use the exposure," Mr. Vamvakias said, "but we're patriotic."

Thomas T. Taylor, president of Chesapeake Research Inc., a Towson-based brokerage company specializing in regional companies, also thinks that TVI could benefit from some exposure. Mr. Taylor said TVI's stock is trading for 1 to 2 cents a share.

"They are not getting enough business to make money," he said. "You could make an argument that the stock is worth a nickel rather than a penny. As a result of the war, maybe they will pick up some new orders for targets to train gunners."

In filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, TVI reported sales of $2.6 million for the nine months that ended Sept. 30, down from $4.5 million from the same period a year earlier. The company posted a nine-month loss of $384,500, compared with a loss of $24,000 a year earlier.

In the past, the company and the military have not been so secretive about the use of decoys in battle. A few years ago the Pentagon invited the producers of the television show "20/20" in to promote its decoy operations.

Compared with the production of Patriot air-defense missiles or the night-vision systems used on fighter planes, TVI's contributions to the war effort seem rather simple, but there is more to them that meets the eye.

Or should one say, less than meets the eye. Take the company's tank decoy, for example. It looks remarkably like an M-1 tank from 200 yards away, but up close one can see that it's only canvas painted to resemble a tank and stretched over a collapsible metal frame.

The entire unit fits in a duffel bag and weighs about 50 pounds. It can be assembled by soldiers in a few minutes.

A canvas tank might be enough to trick a field trooper armed only with an anti-tank rocket launcher, but an Iraqi tank commander doesn't rely on his eyes only. Many of the Iraqi tanks that the allied forces are going up against have complex infrared systems used in picking out targets.

And to trick the tank's gunner into going after the wrong target, the decoys are embedded with special panels that heat up when hooked to a portable generator, mimicking the heat "signature" given off by a real tank.

Mr. Vamvakias declined to discuss many aspects of TVI's involvement in the production of decoys, but he is quick to relate war stories of experiences with dummy equipment.

During World War II, Allied forces used decoys to mislead German visual intelligence-gathering operations into thinking that the D-Day invasion of France was coming at the Pas de Calais area on the English Channel.

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