Why ISIS' fake tanks and bearded mannequins won't fool US warplanes

On Monday, a Reuters report detailed how ISIS constructed fake tanks, Humvees, and even put beards on mannequins in an attempt to stifle the US-led military coalition’s bombing campaign against the terror group.

While the idea seems clever in theory, there’s a major reason why it won’t present too much of a challenge to the US and allies — thermal imaging.

Wooden tanks and Humvees, no matter how realistically they’re built or deployed, don’t emit heat like a real vehicle would. The drones that circle the skies above ISIS’ havens in Iraq and Syria have no trouble toggling between thermal and other types of imaging.

Observe the clip below:

Here you see a drone observing a moving vehicle, the target. The video pauses quickly to show a red box around the incoming bomb. By the trajectory of the bomb, we can tell it came from another plane.

The bomb obliterates the vehicle, and the drone, which observes in part to confirm the kill, toggles for a moment to thermal imaging.

The blast around the vehicle turns from grey to white as the camera displays heat instead of light. That’s the problem ISIS’ bearded mannequins can’t overcome — they’re cold.

However, decoys have long been used in war, and often to some effect. In World War II, both sides made extensive, and sometimes very effective, use of decoys. But they made those plays before infrared imaging and advance air forces took to the sky.

More likely, the dummies will confuse the human intelligence of the US-led coalition against ISIS. Allies on the ground, like the Kurds or Iraqi forces may scout locations and be fooled by the decoys, and report bad information back to the coalition. Additionally, analysts studying satellite and other traditional imaging may be fooled by the fakes.

It would take some time for the coalition to reconcile the difference between their satellite imagery, human intelligence, and thermal imaging from deployed drones, but it’s not an insurmountable task.

In fact, Baghdad-based US Air Force Col. John Dorrian told Reuters that the coalition has been on to ISIS’ decoy game for some time.

“We call it tactical deception. Daesh [ISIS] has been doing it and that’s certainly a tactic that enemies like to use,” he said. “It is actually not as troubling as a lot of the other things we’ve seen,” like the time ISIS burnt down a chemical plant to spread a cloud of choking, corrosive gases so large that it was visible from space.

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