Just protruding from a tree line in southern Ukraine, a sophisticated air-defence system comes into the sights of a Russian spotter drone.
Ukrainian efforts to conceal the £120 million German-donated Iris-T SLM in camouflage netting had failed.
Soon after the system was spotted, a Lancet kamikaze drone launched by nearby Russian forces smashed into it.
Pieces of shrapnel flew off into the trees, while the Iris-T launcher became briefly engulfed in a fireball – a prized scalp for Moscow.
Well, that’s what the Ukrainians would have their enemy believe.
Maskirovka – which translates as “little masquerade” – the strategy of denial, disinformation and deception has been central to Soviet military planning for generations.
Smoke and mirrors
But now it is Ukraine that is using smoke and mirrors to sucker Russian forces into wasting valuable resources on dummy targets.
The Iris-T “destroyed” in the southern region of Kherson was a dummy.
Dozens of decoys like this have been littered across the front lines by Kyiv in a bid to level the playing field.
Ukraine is acutely aware that Moscow’s occupational forces have more long-range munitions available to them.
“It’s a tactic of making the Russians use their drones for nothing,” a Ukrainian source told the Telegraph.
Fake versions of the American Himars rocket launcher, M777 artillery howitzers, Leopard 2 tanks, soviet-era Buk surface-to-air missile launchers and radar systems have all been laid out on the battlefield.
From above, Russian drone operators can easily be duped into believing they have unearthed a prized enemy system. In reality they are blasting targets made of wood, cardboard and scrap metal.
Some inflatable targets are also being laid down.
Ukrainian officials hold their cards close to their chests on the deception operations.
They would prefer it if the Russians genuinely believed they had destroyed a Himars or an Iris-T rather than mocking them, one official said.
However, news reports and battlefield footage circulated on social media have shown decoys being targeted.
Metinvest, the firm that owns the Azovstal iron and steel works in Mariupol, is the main producer of fakes.
Rinat Akhmetov, the company’s owner, and Ukraine’s richest man, personally approved and provided much of the funding for the decoy project.
In the early days of the war, the decoys were there to make up for a lack of weapons donated by Ukraine’s Western allies.
They were deployed to convince Russian forces that Ukraine had more weapons in a particular area, in the hope it would deter them from advancing.
More recently, the dummies have been used to fool Russia into wasting its own long-range weapons, which it is struggling to replace.
The firm’s initial replicas were crude. But like the weapons donated to Ukraine, they have grown in sophistication.
“The enemy is not stupid. We have to adapt … we always look to add something new in our work,” a spokesman for Metinvest told the Kyiv Post.
Early examples of fake Himars were wooden frames mounted on pick-up trucks.
The latest versions are made of metal and contain real heat and radar sources to trick Russia’s thermal imaging cameras and other monitors.
With Russia often failing to completely destroy the decoys, the sturdier, metal frames can be hauled off the battlefield for repairs.
Metinvest’s version of the US-donated M777 155mm howitzer uses a drainpipe to replicate its barrel and is sent to the front lines in “flatpack”, according to the firm.
It costs about £800 to manufacture and can be erected in about 30 minutes.
In comparison, the actual weapons cost about £3 million, with the missiles used by Russia to destroy them costing up to £5 million.
The conflict in Ukraine, experts say, has become characteristic of a style of warfare where low-cost weapons are being used to destroy high-costing equipment.
A British-donated Challenger 2 tank, the first of its kind to be destroyed by enemy fire, was taken out by a Russian loitering munition, likely costing £24,000.
The British Armed Forces’ main battle tank is believed to cost £4 million.
While the art of blow-up tanks and mock weapons is not a new phenomenon – the United States fielded an entire “ghost army”, complete with sound effects and false radio signals during the Second World War – Ukraine believes the approach still works.
“They [Russians] feel happy that they’ve destroyed our kit, but in reality the kit is not damaged,” a source said.
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