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Masked by 'maskirovka'

By Richard ThomasRichard Thomas is director of Texas A & M University's Center for Strategic Technology, a defense think tank. / September 29, 1983



No one, not Ronald Reagan, not the Koreans, not the members of the international peace movement, should be shocked or surprised at the way the Soviet Union has reacted after shooting down Korean Air Lines Flight 7. It was entirely predictable - even expected - for the Russians have a long tradition of deception dating back long before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

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The Soviets even have a special word for this phenomenon:maskirovka,ma complex term embracing camouflage, concealment, deception, and disinformation, and the planting of lies or half-truths.

The US State Department has even admitted that one of the biggest problems with the now-defunct SALT II arms talks was the uncertainty the Americans had in verifying what they saw and heard in the Soviet Union. Much of the maskirovka doctrine and technique includes data from the psychology of attention and perception, areas in which Soviet researchers have become authorities.

Maskirovka accomplishments are often bragged about openly by Russian military officials.

The Red Army's skill at hiding was revealed during World War II when a large Russian force ambushed a German infantry regiment passing through a village after a veteran Nazi reconnaissance team declared the town safe. The Russians had been concealed in the village the entire time. There are many examples of phony radio transmissions and networks transmitting bogus information to deceive the listening enemy.

Records also reveal large Russian Army units slipping away in clear weather and deep snow after being surrounded by German troops. Other times, large detachments of Russian soldiers patiently spent days creeping up on the enemy, who failed to notice the movement of ''rocks'' or ''bushes'' until it was too late.

Maskirovka tactics were also used in Korea by Soviet-trained North Koreans and Chinese. Even the Cossacks nipping at the heels of Napoleon's ill-fated Russian invasion used guerrilla-like deception and cunning nearly 200 years ago. But the concept today is much more advanced and based on sound psychological principles. A recent study by Texas A & M military historian Roger Beaumont traced the development and depth of the Soviets' skill at deception and deceit.

In the Russian military, maskirovka can range from simply bending trees over to hide trucks to building elaborate missile launch facilities that require more than one incoming missile to destroy.

Each branch of the Soviet Army has maskirovka kits for use in battle, but drills are never performed in training exercises where observers or high-flying spy satellites can get a glimpse.

The essence of maskirovka is secrecy and deception. But denying involvement in the destruction of a civilian airliner, lying about its navigation lights being turned off, and justifying the act by suggesting the Boeing 747 looked like a US reconnaissance aircraft cannot stand up in the hot light of truth.

When the maskirovka concept permeates one's thinking as it does the Soviets', it goes beyond camouflage and becomes a way of life. It means that lying and cheating become a normal way of doing business. It is one thing to conceal trucks, but a different matter to sign a treaty with no intention of ever keeping it.

Maskirovka is most effective when the adversary is naive and not alert to the deceit. The destruction of KAL Flight 7 has stripped this tactic bare for the entire world to see. No one should be surprised again.