The fighting that has followed Russia’s full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has provided no shortage of throwbacks to the warfare of the bygone ages. On the technology side, we’ve seen ancient machine guns wheeled out and balloons make a return to combat, while the conditions that have been encountered in the east of the country, especially, have at times resembled World War One trench warfare, with all the attendant mud and brutality. Now, one of the oddities of trench warfare from 1914–18 has reappeared in Ukraine, in the form of sniper decoys.
The decoy in question is a full-size mannequin, clad in winter clothing and wearing a Soviet-era respirator, propped up on sandbags on the inside wall of a trench used by the Ukrainian 24th Mechanized Brigade. The decoy appears in a photo taken by Wolfgang Schwan somewhere along the frontline south of the city of Bakhmut, on March 10, 2023. Bakhmut and the surrounding areas have been the scene of intense fighting in recent months, and, despite its debatable strategic value, the city has become emblematic of the wider conflict, with both sides committing considerable resources, and taking huge losses, in efforts to control it.
While this is perhaps the first sniper decoy that we’ve seen since the all-out invasion began in February 2022, the concept is by no means new. In fact, there are accounts of mannequins being used in warfare by the ancient Chinese, to draw the fire of enemy arrows, which could then be reused against the opponent. Human-like dummies of this kind are probably best known, however, from the trenches of World War One.
Among the many technological innovations that World War One introduced on a large scale, sniper rifles provided with telescopic scopes were among the most feared. Sniper rifles and even scopes had been used in combat before but had never been so widely deployed, with Germany initially being the pioneer in this field. The British and French soon adopted the same tactics.
Snipers wielding rifles fitted with scopes could produce accurate long-range fire at 600 yards or more, which was especially relevant in trench warfare. Now, unsuspecting soldiers could be picked off if they did as much as raise their heads above the trench parapet. The snipers that targeted them did so from well-concealed positions, at considerable range, meaning they were very hard to counter. Not only did the snipers choose their positions carefully, to avoid return fire, but they also went to extreme lengths to avoid being detected. Famous examples include complex sniper suits, like the Ghillie suit still used today by soldiers and hunters alike, and even fake trees that snipers could hide within.
As well as a well-trained sniper being able to have a disproportionate effect on the enemy, by targeting high-value officers, all the way up to field marshals, for example, the ever-present threat of these invisible killers had a major psychological impact, with soldiers acutely aware that one false move could see them killed instantly, shattering morale.
Counters to the trench snipers had to be devised quickly and one of the simplest yet most effective was the sniper decoy, first used extensively by the British but employed by other combatant nations, too. The sniper decoy typically consisted of a papier-mâché head, mounted on a stick, which would be raised over the top of the trench to draw enemy sniper fire. Once that happened, triangulation (based on bullet entry point), a periscope spotting the muzzle flash, and other movements, or a combination of both, could be used to find the sniper. Then, counter-fire would rain down on their position, either in the form of artillery or another sniper.
Cheap and easy to make, the papier-mâché heads could also be made to look highly realistic, which was a necessity when trying to fool the eye of a sniper at the end of a telescopic sight. In an effort to make them more convincing, some sniper decoy heads were even rigged up to a tube system, to make them smoke a cigarette, helping to draw attention once it was dark.
It’s notable that the trench mannequin south of Bakhmut is also accompanied by a soldier with a periscope, suggesting that very much the same kinds of tactics are being used here, with the dummy intended to draw sniper fire that can then be used to locate an enemy position. More advanced options for uncovering snipers are also available to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, including electro-optical surveillance devices, although these are likely not widespread, hence the continued use of periscopes. There are also acoustic-based sniper detectors, like the DARPA-developed Boomerang, that use microphone sensors to detect the muzzle blast and the sonic shock wave of a high-speed bullet.
Of course, with unmanned aerial vehicles being an integral part of the battlefield in Ukraine, including many instances in which small drones have been used to drop munitions on soldiers holed up in trenches, the sniper decoy needs to be convincing when seen from all angles, rather than just from one trench to another. Adding a respirator would seem to be an easy way of avoiding having to craft the kind of highly realistic head that we are familiar with from World War One, although gas masks are otherwise not widely used by combatants on either side.
As we have seen from multiple videos, trench warfare in Ukraine is frequently bringing opposing forces into close proximity, the kind of environment in which even a single well-trained sniper can cause havoc. By way of an example, the incredible video below, which we examined in depth in the past, shows one individual weathering fierce enemy fire with apparently extraordinary composure:
Overall, we don’t know how effective the mannequin decoy tactic has been in attracting enemy snipers, or other kinds of hostile fire, although it’s very much in keeping with the kinds of camouflage and concealment tactics that we have seen on multiple occasions previously in this conflict. In particular, there has been a plethora of dummy vehicles, including surface-to-air missile launchers, HIMARS rocket launchers, and other high-value vehicles, designed specifically to draw enemy fire away from the real thing. In some instances, these have been so convincing that the Russians have even publicized the destruction of such dummies as real battlefield ‘kills.’
While this appears to be the first sniper decoy of this kind that we’ve seen so far in Russia's all-out invasion of Ukraine, it likely won’t be the last. Trench warfare is now an established aspect of the fighting, not only in the east around Bakhmut but in the south of the country, too. As long as this kind of fighting continues, the danger posed to those fighting in trenches by snipers and other threats will surely see innovative countermeasures to defend, and even fight back against them.
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