Baudrillard’s Inflatable Army

The New York Times recently reported Russian buildup of unconventional weapons: inflatables. Specifically, the Times notes that following increased tensions between the United States and Russia over Syria, the Russian army has been buying and moving inflatable weapons systems — tanks, anti-aircraft guns, MiGs, etc. — to make their military seem stronger than it really is (a tactic called maskirovka).1)Andrew Kramer, “A New Weapon in Russia’s Arsenal, and It’s Inflatable,” New York Times, published 10/12/16, accessed 10/13/16, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/13/world/europe/russia-decoy-weapon.html?%5C%5C&_r=1.

This move is obviously interesting on a number of different levels; is the Russian military weakening? Are nuclear weapons less of a deterrent than they used to be? And so on. The question I want to examine, however, is a starkly different one. The tanks, MiGs, and anti-air guns are obviously ‘fake,’ but does that really matter? Further, as we live in a world filled with simulacra, is there any legitimate difference between a MiG made of aluminium and jet fuel and one made of canvas and hot air? I’m not convinced that there is.

baudrillard-copy of a copy

Dummy warfare, or fooling one’s enemy into thinking one’s might is greater than it is, likely has been a military tactic for millennia, but Europe saw the usage of dummy tanks (and “ghost armies”) in both World Wars. In World War I, “Britain mocked up wooden tanks which were towed around the country by horses, using a set of concealed wheels behind their pretend tracks”2)Mark Prigg, “Something else for the Russians to blow up: Putin’s secret inflatable army of decoys that are designed to fool the enemy into thinking Russia is more powerful than it is,” Daily Mail, published 10/13/16, accessed 10/13/16, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3837009/Something-Russians-blow-Putin-s-secret-inflatable-army-decoys-revealed.html. to confuse enemies while the same tactic was used more extensively during World War II. Specifically, during the second World War, dummy tanks were used to mislead the Germans before D-Day and to make derelict airfields seem active from the sky.3)Prigg, “Something else for the Russians to blow up: Putin’s secret inflatable army of decoys that are designed to fool the enemy into thinking Russia is more powerful than it is,” web. What’s interesting about dummy warfare, however, is that it only works as long as the enemy is not physically near you, for if they were, the gig would be up as an inflatable MiG, when examined up close, is clearly that: inflatable. So long as the enemy remains at a certain distance, however, the deterrent effect that a dummy army has is very real. In a world where warfare is extremely mediated and conflict often occurs through lenses and computer screens, the following question must be asked: are inflatable MiGs with no firepower really that much different from 20,000+ lb jet fighter?

On the surface, the answer is obviously “yes.” One can reduce buildings to rubble while the other can be transformed into a bounce-house for a child’s birthday party. A more nuanced analysis, however, is needed. While there are obviously material differences between a ‘real’ MiG and a ‘faux’ MiG, in the age of simulacra they are the same. As Jean Baudrillard noted in his essay compilation The Gulf War Did Not Take Place“[w]ar is no longer what it used to be…”4)Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, trans. Paul Patton (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 85. Specifically, war has changed on numerous levels. First, and as noted above, war has become much more mediated. Killing takes place remotely, loss of life by a technologically superior side is drastically reduced, and images of the battlefield go through multiple filters as different people view them and pass them on.5)This phenomenon has been discussed in depth in my article entitled “The Drone War is Not Happening.” Given this shift, the deterrent effect of an inflatable MiG is equal to that of a ‘real’ MiG. Second, is that since direct war between great nuclear powers is, by all accounts, extraordinarily unlikely, proxy wars and wars of deterrence are waged in its stead. During the Cold War, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union wanted to escalate their disagreements to the level of DEFCON 1 and send civilization back to a Mad Max style reality. Thus, the two powers attempted to deter one another from using force by showing that, if need be, Moscow could launch an ICBM at Washington and vice versa. After the Cold War, the mentality largely stayed the same with no one wanting to fire the first nuke and thus deterrence became the name of the game. If an enemy looks strong or appears to have large amounts of military hardware at the ready, competitors likely will not pick a fight with them…hence the inflatable MiGs, tanks, trucks, etc. For a quick surveillance aircraft flying at upwards of 20,000 ft, an inflatable MiG-31 appears no different than the ‘real’ thing.

Inflatable MiG 31

Thus we return to the guiding question, is an inflatable MiG any different than an aluminium one? As per an understanding of war that focuses on deterrence, the answer is no. From afar, both serve the same effect: to scare. Much like a closed fence with a ‘Beware of Dog’ sign, an inflatable MiG masquerading as the ‘real’ thing provides the same disincentive to trespass. That is until you find out the dog is a chihuahua or someone pops the blow-up fighter.

A discussion of ‘real’ and ‘fake’ MiGs in post-modernity would not be complete unless simulacra were discussed in more detail, however, for were Baudrillard still alive, I feel as if he would be unsatisfied with the previous analysis. I suspect Baudrillard would further note that not only are there no real differences between the ‘real’ and ‘fake’ MiG, but both are equally ‘fake’ to us in post-modernity.

For Baudrillard, our understanding of the physical Mikoyan MiG-31 — that is to say, the thing as it actually exists in the world independent of perception — is necessarily filtered through various levels of simulation. The MiGs I see in photographs are first order simulacra, something that “masks and denatures a profound reality.”6)Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulationtrans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994), 6. While they are still representations of the ‘real’ thing, there is a distance between us where the image is necessarily perverted. Much like a slightly edited photograph is still a representation of the real image, albeit slightly distorted, a spy-plane’s photograph of a Russian MiG is just a bit off from the original. Extending the Baudrillardian analysis, an inflatable MiG represents something ‘real’ — it causes a real effect — but it also does something more; it becomes a second order simulacra insofar as “it masks the absence of a profound reality.”7)Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 6. While it is designed to look like a MiG, it is fundamentally different while being designed to deceive. It is an example of a mass-produced, fake reality intended to stand in for the real thing. Much like a duplicate of the Mona Lisa is mass-produced and designed to stand in one’s home in place of the ‘real’ Mona Lisa, the inflatable MiG is designed to sit on the runways of the Khmeimim air base while the inflatable tank is designed to sit on the border of Poland in order to stand in for the ‘real’ things.

Perhaps as the new Cold War advances, we’ll see a Russian hack of NORAD and the United States’ radar systems where ‘non-existent’ MiGs are displayed on fighter’s screens and commander’s computers further tricking our military. Then, if we haven’t entered it already, we surely would become citizens in a world of third order simulacra.

Is there really any better irony, at the end of the day, that in a post-modern capitalist world, even the military is mass produced and is as ‘fake’ as the toys lining the aisles at a Wal-Mart?

References   [ + ]

1. Andrew Kramer, “A New Weapon in Russia’s Arsenal, and It’s Inflatable,” New York Times, published 10/12/16, accessed 10/13/16, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/13/world/europe/russia-decoy-weapon.html?%5C%5C&_r=1.
2. Mark Prigg, “Something else for the Russians to blow up: Putin’s secret inflatable army of decoys that are designed to fool the enemy into thinking Russia is more powerful than it is,” Daily Mail, published 10/13/16, accessed 10/13/16, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3837009/Something-Russians-blow-Putin-s-secret-inflatable-army-decoys-revealed.html.
3. Prigg, “Something else for the Russians to blow up: Putin’s secret inflatable army of decoys that are designed to fool the enemy into thinking Russia is more powerful than it is,” web.
4. Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, trans. Paul Patton (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 85.
5. This phenomenon has been discussed in depth in my article entitled “The Drone War is Not Happening.”
6. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulationtrans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994), 6.
7. Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 6.

2 comments

  1. Given the US has an inflatable President, what does it matter?
    both are vacuous, yet filled with hot air, and if it opens its valve,
    all that comes out is like a fart…

    PS what “capitalist” world?
    All I see is bureaucrats micromanaging the people,
    a leftist paradise to your mediocrity with little ability and even less respect for human life …

    1. Erin,

      With all due respect, what are you talking about? The inflatable president line of thought seems to be entirely irrelevant to the post above.

      Further, whether you like it or not, we live in some version of a capitalist world. Call it corporatism if you like, but we live in a world built on fetish of commodification and exchange. Micro-management, while not in line with pure Austrian capitalism, is not at odds with state capitalism. The rest of your comment is largely irrelevant and without argument.

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