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Blow-up Weapons: A Look at Russia's Army of Inflatable Decoys

Although funny in theory, inflatable weapons are no laughing matter

A new company has branched into making a different kind of weapons system for use on the modern battlefield—inflatable balloons.

Rusbal, a Russian toy company started in 1993 by a hot air balloon enthusiast, originally made hot air balloons, inflatable children's play sets, and inflatable costumes. Eventually the company began making inflatable jets, tanks, and surface-to-air missile batteries as part of a Russian tactic known as maskirovka—warfare by deception.

Deceiving the enemy into thinking you are weak when you are strong—or strong when you are weak—is a time-honored practice. The United States and its allies practiced extensive deception operations in World War II, such as fooling the Germans into believing that the D-Day landings would come at Calais and not Normandy. It also created an an entire fake army, complete with inflatable weapons, to support the invasion.

Imitation T-80 tank. Rusbal photo.
Imitation T-80 tank. Rusbal photo.

Rusbal has an entire line of inflatable weapon systems, all blowup copies of the important Russian military gear and facilities. It has fake MiG-31 and Su-27 fighters, T-72 and T-80 main battle tanks, and a complete inflatable version of a S-300 surface-to-air missile battery similar to that sent to Syria last week. It also sells inflatable command and control tents, radar stations, and even the Tochka short-range tactical ballistic missile.

Here's a Rusbal promotional video, complete with Seinfeld-like intro music, showing off the wonders of inflatable fake weapon technology.

Although funny in theory, inflatable weapons are no laughing matter. According to The New York Times Times, a single inflatable T-80 tank costs $16,000, can be built up from two duffel bags, and inflated in about five minutes. That means an entire battalion of 31 fake tanks costs just $496,000 and takes just two and a half hours to set up. To complete the ruse, the company even sells a device to make fake tank tracks in the dirt. After all, a tank that suddenly springs up in a grassy field is sort of suspicious.

The article implies that Russia has been a major customer for these inflatable models, and given the cost of developing an inflatable surface-to-air missile launcher, we can infer that the resulting sales made it worth Rusbal's while.

Will these inflatables fool the enemy? That depends. To the trained eye, as well as sophisticated U.S. and NATO reconnaissance systems, probably not. But part of the elegance of maskirovka is parking a dozen inflatable tanks along a tour bus route, just about at the range where they start to look real, and then counting the "OMG RUSSIA HAS A MILLION TANKS ON THE BORDER" posts on Instagram. And then watching an entire country's foreign policy change based on several hundred pounds of rubber and an air compressor.

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