Every May, Russia proudly marches its biggest, fiercest-looking military hardware across Red Square in a show of force one might expect from one of the biggest militaries in the world. Tanks, missile launchers and rockets worth billions of dollars thunder across the cobblestones.
But in a small field outside Moscow, two men wheel out a small package that could save the Russian military millions and prevent it from needing to deploy that fearsome arsenal. The men fire up an air pump and within minutes there stands a towering S-300 anti-aircraft missile launcher.
Russia's Defense Ministry is in talks with a private company called Rusbal to develop a range of inflatable decoy armaments they could place in battlefields to deceive the enemy about positions and lure it into attacking cheap replicas with their million-dollar rockets.
Tanks, radars and jets are part of the series, along with the S-300.
"They're light, possible to move quickly, meaning more mobile," says Viktor Talanov, Rusbal's head of marketing. "They're the full imitation in every sense: visually, heat and on radar."
Rusbal workers demonstrate with another dummy weapon, a T-80 tank.
Within three minutes, the 200 pounds of limp fabric turn into a full-size T-80, the barrel propped up with a steel bar.
One of the workers grabs the front and parks it effortlessly next to the inflated S-300.
Talanov won't say precisely how much they would sell a fake T-80 to the military for, but the commercial version is $6,000. The military version, he says, is about double, a far cry from a real T-80 (no longer produced), which can run into the millions.
From the air, the decoys look remarkably realistic. But in this day of thermal imaging and heat-seeking missiles, Rusbal has had to improve dummy technology to interest the military. They line various parts of the equipment with a thin layer of metal and install a heating system so that, for example, an inflatable truck would appear to have a warm engine when viewed through thermal imaging.
Talanov claims that in side-by-side tests conducted by the military, one can't tell the difference between the real and the fake.
Nothing New About Dummy Equipment
Dummy equipment is hardly a new battlefield trick. NATO forces bombed fake Serb tanks during the war in Kosovo. Gen. George Patton was put in charge of a phantom army to fool the Germans into thinking allied forces would land at the Pas-de-Calais instead of Normandy on D-Day.
Most recently, Rusbal believes, some of their "tanks" were used by Russia in its five-day war with Georgia in 2008.
But the bulk of Rusbal's business comes from decidedly different areas: hot air balloons, bouncy castles and custom inflatable advertising. Talanov's father, a defense industry engineer, co-founded the company in the early 1990s along with other engineers and started producing hot air balloons. In 1995, they started discussions with the military about dummy equipment.
The company's small workshop is covered with rolls of brightly covered fabric for the balloons and castles, dark green cloth for the weapons. A row of six women sit at whirring sewing machines, others stand around large tables studying designs and cutting the fabric.
"It is very complicated, look at these drawings," says Marina Smirnova, pointing to the schematics. "Our goal is to cut and sew in the right way, to make it look good and in real size. The rest is a state secret."
Rusbal is coy about where its talks with the military stand, and the Defense Ministry is predictably mum.
"Our products are the most peaceful," Talanov says. "We are not making weapons of destruction, we are making weapons of saving as our equipment and models save people and real military equipment."