Trust and Time
During the World War II “Battle of the Beams,” the Germans introduced a series of beam-based guidance systems for their bombers, which the British in turn attempted to counter. The third in the series of German systems, the Y-Gerät (Y-device), offered improved flexibility and accuracy, features that naturally worried the British. (Price 1977, 48) Fortunately for the British, they managed to anticipate the system and, as a result, counter it almost immediately.
As documented in his book Most Secret War, R. V. Jones played an instrumental role in the “Battle of the Beams.” In chapter 21, “Wotan’s Other Eye,” he discusses how the British countered Y-Gerät. It’s a tale worth reading (and rereading), particularly when combined with the parallel account in Alfred Price’s Instruments of Darkness. It’s not the tale we’re going to tell here, however.
Instead, we are going to highlight two ancillary points: trust and time. Regarding the first point, Jones notes that the Germans doubted their system because they knew the British could radio false orders to the German bombers with no trouble. As Jones recalls, “In fact we did not do this, but it seemed such an easy countermeasure that the German crews thought that we might, and they therefore began to be suspicious about the instructions that they received.” (Jones 1978, 177)
The implications of this are perhaps obvious but worth stating nonetheless: a lack of trust can exist even if an adversary fails to exploit a weakness in the system. More importantly, this doubt can become a shadow adversary. According to Jones, “it was not long before the crews found substance to their theory [that is, their doubt].” In support of this, he offers the anecdote of a German pilot who, returning to base after wandering off course, grumbled that “the British had given him a false order.” (Jones, 177)
Time, as usual, is the joker in the deck. When discussing the British efforts to counter Y-Gerät, Price observes that “There was even time to be subtle about the counter-measures.” (Price, 48) Before the Germans had an opportunity to deploy the Y-Gerät fully, Jones had deduced the nature of the system, aided by clues from the Oslo Report. This advance warning allowed the British to jam the system from the start, and, as Jones concludes, this helped “[restore] our moral ascendancy for the rest of the winter.” (Jones, 177) (Imagine how the immediate countermeasure demoralized the Germans.)
In practice, Jones’ foresight enabled something akin to the “one-ahead principle,” described by J. Bowyer Bell and Barton Whaley in their book Cheating and Deception. (1991, 134–135) Magicians employ the principle, for example, when setting up the next trick while performing the previous one. It allows the trick to appear seamless and helps mystify the careful observer who focuses only on the current trick. Another way of stating the principle is “Win the game before it starts.” It’s nothing new, of course; we can find applications of this principle in many of the stratagems employed anciently by intriguers, tacticians, and kingmakers alike.
Why should the red teamer care? Superior red teamers know what their opponents fear. They know when trust is lacking and how to exploit this lack of trust with minimal effort. They also know that time is often their friend. They know how to use it and how to manipulate it.
Still, time can be difficult to simulate in red team exercises and events. Many customers will resist applications of the “one-ahead principle,” and few will fund an exercise or event that allows real foresight or deception time to mature. This underscores an underappreciated aspect of the superior red teamer’s skillset: the ability to structure exercises and events that approximate reality by modeling the essence of the problem. After all, red teaming is so much more than brainstorming wily attacks.
Bell, J. Bowyer and Barton Whaley. Cheating and Deception. 1991. Taylor & Francis.
Jones, R. V. Most Secret War. 1978. London: Penguin Books.
Price, Alfred. Instruments of Darkness. 1978. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.