Fictional organisation A wants to effectively fake military presence at sea - a remote location far away from any civilization, trade routes, radar/sonar stations. The target is a single civilian vessel B (e.g. a research expedition) which is in sight range and can be contacted by radio or optical signals.

Organisation A has considerable ressources - of course not enough to aquire (or legally own, for that matter) a military craft outright, but enough to get a ship sized like a patrol vessel, fast attack craft or corvette at maximum and make it look like an existing ship of that class with quite some detail, but without or only a bare minimum of functional military equipment/weaponry (they might be able to fake a warning shot), a prop basically.

They have trained crewmen at their disposal, which are - although real sailors - no actual soldiers, but can convincingly (for a civilian observer) pretend to be. The identifying transponder of the ship will be turned off (common practice for military craft) and A can effectively argue that they won't turn it on just for identification as this would disclose their precise position.

E.g. Organization A claims to be the USS Ardent, identify themselves as such via radio and make certain demands (aka move out of a specific area). Civilians B suspect that A might not be military but certainly don't want to risk pissing off the real US Navy who might just blow them out of the water if they dont comply.
B of course have no clue regarding the whereabouts of the actual USS Ardent. If they google for pictures, those will pretty much match the size, shape, ship, displacement etc. of what they can see. If B look closer, they will be able to see the correct flag and a plausible amount of crew in their respective uniforms. There are no obvious "rookie mistakes" to be discovered or details to spot for a civilian which could blow the cover. In short, B must rely on outside verification.

Reality Check
Is this level of illusion even feasible to achieve/maintain with the means described? If not, what is lacking?

Identification Process
Is there even any possibility to get confirmation or falsification on the identity of the ship that claims to be the USS Ardent from either the US Government or Navy? They probably won't hand out the position of their warships - and who would you even call to ask...?

Hey, we have encountered the USS Ardent at [position], is this the real one and actually your ship?

If yes, is there a standard procedure to follow (i know there is one for individual soldiers) and how long would that take?

Answers regarding the US Navy are most appreciated. However, if you know the answer for the naval forces of a different country, im interested to read those as well.

Parts of this question are worded in some way that might give a wrong impression. I might have exaggregated the aggressive behavior or possibility that the US Navy opens fire on civilians. This is not the case however, the demands made by A are not out of this world, more a minor inconvenience in the sort of Please navigate around this area for your own safety. It is actually not important, neither for A or the question itself, if those demands are actually followed by B or not. The main goal of the con is making A believe that the US Navy operates at this position


closed as off-topic by Mołot, sphennings, Vincent, Josh King, Amadeus Jul 27 '17 at 14:17

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  • $\begingroup$ What kind of demands are they making, and how strong-minded is the captain of vessel B? In a con like this, the goal you are trying to achieve and the mindset of the mark are far more important than the tools you use to go about making the ruse. Also, are you only interested in imitating a major country's navy? Every country has their own doctrine, but the size and angryness of a country is important when deciding how to treat them. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Jul 27 '17 at 4:55
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you, I have edited the question to be more clear on the matter im after. The size of the country is not that important, I mainly chose the US Navy as it has by far the most ships and one would not be totally irritated by the fact that a US vessel is securing something in the deep waters of the atlantic. UK/Canada would also be an option, China already kinda suspicious and Saudi Arabia immediately raise red flags. $\endgroup$ – Randolph Carter Jul 27 '17 at 13:24

Conning an idiot who is a pushover is a piece of cake. So if the captain of B is an idiot and a pushover, it will be easy to make such a con work. If he's not an idiot and not a pushover, it will be harder.

Respectable navies (most major nations' navies) don't go around shooting civilians. It's typically a major incident if a navy vessel shoots a civilian, even if the civilian is in the wrong. We expect a respectable navy to get in close and personal with such craft. Only once they have sufficient intel to build a solid case will they open fire. Navies that open fire sooner than that tend not to be respected, and a disrespected navy tends to get shoved around by the big respected ones.

What this means is that there's no guarantee that B will just roll over and comply. B may choose, instead, to interact with the navy vessel, testing the waters, because B won't be afraid of being blown out of the water. A would need to know how to put this kind of pressure on B. That pressure is what ensures you can't call a big respectable navy captain's bluff. While he may be bluffing about shooting a civilian vessel with his big guns before he has proper intel, he's maneuvering other vessels to intercept you to force you to comply.

As a real life example, several years ago I was sailing in San Diego when a cruiser came into port. We gave them quite a large berth. Cruisers don't exactly stop nor turn well, and it's very undesirable to get in their way. Another sailboat was not paying as much attention. The cruiser let off a few short bursts of the horn to get their attention. When that didn't cause the desired results, there were suddenly two small boats closing fast on the sail boat, one of which was loudly broadcasting commands over a loudspeaker.

While nobody expected the cruiser to open fire, those boats full of sailors were most definitely armed and ready to board that sailboat if it didn't play along. Fortunately for them, that was enough of a notice and they gave up the favorable winds for not getting arrested!

Mimicking pirates might be a more effective strategy. Pirates are not known for being respectable, and they don't mind shooting a craft out of the water because it doesn't look profitable. Calling a pirate's bluff is a lot more risky.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your insight! Im afraid that I mislead you in my question - edited to be more clear - but your answer was valuable for me anyway. $\endgroup$ – Randolph Carter Jul 27 '17 at 13:46
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, if the captain of B suspects that A isn't what it appears, B is very UNLIKELY to push it or test the waters - a US Navy vessel isn't going to fire on a civilian, but someone PRETENDING to be a US Navy vessel obviously has something to hide and might well be willing to kill to keep that secret. $\endgroup$ – Michael Kohne Jul 27 '17 at 14:00
  • $\begingroup$ Out of morbid curiosity, did the cruiser actually have the right-of-way? $\endgroup$ – Perkins Nov 15 '18 at 22:26

As far as I know:

  • blowing out a ship just because it didn't follow your order is an aggression. Normally before further escalation a military ship will try to disturb the other one, but no direct attack will be executed in international waters.
  • (military) ships and aircraft navigating with switched off transponder are, again, seen by default as aggressively behaving.

Such aggression are normally handled via the embassies (threatened ship call her embassy reporting aggression, then embassy contact other embassy asking for clarification and/or send support). I guess that embassies promptly react to such requests, so it can be handled within few hours at most.

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    $\begingroup$ In that case, how would a military vessel enforce its will on a civilian ship if the civilian ship knows the military is not allowed to use force? Let's say the civilian vessel will closely follow the military one wherever it goes, and keep harassing it, ignoring any command from the military ship to leave them alone. I guess they will be boarded if all negotiations fail. Is such a scenario plausible? I would guess the military would sooner board them instead of firing at them. $\endgroup$ – vsz Jul 27 '17 at 13:54
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    $\begingroup$ @vsz, don't confuse legitimate defense agains an assault (like the example you do), or legitimate mission (where the ship has the task of i.e. precluding access to an area) $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Jul 27 '17 at 14:36
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    $\begingroup$ @vsz Boarding is preferable when it is safe. About 20 years ago the Norwegian Coastguard ship KV Senja fired twice on a civilian ship that refused to follow orders. The coastguard tried to board, but the civilans fired a shotgun and the boarding was aborted. After several warnings and many chances to comply the Norwegian defence minister authorized an escalation of force and Senja fired two shots into the aft part of the ship after telling the civilians to move forward. No one was injured and the civilians were taken to a Norwegian port. $\endgroup$ – Ling Jul 27 '17 at 14:36
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    $\begingroup$ @vsz There was about 12 hours between the shotgun shot and the artillery(20mm, non explosive) fire so no "sudden blowing out of the water." Also note that they waited for an authorization from the government before taking such drastic action. It started with the civilians fishing in a restricted area and then trying to run away thinking the coastguard wouldn't fire. $\endgroup$ – Ling Jul 27 '17 at 14:42
  • The first step might be to consult reference works. Traditionally that is Jane's Fighting Ships as the "definitive" source. The print editions had long lists of pennant numbers and pages full of silhouettes. About 50 metres long, number 3 on the bow, that should be PC-3 Hurricane. Hey, that looks like a 3-inch gun on the deck, shouldn't it be 25mm?
  • Having such a tentative identification, google the ship. PC-3 belongs to PC Squadron 1. The squadron is based in the Gulf, so what is she doing in the South China Sea?
  • Of course press releases might be outdated or deliberately false. Remember the Vinson affair?

Disclaimer : I have no knowledge of the US Navy and only a fundamental knowledge of electronics. Like everything I write here, this answer is an exercise in creative thought and should not be confused with an authoritative opinion.

Additional Disclaimer: Apparently radio is not always omni-directional, so this whole answer wouldn't work. Read on at your own risk.

In the most recent Clive Cussler novels, where this kind of scenario has played out at least twice, the hero's former boss is now the Vice President of the United States, so he literally can place a cell phone call and ask where the USS Ardent is currently located.

Assuming that none of your character's have such contacts, there is one clue that might lead them to question the ship's authenticity. It is sort of a rookie mistake, but there is no work around for it, so it is not so much rookie as an unavoidable aspect of the charade.

Radio is an omni-directional communications method. If the fake USS Ardent identifies itself by radio during it's communication with civilian B, all ships within range of its radio will hear them. That might include real U.S. Navy ships which do have access to an ship position validation system and would also have preexisting knowledge of what U.S. Navy ships are in the area. It might include other nations' ships who might be watching out for unauthorized U.S. ships in their sovereign waters. Your civilians might not be able to vet the ship, but that is not true of any other military ship within hearing range.

So... The fake USS Ardent is going to be broadcasting its radio at a very low energy level, a level which will reach Civilian B's vessel but wont reach further than a couple miles (line of sight) across the open sea. To minimize its chances of being heard by real military ships, the fake USS Ardent will technically whisper its commands out to the civilian vessel.

Perhaps Civilian B has the electronics expertise (that I lack) and can detect that the signal is much weaker than it should be. It is not much, but it might plant a seed of doubt in your hero's mind.

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    $\begingroup$ Radio is omni-directional only if you use a single broadcast antenna. If you use more than one antenna then it most definitely is not omni-directional. And by controlling the relative phases of the antennas a competent radio-engineer can intentionally alter the shape of the effective broadcast region. Any certified FCC 1st Class Engineer can do this and all major radio and TV stations employ this approach. (I suspect that most Ham radio operators could do this also.) $\endgroup$ – RBarryYoung Jul 27 '17 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ @RBarryYoung, you make me very glad that I claimed only fundamental knowledge of such things. It is such a pain when facts get in the way of an otherwise good idea. Thanks for pointing it out! Far better here than after someone actually used the idea in a story. $\endgroup$ – Henry Taylor Jul 27 '17 at 16:32

Any reference B can use to check hull numbers, shape, size, etc., is available to A to make the fake look accurate.

We're in international waters here, so freedom of navigation applies. At the very least, A would be expected to supply a plausible reason for requiring B to leave the area (e.g. "there is an ongoing exercise, you're in danger"). At least if it were the Royal Navy, B could expect to be boarded and her crew arrested, rather than simply sunk. The more tightly the scenario conforms to these expectations, the less reason B will have to get suspicious.

Many warships operate AIS transponders when their locations can be made public, and that information is freely available, e.g. at https://www.vesselfinder.com/ . Most probably the ship won't show up, but if it does and it's somewhere else that's a dead giveaway.


If the civilians are a suspicious bunch, they may check publicly available ship tracking websites, e.g. https://currentops.com/ships. There don't seem to be many US Navy ships listed there, but the Royal Navy is well represented so it wouldn't strain plausibility for the USN to show up as well.

It's up to you if the nefarious organization has enough pull to get their fake ship listed in the right place or if this is how your civilians discover something amiss.


First of all you don't say "This is Morduck Allmighty move away mortal or you will be crushed". Your radar detect ship and calculate/change ships direction to avoid collision. The same system serve as a transponder so on your radar you see "USS Ardent". If you switch that off you are a barrel not a ship and you can't do Jack. If you call and say "ububub scram, we are Tutti Frutti" the guy on the other ship will say "I don't see you on radar turn your transponder on".

If you operate on certain waters you need to have permissions. So they will say "here's a permission to water your hole till 1200 because later we will be shooting ducks there".

How you look in real life is secondary because you can be a bunch of ASG freaks that like to pretend they are landing an operation in Bay of Pigs.


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