The U.S. Air Force Dreamed of Killer Clouds
How militaries manipulate weather and — they hope — weaponize storms
by MATTHEW GAULT
May is a month of holidays in Russia. With the official start of spring plus Labor Day, Victory Day and Orthodox Easter all taking place within days of each other, Russians spend the month celebrating.
And if Russian president Vladimir Putin has his way, there won’t be a cloud in the sky to spoil the fun. That’s because the Kremlin plans to spend $1.3 million to eliminate clouds and ensure a lovely May.
Russia and other countries do this all the time. Weather-manipulation is old news. In 2008, the Russian air force accidentally dumped a 55-pound bag of concrete — one of the substances it uses to disrupt weather — on a suburban Moscow home.
China deployed the same technology to keep the skies clear during the Beijing Olympics. Dubai seeds clouds to create rain rather than disrupt it. Thailand maintains a Bureau of Royal Rainmaking and Agricultural Aviation. Several U.S. states also manipulate the weather.
Militaries love the technology and its implications, but rarely raise a cloud in anger. A U.N treaty stays their hands. But that doesn’t mean that world’s armed forces — particularly in America — don’t at least research weaponized weather.
One U.S. Air Force white paper from the 1990s proposed creating artificial clouds of very, very tiny “nanomachines” that could, in theory, manipulate the weather, spy on the enemy down below and even steer lighting to fry targets on the ground.
Yes, this sounds ridiculous, but other tech that the paper proposes — and which might have seemed impossible in 1996 — is either here or coming soon. So maybe smart clouds aren’t far off.
America’s obsession with weaponized weather began after World War II. The muddy fields of Europe and Southeast Asia’s torrential rainfalls compelled a generation of soldiers to wonder how they could turn Mother Nature — and enlist her as an American ally. Vietnam was the perfect testing ground for many strange weather-experiments.
When the military brass decided that Agent Orange took too long to defoliate the jungle, they asked the mad scientists at the Advanced Research Projects Agency to find something faster. ARPA attempted to replicate a horrifying natural weather pattern in the jungles of Southeast Asia — a firestorm.
A firestorm typically begins as forest fire that gets so out-of-control that it creates and sustains its own wind. That’d be a great method of clearing out the Vietcong’s jungle hiding spots, ARPA theorized. Thankfully, ARPA never actually succeeded in actually harnessing fire.
The Pentagon didn’t give up. Between 1966 to 1972, the military tried to extend Vietnam’s monsoon season as part of the so-called “Project Popeye.”
The scheme involved four-engine WC-130 weather-recon planes making repeated trips over Laos to scatter crushed dry-ice over farmland. Planners hoped the dry-ice would encourage rains — and flooding. The deluges would muddy-up the Vietcong’s supply trails.
At least, that was the concept. To this day, no one is sure if Project Popeye actually worked.
The Air Force tried to manipulate the mud, too. In 1967, the flying branch launched Operation Commando Lava, which saw aircraft drop a Dow Chemical-brand mix of nitrilotriacetic acid and sodium triphosphate onto the dirt trails of Vietnam.
The idea, as before, was to create a perpetual muddy nightmare. Just like Project Popeye, the military wasn’t sure if it worked — and eventually abandoned the scheme.
Today militaries use the techniques the United States pioneered in Project Popeye in their various efforts to control the weather. Many air forces routinely seed clouds with mixtures of silver iodide and dry ice or some other substance. That’s how Russia came to drop that bag of concrete.
China conducts the word’s most extensive cloud-seeding operation, firing rockets loaded with silver iodide into the sky, like skeet-shooting with clouds.
Sometimes the cloud-seeding works. Sometimes it doesn’t. In any event, it’s a fairly benign practice.
Fearing a malign outcome, in 1976 the United Nations proposed treaty banning weather-modification technology. Over the next few years, most countries — including the United States, Russia and China — signed the treaty. The ban allows for peaceful weather-manipulation but prohibits offensive deployment of the same tech.
The treaty hasn’t prevented research and experimentation. The U.S. Air Force renewed its weather-modding efforts in the 1990s and, in 1997, Air Force major Barry Coble wrote Benign Weather Modification, a paper detailing ways the military could turn the weather to its advantage without violating the U.N. treaty.
Coble’s work focuses on weather-manipulation to create favorable conditions on the battlefield. “Modifying weather to cause injury or death is outlawed,” Coble wrote. “For instance, causing lightning to strike exposed enemy infantry is illegal.”
“I focus on weather modification aimed at suppressing existing weather or enhancing the effects of weather without causing direct physical harm to people,” Coble explained.
Coble’s paper addresses the history, ethics and science of weather-manipulation. But it’s less a technical proposal than an apologetic.
“This author has personally witnessed the anger some people … feel when the idea of military weather modification, benign or not, is mentioned,” he wrote. And after spending two-dozen pages discussing chaos theory and reassuring readers of God’s dominion over Earth, Coble devoted just two pages to military applications of weather tech — mostly involving fog-suppression.
A year before Coble’s strange ramblings, then-Air Force Chief of Staff Ronald Fogleman commissioned a white paper exploring the theory and practice of weather-modification in an alternate reality where America isn’t bound by the U.N. treaty.
Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather by 2025 is as bizarre as it is prescient. “In this paper, we show that appropriate application of weather-modification can provide battlespace dominance to a degree never before imagined,” the paper beamed. It gets creepier.
The authors acknowledged that playing God with the weather is “a high-risk, high-reward endeavor [that] offers a dilemma not unlike the splitting of the atom.”
“While some segments of society will always be reluctant to examine controversial issues such as weather-modification, the tremendous military capabilities that could result from this field are ignored at our own peril.”
“Imagine that in 2025 the U.S. is fighting a rich, but now consolidated, politically powerful drug cartel in South America,” the paper continues. According to this fantasy scenario, the cartel has a powerful 10-to-one warplane advantage over the United States after loading up on cheap jets from a collapsing China and Russia.
The paper offers a simple solution to the problem — attack during the rainy season and use chemical-laden drones to seed the sky and enhance storms.
Today that’s not really fantasy. Private drone companies have been attempting to market their flying robots as weather-manipulators for a few years now.
Much of the rest of the paper envisions a world and technology that are largely already with us. It dreams of a massive, high-speed surveillance system for tracking and mapping weather — not to mention microwaves for distributing fog onto the battlefield, weaponized storms and tech for disrupting the ionosphere in order to manipulate enemy communications.
“Nanotechnology also offers possibilities for creating simulated weather,” the authors wrote.
“A cloud, or several clouds, of microscopic computer particles, all communicating with each other and with a larger control system, could provide tremendous capability. Interconnected, atmospherically buoyant and having navigation capability in three dimensions, such clouds could be designed to have a wide-range of properties.”
Is the Air Force’s dream of a weather-controlling nano-cloud the natural next step in America’s drone wars? “Even if power levels achieved were insufficient to be an effective strike weapon, the potential for psychological operations in many situations could be fantastic,” the authors claimed.
And it’d be cheap too. The paper cites a Rutgers University study that predicted “nanoparticles could be about the same price per pound as potatoes.”
Pervasive nanotechnology is still years away and it’s unlikely the Air Force will field a robotic death-cloud before 2025. But that doesn’t mean the technology isn’t coming — and that other countries aren’t also thinking about how to weaponize the weather.
There’s a reason armed forces are usually in charge of weather-modification. If the U.N. treaty ever goes up in smoke, we could fight our future wars with fog and lighting as well as guns and bombs.
Operation Commando Lava used chemicals to turn the Ho Chi Minh trail into a muddy swampmedium.com