Thunderbolts are traditionally the weapon of the gods, but in 1967 the CIA were wondering whether they, too, could call down bolts of lightning from the heavens at will.
The idea is contained in a proposal from a scientist, sent to the CIA’s Deputy for Research ‘Special Activities’ and passed on to the chief of the Air Systems division. The scientist’s name has been redacted in the declassified document from the CIA’s archive, but the proposal mentions a previous discussion with the CIA, indicating they were being taken seriously.
The guided lightning concept is based on the observation that lightning follows a path of ionized air known as a step leader. Once the leader stroke reaches the ground and makes a circuit, the lightning proper is formed and a current flow, typically around 300 million Volts at 30,000 Amps.
The scientist suggests that artificial leaders could “cause discharges to occur when and where we want them.” The artificial leader would be a wire a few thousandths of an inch in diameter and several miles long. Wires would be inserted into storms by aircraft or rockets on a spool, and unrolled by a drogue parachute, and lightning would follow them down to the ground.
“This method is possible because the main discharge will occur through ionized surrounding the wire,” notes the scientist. The wire, like the leader, is only needed to get the lightning going, and would still work even if it broke.
Among the advantages are “a relatively cheap barrage may be laid down” and “there should be little or no evidence left of what caused the lightning storm.” The technique would allow the CIA to call down what looked like the wrath of heaven on a target without giving away that they were behind it. It would certainly be a useful capability – if it could be done.
The plan may not have seemed very far-fetched in 1967. The U.S. Air Force was already involved in weather modification with Operation Popeye, seeding clouds in Vietnam in an unsuccessful attempt to increase rainfall and disrupt the Ho Chi Minh trail used to supply the Viet Cong. And the CIA was keen on psychological operations invoking the supernatural, such as a scheme to persuade Cubans that the Second Coming was imminent by having a submarine surface covertly and launch flares over Havana – ‘Illumination by Submarine.’
The scientist involved appears to have been a senior meteorological researcher. The proposal notes that that they have prepared patents for the commercial exploitation of the technology, but wanted the U.S. military to have free use of it first.
The idea is certainly scientifically valid. In the subsequent decades the technique of triggering lightning with artificial leaders – typically wires towed by rockets – has proven valuable for research in both the U.S. and China. But taming lightning is not easy or simple, and nobody has yet demonstrated the type of ‘barrage’ suggested in the CIA proposal, as far as we know.
DARPA later experimented with triggered lightning and took research much further with their Project Nimbus, operating the only dedicated outdoor lightning research center in the U.S. However, the emphasis was on basic scientific research and preventing lightning strikes. (Ironically enough, the latest F-35 Lightning II aircraft has proven to be particularly vulnerable to lightning).
“They claimed they had no interest in using lightning as a weapon,” University of Florida professor Martin Uman told the Tampa Bay Times in 2017 when DARPA ceased funding the work. “If there were generals having meetings behind our research, we didn’t know about it.”
This lack of interest in weaponized lightning may be because it did not seem feasible, or because lightning was seen as less effective than modern air-launched weapons. Or it may be that the CIA already had that area covered.
There are no further mentions of controlled lightning in the CIA archives. Oddly though, the promised commercial patents were never published. So we cannot tell whether the idea was dropped — or whether it disappeared into some secret black project and the CIA still harbors dreams of a covert arsenal of thunderbolts.