U.S. Military Wants to Own the Weather

U.S. Military Wants to Own the Weather
U.S. Air Force Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites compared “lights at night” images before and after Hurricane Katrina disaster. (Image credit: U.S. Air Force)

Theone-two hurricane punch from Katrina andWilma along with predictions of moresevere weather in the future has scientists pondering ways to save lives,protect property and possibly even control the weather.

Whileefforts to tame storms have so far been cloudedby failure, some researchers aren’t willing to give up the fight. And evenif changing the weather proves overly challenging, residents and disasterofficials can do a better job planning and reacting.

Infact, military officials and weather modification experts could be on the vergeof joining forces to better gauge, react to, and possibly nullify futurehostile forces churned out by Mother Nature.

Whilesome consider the idea farfetched, some military tacticians have alreadypondered ways to turn weather into a weapon.

Harbingerof things to come?

TheU.S. military reaction in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that slammed the U.S.Gulf coast might be viewed as a harbinger of things to come. While in this caseit was joint air and space operations to deal with after-the-fact problems,perhaps the foundation for how to fend off disastrous weather may also beforming.

Numbersof spaceborne assets were tapped, among them:

  • Navigation and timing signals from the Global Positioning System (GPS) of satellites;
  • The Global Broadcast Service, a one-way, space-based, high-capacity broadcast communication system;
  • The Army’s Spectral Operations Resource Center to exploit commercial remote sensing satellite imagery and prepare high-resolution images to civilian and military responders to permit a better understanding of the devastated terrain;
  • U.S. Air Force Space Command’s Space and Missile Systems Center Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites that compared "lights at night" images before and after the disaster to provide data on human activity.

Is itfar-fetched to see in this response the embryonic stages of an integratedmilitary/civilian weather reaction and control system?

Mandateto continually improve

The useof space-based equipment to assist in clean-up operations -- with a look towardfuture prospects -- was recently noted by General Lance Lord, Commander, AirForce Space Command at an October 20th Pacific Space Leadership Forum inHawaii.

"Wesaw first hand the common need for space after the December 2004 tsunami in theIndian Ocean," Lord said. "Natural disasters don’t respectinternational boundaries. Space capabilities were leveraged immediately afterthe tsunami to help in the search and rescue effort…but what about before thedisaster?"

Lordsaid that an even better situation is to have predicted the coming disaster andwarned those in harm’s way. "No matter what your flag or where you waiveit from...the possibility of saving hundreds of thousands of people is amandate to continually improve," he advised.

TheU.S. Air Force is also looking at ways to make satellites and satellitelaunches cheaper and also reduce the amount of time it takes to launch intospace from months to weeks to days and hours, Lord said. Having that capabilitywill increase responsiveness to international needs, he said, such as theability to send up a satellite to help collect information and enhancecommunications when dealing with international disasters.

Thunderboltson demand

Whatwould a military strategist gain in having an "on-switch" to theweather?

Clearly,it offers the ability to degrade the effectiveness of enemy forces. That couldcome from flooding an opponent’s encampment or airfield to generating downrightdownpours that disrupt enemy troop comfort levels. On the flipside, sparking adrought that cuts off fresh water can stir up morale problems for warfightingfoes.

Evenfooling around with fog and clouds can deny or create concealment – whicheverweather manipulation does the needed job.

In thisregard, nanotechnology could be utilized to create clouds of tiny smartparticles. Atmospherically buoyant, these ultra-small computer particles couldnavigate themselves to block optical sensors. Alternatively, they might be usedto provide an atmospheric electrical potential difference -- a way to preciselyaim and time lightning strikes over the enemy’s head – thereby concoctthunderbolts on demand.

Perhapsthat’s too far out for some. But some blue sky thinkers have already lookedinto these and other scenarios in "Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owningthe Weather in 2025" – a research paper written by a seven person team ofmilitary officers and presented in 1996 as part of a larger study dubbed AirForce 2025.


Thatreport came with requisite disclaimers, such as the views expressed were thoseof the authors and didn’t reflect the official policy or position of the UnitedStates Air Force, Department of Defense, or the United States government.Furthermore, the report was flagged as containing fictional representations offuture situations and scenarios.

On theother hand, Air Force 2025 was a study that complied with a directive from thechief of staff of the Air Force "to examine the concepts, capabilities,and technologies the United States will require to remain the dominant air andspace force in the future."

"Currenttechnologies that will mature over the next 30 years will offer anyone who hasthe necessary resources the ability to modify weather patterns and theircorresponding effects, at least on the local scale," the authors of thereport explained. "Current demographic, economic, and environmental trendswill create global stresses that provide the impetus necessary for manycountries or groups to turn this weather-modification ability into acapability."

Pullingit all together

Thereport on weather-altering ideas underscored the capacity to harness such powerin the not too distant future.

"Assumingthat in 2025 our national security strategy includes weather-modification, itsuse in our national military strategy will naturally follow. Besides thesignificant benefits an operational capability would provide, anothermotivation to pursue weather-modification is to deter and counter potential adversaries,"the report stated. "The technology is there, waiting for us to pull it alltogether," the authors noted.

In2025, the report summarized, U.S. aerospace forces can "own theweather" by capitalizing on emerging technologies and focusing developmentof those technologies to war-fighting applications.

"Sucha capability offers the war fighter tools to shape the battlespace in waysnever before possible. It provides opportunities to impact operations acrossthe full spectrum of conflict and is pertinent to all possible futures,"the report concluded.

But ifwhipping up weather can be part of a warfighter’s tool kit, couldn’t thosetalents be utilized to retarget or neutralize life, limb andproperty-destroying storms?


"Itis time to provide funds for application of the scientific method to weathermodification and control," said Bernard Eastlund, chief technical officerand founder of Eastlund Scientific Enterprises Corporation in San Diego,California.

Eastlund’sbackground is in plasma physics and commercial applications of microwaveplasmas. At a lecture early this month at Penn State Lehigh Campus inFogelsville, Pennsylvania, he outlined new concepts for electromagnetic waveinteractions with the atmosphere that, among a range of jobs, could be appliedto weather modification research.

"Thetechnology of artificial ionospheric heating could be as important for weathermodification research as accelerators have been for particle physics,"Eastlund explained.

InSeptember, Eastland filed a patent on a way to create artificial ionized plasmapatterns with megawatts of power using inexpensive microwave power sources.This all-weather technique, he noted, can be used to heat specific regions ofthe atmosphere.

Eastlund’sresearch is tuned to artificial generation of acoustic and gravitational wavesin the atmosphere. The heating of steering winds to help shove aroundmesocyclones and hurricanes, as well as controlling electrical conductivity ofthe atmosphere is also on his investigative agenda.

Carefullytailored program plan

Eastlundsaid that the reduction in severity or impact of severe weather could bedemonstrated as part of a carefully tailored program plan.

"Inmy opinion, the new technology for use of artificial plasma layers in theatmosphere: as heater elements to modify steering winds, as a modifier ofelectrostatic potential to influence lightning distribution, and for generationof acoustic and gravitational waves, could ultimately provide a core technologyfor a science of severe weather modification," Eastlund told SPACE.com.

Thefirst experiments of a program, Eastlund emphasized, would be very small, anddesigned for safety. For example, a sample of air in a jet stream could beheated with a pilot experimental installation. Such experiments would utilizerelatively small amounts of power, between one and ten megawatts, he pointedout.

Bothground-based and space weather diagnostic instruments could measure the effect.Computer simulations could compare these results with predicted effects. Thisprocess can be iterated until reliable information is obtained on the effectsof modifying the wind.

Computersimulations of hurricanes, Eastlund continued, are designed to determine themost important wind fields in hurricane formation. Computer simulations ofmesocyclones use steering wind input data to predict severe storm development.

Afterabout 5 years of such research, and further development of weather codes, apilot experiment to modify the steering winds of a mesocylone might be safelyattempted. Such an experiment would probably require 50 to 100 megawatts,Eastlund speculated.

"Iestimate this new science of weather modification will take 10 to 20 years tomature to the point where it is useful for controlling the severity and impactof severe weather systems as large as hurricanes," Eastlund explained.


Anotherreason for embarking on this new science could be to make sure inadvertenteffects of existing projects, such as the heating of the ionosphere andmodifications of the polar electrojet, are not having effects on weather,Eastlund stated.

Asexample, Eastlund pointed to the High frequency Active Auroral Research Program(HAARP).This is a major Arctic facility for upper atmospheric and solar-terrestrialresearch, being built on a Department of Defense-owned site near Gakona,Alaska.

Eastlundwonders if HAARP does, in fact, generate gravity waves. If so, can those wavesin turn influence severe weather systems?

Startedin 1990, the unclassified HAARP program is jointly managed by the U.S. AirForce Research Laboratory and the Office of Naval Research. Researchers at thesite make use of a high-power ionospheric research instrument to temporarilyexcite a limited area of the ionosphere for scientific study, observing andmeasuring the excited region using a suite of devices.

Thefundamental goal of research conducted at the facility is to study andunderstand natural phenomena occurring in the Earth’s ionosphere and near-spaceenvironment. According to the HAARP website, those scientific investigationswill have major value in the design of future communication and navigationsystems for both military and civilian use.

Messingwith Mother Nature

Whobest to have their hands on the weather control switches?

Thelast large hurricane modification experiments -- under ProjectStormfury -- were carried out by the U.S. Air Force, Eastlund said."It is likely the Department of Defense would be the lead agency in anynew efforts in severe storm modification."

Additionally,federal laboratories with their extensive computational modeling skills wouldalso play a lead role in the development of a science of weather modification.NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would findtheir respective niches too. The satellite diagnostic capabilities in thoseagencies would play a strong role, Eastlund suggested.

Itappears that only modest amounts of government dollars have been spent onweather modification over the last five years.

"HurricaneKatrina could cost $300 billion by itself," Eastlund said. "In myopinion, it is time for a serious scientific effort in weathermodification."

"Globalwarming appears to be a reality, and records could continue to fall in thehurricane severity sweepstakes," Eastlund said. "When I firstsuggested the use of space-based assets for the prevention of tornadoes, manypeople expressed their displeasure with ‘messing with Mother Nature’. Istill remember hiding in the closet of our house in Houston as a tornado passedoverhead. It is time for serious, controlled research, with the emphasis onsafety, for the good of mankind," he concluded.

Thisarticle is part of SPACE.com's weekly Mystery Monday series.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.