Man has always marveled at the terrifying and destructive nature of thunder and lightning. In Norse mythology, it is produced using Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor, the god of thunder. The Greeks believed that lightning bolts were thrown down by Zeus from Mount Olympus. In more modern times there was the belief that lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, which turned out to be false. There’s also another one that says you should hang an acorn by your window if you want to prevent lightning from striking. Whatever these beliefs were, they were not as wild as the CIA’s belief that they could weaponize lightning and make it strike as they wished.
Anatomy of a Lightning
First, let’s have a little bit of elementary Science so we could understand how lightning works which would make us better understand why it was (or was not) a good weapon idea. Perhaps the best source of explanation would be none other than NASA. As they explained,
You need cold air and warm air. When they meet, the warm air goes up. It makes thunderstorm clouds! The cold air has ice crystals. The warm air has water droplets. During the storm, the droplets and crystals bump together and move apart in the air. This rubbing makes static electrical charges in the clouds.
So lightning is a discharge of electricity and a giant one. In fact, one strike of lightning can heat up the air around it at 54,000°F, and this extremely high heat could cause the air to expand explosively fast, and this rapid expansion would create a shock wave that would turn into the booming sound that we hear after the lightning, which is the thunder.
Lightning strikes when the negative charges in the bottom of the cloud are attracted toward the positive charges in the ground, so basically, a stream of negative charges rushes down towards a high point with positive charges.
In 1967, the CIA perhaps thought that they did not need Thor’s Mjolnir to become the god of thunder, so they started exploring the possibility of summoning the lightning as they wished. The idea started in one scientist’s (unnamed in the declassified document) proposal to CIA’s Deputy of Research “Special Activities,” which was then passed on to the chief of the Air Systems division. The idea stemmed from the fact that lightning follows a path of ionized air stemming from the cloud, known as stepped leaders. According to How Stuff Works, “The stepped leaders are mostly invisible, except to incredibly high-speed cameras — they branch towards the ground unbelievably quickly — about 164 feet (50 meters) per microsecond!”
The current flow in lightning could produce around 300 million volts at 30,000 Amps. Taking the whole idea, the scientist thought they could use artificial leaders to “cause discharges to occur where and when we desire them.” The artificial leaders would be in the form of extremely thin metal wires that were a few thousandths of an in width and several miles in length. These wires would be “inserted” into storms either by aircraft or by rockets on a spool, unrolled, and then the lightning would follow these leaders to the ground as they normally would with stepped leaders.
No Interest in Lightning as a Weapon?
The scientist’s idea was not invalid, although playing with and taming lightning was never done before, and it would not be easy. Nonetheless, DARPA did their experiments with triggered lightning and even took the research further with Project Nimbus, operating the only outdoor lightning research center in the US, even though its emphasis was on preventing and not attracting lightning strikes.
Soon, the funding was cut, and the operation ceased. In an article written by Tampa Bay Times, University of Florida professor Martin Uman said, “They claimed they had no interest in using lightning as a weapon.” that was after a DARPA spokesman did not provide a specific reason why the research ended.
Perhaps the real question here was whether it would be feasible at all to use lightning as weapon against enemy troops or installations if the CIA pushed through with the project? Or maybe it was better to leave it to Thor?