Operation Popeye: when the weather was used as a weapon of war

Mauricio Saldivar 9 minutes
vietnamese tank
A tank stuck in the mud during the monsoon season during the Vietnam War.

The participation of USA in the conflict of Vietnam, had started with just under 1,000 men in early 1960. By 1967, the number had grown to almost half a million soldiers. The North American effort to stop the advance of communism was demanding a large amount of economic and human resources without obtaining clear military advantages and the first voices were beginning to be raised against intervention in the conflict.

The time had come to use, in the greatest secrecy, an unconventional and controversial weapon.

The Ho Chi Minh

To all this, the logistics of the communist forces was unstoppable. The Ho Chi Minh River was a set of trails and roads with a total length of 16,000 km, controlled by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam, communist) that, crossing the territory of Laos and Cambodia, reached the Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). South), through which combatants, weapons and war material destined for the communist resistance transited. For the North Americans it was a priority to cut that logistics chain to win the war.

The Ho Chi Minh Trail
The Ho Chi Minh was a 16,000 km long set of trails and roads that facilitated logistics and the movement of troops for the communists.

In Southeast Asia, the monsoon season runs from June to September. These are the months in which the southwest monsoon, a seasonal weather system made up of winds that come from the sea loaded with moisture, cause heavy rains on the continent. Thanks to the monsoons, the region’s vegetation is lush and rice cultivation is favored. The monsoon season made it difficult to get around the Ho Chi Minh River, making roads impassable.

The military tactics and strategies used by the US forces were not working. The time had come to look to the sky, but not precisely for divine help.

Sow clouds, harvest rain

November 13 1946, Irving Langmuir he experienced a joy similar to the day he found out he had won the Nobel Prize in Physics. While at the airport in Schenectady, New York, he watched the flight of a plane from which his assistant, at about 4000 m high, dropped granules of dry ice on a cloud. After a few seconds, the cloud began to dissipate, transformed into rain. Langmuir’s joy was natural: he had found a way to control the weather.

cloud seeding
Cloud seeding can be done from the ground or from the air, but there is no firm consensus on its effectiveness as a method.

Artificial weather modification began to be developed to generate small-scale precipitation and was also experimented with to weaken tropical cyclones.

In 1947, the Cirrus Project, financed by the United States government. was put to the test. The aim was to weaken hurricanes by seeding your clouds with dry ice, but the results were disastrous in terms of damage, and threats of legal action against the government prospered. Quickly the Cirrus Project was left in a drawer.

In 1962, advances in science allowed the idea of ​​weakening hurricanes to be revived. On this occasion, the seeding of the clouds of a hurricane would no longer be with dry ice but with silver iodide, which would alter its internal structure. The project was named after Stormfury project.

The Popeye Project

The rains could help US forces in disrupting logistics operations across the Ho Chi Minh. In this sense, developed a top secret weather modification program by seeding clouds to induce rainfall, in order to extend the monsoon season over the Ho Chi Minh area.

In a memorandum to the Secretary of State, it was reported that during the testing phase of the Popeye Project (Laos, 1966), 82% of the seeded clouds produced rain at levels above normal. The report stated that US Department of Defense scientists believe the experiment demonstrated the “ability to increase and maintain rainfall under controlled conditions to the level at which the earth becomes saturated over a sustained period, which it slows down movement on foot and makes vehicle operation impracticable.”

Project Popeye went from being an experiment to an operational program of the United States Department of Defense, called Operation Popeye. Military operations were carried out by the 54th Weather Reconnaissance Squadron, responsible for cloud seeding with silver iodide and lead iodide between 1967 and 1972 over Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Although the operation of the logistics chain of Ho Chi Minh was slowed down by extend the monsoon period by about 30 to 45 days, this continued to function, so military success was relative.

Public disclosure and scandal

Between 1971 and 1972, several articles were published denouncing that artificial weather modification was used as a weapon in Vietnam.

The Senate asked the Pentagon for reports, who delayed its delivery to later argue that there were no negative environmental consequences, and that Operation Popeye had been responsible for an increase in rainfall of only 5%.

The scandal public put an end to Operation Popeyand in 1972, to which was added the Senate resolution of 1973, prohibiting “the military use of any geophysical or environmental modification technique”.

nyt cloud seeding
Composition: a WC-130 with the Silver Iodide ejector device used in Vietnam for cloud seeding, and a clipping from the New York Times denouncing this CIA operation.

The artificial modification of the environment for military or other hostile purposes was the subject of discussions from the Stockholm Conferencein 1972. In the Declaration it was agreed that nations had the obligation to ensure that their activities did not harm the environment of other nations.

International treaties: only for peaceful uses

In 1974, US President Richard Nixon and USSR Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev agreed initiate bilateral talks to overcome the danger of using techniques to manipulate the natural environment for military purposes.

In 1976, the United Nations carried out the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use of Environmental Modification Techniques for Military or Other Hostile Purposes (ENMOD), treaty that commits the more than 70 nations that adhered, not to use environmental modification techniques for military or other hostile purposes. Within them are included all those that “are intended to alter – through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes – the dynamics, composition or structure of the Earth, including its biotics, its lithosphere, its hydrosphere and its atmosphere, or of the outer space.

Anti-hail fight
Aircraft of the Hail Control System of the Argentine province of Mendoza, for the protection of vineyards and fruit trees.

This Convention does not prevent the use of environmental modification techniques for peaceful purposes., which in fact is used in more than 50 countries in the world, in some to combat drought, such as the United States, China, India and Russia among others; while in Argentina, Spain, France, Italy, Bulgaria and more, for hail suppression.

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Operation Popeye: when the weather was used as a weapon of war