355. Shén fēng: Military Use of Weather Modification Technology

[Editor’s Note:  Mad Scientist Laboratory welcomes guest blogger Rory Fedorochko, senior at William & Mary and former e-intern with the TRADOC G-2’s Importance of Ridiculous Ideas internship, with an intriguing fictional intelligence (FICINT) narrative exploring how China could employ weather modification technology to strategic advantage in a bid to bring Taiwan under the mantle of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).  Regular readers of this blog site will know that we addressed Climate Change and Geoengineering and the associated implications for the Army earlier this year.  Mr. Fedorochko significantly expands our understanding about the dual-use nature of this technology with his submission addressing how our Pacing Threat could exploit it, to our disadvantage — Read on!]

May 14, 2031. 11:33 AM. Okinawa.

“Will it ever let up?”

Satellite image released 31AUG20 by NASA shows Typhoon Maysak over Japan’s southernmost islands, including Okinawa, center. / Source: NASA Worldview, Earth Observing System Data and Information System (EOSDIS) via AP

Those were of the words of Olivia Wright, addressed to no one, as she sat down in the chair next to the window. As she looked outside, she could see the streets of Okinawa, normally buzzing with activity, empty. The power had been out for six hours – storm damage, she could imagine – and with her computer’s battery drained and her phone off-limits in case of emergency, she had exhausted her other entertainment options. Except for her books, but Olivia had already done enough reading for one day. Instead, she chose to spend her time like she had, during her girlhood in Oklahoma, by watching the sky.

And what a sky to behold! The clouds churned grey-black as they spewed thousands of gallons of water down on the island. Every second, water furiously rushed down into the drains on the battered streets. It drowned the potted plants and knocked leaves from the trees. It smashed against the window, fruitlessly attempting to ruin Olivia’s dry sanctuary. A hodgepodge of hail laid scattered about on the ground and buildings. It had hailed intermittently since the storm begun, but that hadn’t saved the windshields of the cars parked in front of her building. I hope they had insurance, Olivia thought.

A supercell is an often-dangerous thunderstorm with a very organized internal structure including a rotating updraft that allows it to keep going for up to several hours. Supercells are capable of producing severe weather including high winds, large hail, and strong tornadoes. They are most frequently isolated and often develop in the warm air ahead of a squall line. A supercell also usually forms in an environment with strong vertical wind shear that causes the updraft to begin rotating. / Source: “Severe Weather 101,” The National Severe Storms Laboratory, NOAA

The weather forecast had projected light rain for a few hours, but nothing of this magnitude. The last time Olivia remembered meteorologists messing up this badly was during her undergrad years at Oklahoma State, when the weathermen botched how quickly a supercell was moving north. The storm caught everyone by surprise. A tree crashed into Olivia’s dormitory, and a pair of students were killed in the tornado born by the supercell. Olivia remembered driving through the devastation the next morning. Trees and families uprooted from their homes. That was a bad day. Here, at least, there was probably no chance of a tornado. Probably, Olivia reckoned.

Olivia sank back into her chair and briefly glanced at the paperwork that laid on it. The storm had terrible timing. Today was her scheduled visit to Kadena Air Base. She was to interview its commander, Brigadier General James Nguyen, about the recent Taiwan-China tensions for the Washington Post. Stories of alleged Chinese cyberattacks on Taiwanese ports and suspicious activity at the PLA bases in Fujian and Guangdong had proliferated over the last week, so the Post assigned her, their only Okinawa-based correspondent, to write a story about the issue. She had already done a video interview with Taiwan’s representative office in Tokyo, but her emails to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs had gone unanswered – and probably would remain so.

Olivia could have asked General Nguyen for a video interview, but she wanted to get photos of the base and the planes. Pictures make or break a story. But, even if Olivia could have gotten to Kadena, no plane was coming out of the hangar in this weather. Back in Oklahoma, when her old boyfriend took her to the airstrip, he was very insistent that you should not fly in a thunderstorm. Lightning, hail, and wind could do a number on even the finest craft. Olivia imagined the Air Force agreed. Guess we’ll have to reschedule for next week.

U.S. Airmen from the 67th Aircraft Maintenance Unit “buttoning up” an F-15 Eagle aircraft in a hangar in anticipation of Typhoon Kompasu Aug. 30, 2010, at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan. During inclement weather such as a typhoon, aircraft and aerospace ground equipment are placed in storage for protection. / Source:  U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher Hummel

Olivia yawned. Thinking about work made her tired. She had cancelled the interview earlier in the day, done an hour of cardio, written a draft of the article after that, and then read her books. Perhaps sleep was the right move. The sound of rain was relaxing, after all, and the room was already dark from the lack of power.

Olivia took one last look up at the sky. The hailstones were falling again. More windows and windshields were sure to break. But not mine. Olivia pulled the curtain down and raised her legs onto the desk. Time to sleep.

Within five minutes, Olivia had dozed off, blissfully unaware of the vibrations of her cellphone futilely crying out amidst the pitter-patter of the rain.

May 14, 2031. 4:58 AM. East China Sea, 274 km west of Okinawa.

Diaoyo Islands, in relation to Okinawa. / Source: Voice of America

Gao Sheng looked outside to the barren East China Sea. Sunrise was almost upon the Yu Shi. Sheng rubbed his eyes. They had set out 12 hours ago and would be out for another 12, at minimum. Command probably wanted them here for much longer, judging on the resupply procedures in place, but Sheng believed the Yu Shi would be caught well before then. They were, after all, only 126 kilometers east of the Japanese-controlled Diaoyu Islands. Japanese coast guard vessels and patrol aircraft operated in this area frequently. We are bound to run into them.

While the People’s Liberation Army had plans for a distraction – they were corralling a large Chinese fishing fleet to move south of the Diaoyus to divert Japan’s focus from the Yu Shi’s mission – Sheng had his doubts that the distraction would achieve the intended effect. Making the Japanese more alert to the presence of Chinese ships, even if on the other side of the islands, seemed like a foolish idea, especially considering what they had planned.

Sheng always had his doubts. He was never privy to any decision-making, only told what to do. Sheng did not like this; he graduated at the top of his class at Australian National University. He was smart, smarter than most. But no, showing anything but complete deference and obedience to his commanders was a recipe for career failure.

Type 625C Class (Hai Yang Class) Chinese Oceanographic Research Vessel. / Source:  TRADOC G-2’s OE Data Integration Network (ODIN) Worldwide Equipment Guide (WEG)

Sheng looked at his watch. Just as the arm hit 5 AM, another round of silver iodide blasted into the air from the ship’s 10 rocket launchers. The launchers had been firing every 5 minutes since 9:30 PM. The Yu Shi was one of a dozen ships across the East China Sea assigned to this task. But Shén fēng did not rely on a few interceptable ships. Further west, in Fujian and Zhejiang, hundreds of land-based launchers – ostensibly for regular hail suppression – were firing silver iodide towards the sea.

At the same time, thousands of small drones were firing lasers to electrocute the air. A different method of encouraging precipitation, but effective, nonetheless. The Yu Shi had launched a few hundreds of these drones once the ship was in range. The drones were single use; once they ran out of their battery, they would sink into the sea, out of reach of the enemy.

The enemy. Sheng’s eyes darted to the ship’s radar. It detected a handful of vessels – probably fishermen – in the 28-kilometer radius around the ship. One of them was another one of their vessels. None of them were on an approach vector, but the crew needed to monitor them regardless. If any of the ships got within 22 kilometers, they would need to cease operations immediately.

As Sheng reached for his life vest and goggles, his eyes could not help but notice the steel cabinet in the left corner of the bridge. A small number pad guarded a set of scuttling equipment and a binder. The binder held instructions about what to do should the vessel face investigation, boarding, or capture. Sheng had read the instructions on their way out, but could not claim to have remembered all the details.

China Meteorological Administration logo. / Source: World Meteorological Organization Global Framework for Climate Services website

But the basics? Sheng had a pretty good understanding. Good enough, at least. The first step would be pull out the ship’s cover story. Officially, the Yu Shi was a vessel owned and operated by the National Meteorological Center of China Meteorological Administration. Its emblem was embroidered on his uniform and the hull of the ship, and its flag flew below the Chinese flag on the mast. If hailed on the radio or boarded, the Yu Shi would identify itself as such, and add that it was conducting climate science research in the East China Sea.

If it was evident that its cover story was not enough to dissuade visitors, the next step – only to be used if the crew had enough time – would be to cover the rocket launchers with scientific materials, tarps, and other innocuous equipment and conceal any other evidence of the vessel’s true mission. Should another ship, drone, or other craft pass by, the sight of scientific equipment, combined with their vessel’s stated purpose would discourage additional interest, or so the theory went. Sheng did not think highly of this step – the people that they really wanted to avoid would probably not be fooled for long by their charade – but orders were orders.

And I would rather do that than the third step, Sheng thought. The third step was more desperate. Should it become apparent the vessel was to be boarded by the Americans, Japanese, representatives of the so-called Republic of China, or another unfriendly nation, the crew was to send out a distress call, open the seacocks, and plant explosives in the hold where the silver iodide was stored. Meanwhile, all documents were to be destroyed – including the binder, courtesy of a lighter attached to the back. Sheng knew the whole mayday ordeal was an obvious farce to potential boarders, but command emphasized it. “Plausible deniability”, that is what the binder said.

The binder assumed that the other ship would pick up the crew. I sure hope so, Sheng thought, as he put on his life vest and goggles and stepped outside to watch the sunrise. This time of year, the East China Sea was generally warm, but the temperature was cooler than normal due to the nature of their activity. Un-nature, really. In any case, Sheng preferred to stay in the water for as short of time as possible. Sharks freaked him out.

Once on board, the binder laid out a series of statements and responses to make to the other vessel’s crew. Sheng only really remembered the first one, but even then, his memory was shaky: “We are scientists of the National Meteorological Center of China Meteorological Administration on a peaceful climate research mission. Our ship suffered a breach as we prepared for your unnecessary boarding and has sunk as a result. We demand that you radio the China Coast Guard and allow us to board their vessel as soon as it arrives. We will answer no further questions unless in the presence of officials of the Foreign Ministry.”

Emblem of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy. / Source: Wikimedia Commons, by Sshu94, via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Sheng doubted that the canned speech would do anything, but he supposed it made sense. It was certainly better than what they could have said: “We are engineers and scientists of the People’s Liberation Army Navy trained in weather modification techniques. We are on a highly classified mission, Shén fēng, taking advantage of typhoon season to launch silver iodide into the atmosphere from our vessel to induce hail and rain over Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands. The goal is to prevent American aircraft from taking off and launching aerial attacks on the People’s Liberation Army in response to the reunification campaign. We are not in violation of the 1977 Environmental Modification Convention, as none of our actions have ‘widespread, long-standing or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage or injury.’ We are only one of many units involved in this operation.

Legend holds that the kamikaze, or “divine wind,” prevented the Mongolian invasion of Japan in 1281, as depicted in this 19th-century piece by artist Issho Yada. / Source:
Photograph by Koji Nakamura, National Geographic

Their imprisoners may have asked them what Shén fēng meant. Sheng smiled, as his face basked in the yellow-orange glow of the sun. That was perhaps the only clever thing the tools in command came up with. The phrase Shén fēng means “divine wind.” In Japanese, the corresponding term is kamikaze, the same name given to the typhoons that ravaged the Mongol fleet during their invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281, saving Japan from Mongol conquest. Today, however, the weather was not forestalling an invasion of Japan. Instead, Shén fēng was letting one happen elsewhere; as the American fighters sat in their hangers to wait out the storm, hundreds of thousands of soldiers awaited their arrival on the shores of Taiwan.

May 14, 2031. 10:32 PM. Washington D.C.

“Doug, you’re telling me that our fighters are sitting in their hangers while hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers are being ferried across the strait to Taiwan?”

National Security Advisor Doug Raminoff clasped his hands to project confidence and hide his anxiety. “Yes, Madam President. Flooding from the storm has rendered some of our facilities unusable, and our jets cannot fly with hail, unless we want to destroy our aircraft. Even so, it’s not over yet. The Taiwanese have sunk multiple troop carriers and have largely confined the Chinese to the beachheads, but their losses have been severe. The opening missile salvo depleted Taiwan’s air and naval assets. The intelligence community’s best estimate gives them 5 hours before China’s foothold on the island will be near-irreversible.”

“Does that estimate assume that our damn jets are still grounded?” The President fumed, her hand tightly holding a green stress ball. In other circumstances, Doug may have appreciated the humor in the sight of the leader of the Free World crushing a stress ball. But now is not the time for laughter.

“No, Madam President. If we get them airborne, there is still a chance we could forestall such an outcome.”

The President visibly eased at Doug’s answer, but only just. She took a sip of coffee and turned to the digital map of East Asia, marked with troop movements, areas of conflict, and the weather forecast that sat atop the table in the Situation Room. “What a nightmare. We’ve spent billions of dollars on those facilities and when we actually need them, a storm comes out of nowhere and screws it up.” Doug physically tensed at the storm comment. The President, exhausted, still perceived Doug’s change in movement. “Is there something I am missing, Mister Raminoff?”

Doug’s eyes darted to deputy national security advisor Philip O’Connor. Doug gestured at Philip to produce the relevant information. Philip O’Connor’s 6-foot frame slithered to the head of the table as he pulled a tablet and USB from his bag. He gave the tablet to the President while he inserted the USB into the table. The map of East Asia seamlessly zoomed into the eastern China, as a series of images of ships, buildings, and relevant figures popped up around.

“Madam President, what are you seeing here is a collection of intelligence in relation to this storm that we have gathered from a diverse range of sources. We are highly confident that the Chinese Government has employed the weather modification technology to artificially augment a storm system in the area to ground our planes in Okinawa while they attack Taiwan.”

“Yes,” Doug interjected, “the State Council has spent the last three decades investing tremendously in this technology, ostensibly for civilian purposes. Perhaps you recall the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics?” The President nodded. “Well, a few days before the ceremony, the weather forecast called for rain. Not wanting to ruin the spectacle, the authorities deployed over a thousand of these rocket launchers,” Doug pointed to an image on the table, “which launched chemicals into the area that encouraged precipitation, causing it to rain before the ceremony and allowing the event to go on, no problem. The process is called ‘cloud seeding.’ They did it again to make snow for the winter events in Beijing in 2022. But the technology is far more widespread than that; it is used all across China, mostly to fight drought and avoid floods.”

“For the record, Madam President, this technology is neither new nor secret. Farmers in the Great Plains and California have been using it to suppress hail and to alleviate drought for decades now. The Emiratis have been using drones to encourage rainfall for several years. Hell, military use of this technology isn’t even unprecedented. We cloud seeded in Vietnam to make the Ho Chi Minh Trail muddy and impassable for North Vietnamese guerillas. But…” Philip paused, searching for the right words. Don’t screw this up, O’Connor. Choose your words very carefully, Doug thought. “But…we never anticipated anything like this. We had a few scenarios involving rain-stealing on the Indo-China border, but nothing like this.”

The President folded her hands. She was normally easy to read, but Doug could not penetrate what thoughts laid behind her dark brown eyes. She took a breath. “Is this not against some international treaty? Surely, what they’re doing is against some treaty?”

“It arguably is, Madam President, something I am sure Secretary Basara can holler about at the United Nations. The Environmental Modification Convention, which China and the United States are both members of, states that weather modification resulting in, quote, ‘widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage or injury to any other State Party,’ end quote, is forbidden.” Philip answered. “Whether what the Chinese are doing is actually a violation is debatable, but we would be wise to press it regardless.”

“It would be wise to press many things, Mister O’Connor,” the President retorted. “What are our options, gentlemen?”

“We could attack the equipment they are using to cause this storm, but that won’t necessarily accomplish anything – they got the ball rolling already, there is not much we can do but wait the rain out now. As for the rest of the battlefront, it will take some time for our subs and ships to reach the theater of war. Too long. The other bases in Japan are further away and cannot replace the firepower grounded in Okinawa. We could launch a strike from Guam, but that is also far from the action. Launching an attack on China from our bases in South Korea could jeopardize our relations with the South Koreans. The Filipino Embassy in Washington told us that President Abadiano is nervous of the consequences of allowing the U.S. to use his nation to launch attacks. So, in summary, our options are either dangerous or ineffectual.” Philip’s answer was delivered with professionalism, but a vein of frustration was clear. Still, he forgot the elephants in the room.

PLA Major Naval Units. / Source: China Military Power: Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win – 2019, DIA, p. 68

“Might I add, Madam President, that there are two other options we must consider.” Philip scowled at Doug, knowing what he was going to say. “As horrific as it sounds, we could always do nothing. They haven’t killed any Americans. The public may disprove, but there still a viable path for us to avoid entering a conflict we don’t have a great chance of winning. If we enter this thing and get our asses handed to us, it could bring about a level of crisis this nation hasn’t experienced in a very, very long time. Or, well, we could…” Doug searched for the best way to suggest a terrible thing, “…we could escalate the conflict with a tactical nuclear strike on key Chinese naval facilities. It could cripple the invasion and save Taiwan. But the consequences would be earth-shattering.” Doug hated to suggest those options, but it was part of the job. Can’t shy away from it.

Doug noticed the President’s right-hand shake, perhaps in distress, but only for a moment. “Thank you, gentlemen.” She looked at all the images on the table and her tablet. “Cunning bastards. Screwed all of our planning, all of our strategy, all of our resources, and forced me into a difficult decision, all without firing a shot at us…” The President’s fingers danced on the tablet, while her eyes scanned all the intel, all the options. The marvelous sight of deep thinking. Doug’s thoughts were interrupted twelve seconds later when the President declared: “I have made a decision.”

If you enjoyed this post, check out the following related content:

Proclaimed Mad Scientist Dr. Elizabeth Chalecki’s presentation Avoiding a Climate Arms Race: The Security Implication of Climate Geoengineering featured earlier this year during our Climate Change – Threats, Resilience, and Adaptation Webinar.  Watch the entire video of this event here [via a non-DoD network] and then read our insights, including geoengineering as a dual-use capability in The Inevitable Threat: Climate Change and the Operational Environment.

… explore the power of FICINT and storytelling in the following content:

Realer than Real: Useful Fiction with P.W. Singer and August Cole, the associated podcast, and video (via a non-DoD network) from their presentation on the Weaponization of Information and Fictional Intelligence, and review the associated notes.

A Warning from Tomorrow, the compelling FICINT prologue to the U.S. Congress’ Cyberspace Solarium Report, co-authored by Messrs. Singer and Cole.

Two Vignettes: How Might Combat Operations be Different under the Information Joint Function? by proclaimed Mad Scientist Dr. Christopher Paul.

Located, Isolated, and Distracted – An Infantry Platoon Leader’s Experience, by COL Scott Shaw.

… and learn how China could seek to reunite Taiwan with the mainland under the mantle of the CCP through military means in:

“No Option is Excluded” — Using Wargaming to Envision a Chinese Assault on Taiwan, by Ian Sullivan

The U.S. Joint Force’s Defeat before Conflict, by CPT Anjanay Kumar

Rory Fedorochko is a senior double-majoring in History and International Relations at William & Mary. He is a senior research assistant at AidData’s Tracking Underreported Financial Flows (TUFF) China team and a member of NukeLab, an undergraduate research lab at William & Mary that studies nuclear weapon issues. This past summer, he served as an e-intern for the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC)’s Importance of Ridiculous Ideas internship.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Army, Army Futures Command (AFC), or TRADOC.


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