If the Pacific ocean is a bowling alley and typhoons the balls, the Philippines is where the ten pins would be. Up to 9 typhoons hit the Philippines each year with devastating consequences. Infant mortality increases by about 13 percent after a typhoon. Since 2001 more than 12.5 million tonnes of rice have been lost1. Ursula alone caused an estimated 3 billion pesos of damage to infrastructure and agriculture in the Philippines.
Whenever destructive typhoons hit the Philippines social media like Facebook sees the emergence of references to ‘anti-typhoon rockets’, often in the same breath as ‘super-weapons’ as an achievement of the Ferdinand Marcos martial law administration. No other subsequent President has followed that vision.
There is a good reason why they would not do so: anti-typhoon rockets do not, and cannot work. The project was based on a fallacy.
In the case of the Marcos rockets, they were not even tested.
The failed anti-typhoon rocket program fits with Marcos’s desire to be seen as protector of the nation. The controlled media of the time, with censors overseeing every newspaper, radio station and television news department, ensured positive PR and that not too many questions would be asked about the viability of the project or its progress.
The Rain Stimulation and Weather Moderation Program was announced with much fanfare in 1973 headed by Colonel Ramon Macabuhay, chief of air staff. Philippine Air Force. Marcos had declared Martial Law the previous year and publication covers announced the program with “Dawn of progress in the Philippine, particularly for the aviation industry with President Marcos as the Catalyst”.
Just as misleading was the announcement “RP Develops Anti-Typhoon Rockets”, which appears to be as far as the program actually got. The plan was to launch modified air-to-air missiles with wooden warheads each carrying half a pound of silver iodide, about 225 grams, probably from F-5s or C-130s6.
In July 1973 it was announced that missiles and aircraft were being prepared for trials. From then on, silence reigned. There is no record of any such trials being conducted. Nothing more exists in the library of the PAF.
The cloud-seeding concept was not Marcos’s idea. Such weather modification had been tried in the late 1940s when a snowstorm was created by seeding a cloud with frozen carbon dioxide, so-called ‘dry ice’ on 20 December 1946, in a joint project with General Electric, GE. The first attempt to modify a hurricane/typhoon was on 13 October 1947 with Project Cirrus using two adapted bombers to drop 82 kilograms of dry ice into a hurricane off the state of Georgia.
Initially, the hurricane was heading out to sea. After seeding it turned and smashed into Savannah. This led to threatened lawsuits until it was shown that an earlier hurricane in 1906 had done the same thing.
Scientists were so convinced that cloud seeding worked they even proposed writing the GE logo on a seeded cloud to prove their point. The idea was, so to speak, put on ice for the next eleven years.
A study a decade later showed that the hurricane had already turned before the seeding and the operation had little effect if any.
The theory was that the seeding would affect ice crystals and supercooled water in hurricanes and force them to produce a second ‘eye’. This would reduce wind speed, the most devastating aspect of a hurricane. Even a modest reduction considerably reduce the impact.
After the US was hit by a series of powerful storms in 1954-1955 a new program, Stormfury, was set up beginning in 1962 using silver iodide. Despite promising initial results, it remained uncertain whether the tests were actually affecting the storms. Study of an attempt in 1969 revealed questionable results even after seeding five times while another attempt in 1971 showed no effect.
Stormfury was finally shut down in 1980. The usefulness of the technique was already being brought into question by the time of the announcements regarding the Marcos anti-typhoon rocket program.
The Marcos typhoon mitigation program was part of Project Santa Barbara, appropriately named after the Catholic patron of thunderstorms and artillerymen, started at the beginnings of the 1970s1972. This was intended to create a locally developed built and multi-role ballistic missile system for defense and weather control.
Initially, the plan was for liquid-fuelled rockets but this seems to have given way to solid propellants. Along the way, the aircraft component was dropped from the rainmaker part of the project At least three rocket types were designed and allegedly successfully tested along with ground-based launch pads based on a 2.5 tonne truck.
Reports of three dozen supposedly successful experimental launches in the tightly controlled press hid a prohram bedevilled with problems. A US embassy report in February, 1974 noted the following from Marcos’s Executive Secretary Alejandro Melchor:
“The development of the AFP-NSDB research rocket have, however, been met with early technical reverses primarily due to the absence of the much needed logistics support base. the critical lack of experience and a working model proved very costly and has drained heavily the meager resources appropriated for this endeavor.
“…The problem areas of research needing assistance are the following:
a. development of a more efficient propulsion.
b. development of an effective guidance and control system.
c. acquisition of an appropriate warhead.
d. acquisition of other necessary ballistics support systems.
e. training of the personnel to operate and maintain and ultimately manufacture the rocket system.
The successful development of the multi-purpose rocket system will be a relevant solution for the country’s requirement of putting up a more practical and safer means of seeding clouds for rain and for minimizing the destructive effects of typhoons. additionally, the evolved rocket system will provide the country with a credible armament system which will be an effective deterrent to any threat to the peace in the region.7”
This tends to suggest that the reports of dozens of successful launches and readiness were, at best, somewhat at variance with reality. In June 1974, Philippine requests to the US “…boil down to acquisition of equipment and technical information which will permit them to install guidance systems in missiles which they have currently developed and fired in ballistic mode.”
Melchor pleaded with the US for six ‘excess’ Nike-Hercules ‘cadavers’ – presumably surface to air missiles minus warheads – and technical manuals.
The plan was to use the equipment to copy, cannibalise, or adapt to current Philippine rockets which had launchers but no guidance control consoles.
Henry Kissinger wrote:
“Our feeling is that any meaningful assistance to the philippine missile program would be overly expensive, wasteful of philippine resources and unhelpful to the Philippines or to the USA.8”
Under the impact of post-Martial Law economic mismanagement, massive and increasing corruption, reduced international credit, and the 1974-1975 oil crisis, the Philippine economy entered a slow death spiral9. Less money was available to spend on what was essentially a vanity project.
At the same time, the Armed Forces of the Philippines was losing competent commanders. By the mid-1970s, an inexorable decline in military performance had become apparent. Verholt writes:
“Martial law had begun with the sidetracking of the nation’s most able officers. It had begun with the shift from a competent, culturally sensitive, small unit, intelligence-oriented strategy of dealing with guerrillas, a strategy that had been totally successful against communists and Muslims alike, to a strategy of using massed heavy artillery against tribal guerrilla groups in the southern Philippines. This strategy was totally ineffectual and was deplored by the U.S. army attache at the time as “nothing more than competitive ejaculation,” and it produced huge numbers of refugees.
“Just at the time when Marcos had weakened the military’s senior leadership, the war with the Muslims chewed up the central core of the armed forces, the lieutenants and sergeants. So many junior officers were lost that the Philippine Military Academy for several years graduated classes early to replace the casualties.
“To augment his political power, Marcos installed blood relatives or compadres in all the most sensitive commands, placed Ilocanos in most senior jobs, instituted a logistics system that controlled all supplies from Malacanang at the cost of crippling local commanders’ initiative, and despite the warfare against Muslims and later the communists, kept the most effective units in the Manila area for political advantage. By the end of the decade, the Philippine military was no longer an effective fighting force.”
Given the situation, it is no surprise that the missile program advanced little over the next 16 months. It’s death rattle came on 7 September 1975 in a highly publicised demonstration.
“President and Mrs. Marcos witnessed the firing of four philippine-made rockets at a beach site near la paz on the northwest coast of luzon. On the following day the Manila press gave front page coverage to the event, including a photo of the presidential party in hard hats watching the blast-off from a sandbag bunker.
“Press accounts of the launching of “our very own…Ballistic Missiles” noted that they went “roaring two kilometers into the sky before plummeting into the south china sea some 10 to 12 kilometers away.”
Four rockets were fired one at a time from what the press called a mobile rocket pad. A photograph of the launching shows what appears to be a 2-1/2 ton flat-bed truck with an approximately 20 ft. Long single launch rail on the rear.
Says an embassy cable:
“This latest launch event suggests that the local state of the art is still not much beyond the roman candle stage (photos show no evidence of any associated guidance or other electronic gear), and that “our own ballistic missile” is still on the drawing pad”.
Colonel Macabuhay died that same year and nothing further is heard of attempts to develop an anti-typhoon rocket.
There were no more reports of the Santa Barbara Project and the Philippine Missile program, no more demonstration launches. All that remains are press accounts, a single video of a missile in a parade, and artifacts on display at Sangley Point, Cavite, including two Bongbong-1 rockets.
A wishlist of equipment for modernisation of the AFP given to the US government in 1976 includes complete Nike-Hercules missile systems but nothing for the Philippine Missile Program.
The Marcos ‘superweapon’ was quietly shelved, its multiple failures hidden from public eyes behind a wall of secrecy. It was not revived during the balance of the Marcos regime.
We must conclude that no functioning anti-typhoon rockets were developed, nor could be since the hypothesis they were based on was false.
It must also be concluded that no indigenous deployable missile system was successfully developed under the Marcos regime over a period of fourteen years.