Those participating in Project ARGUS did not suppose that the ignition of the weapon at such an altitude could wreak such sustained havoc with every shortwave communications system on earth. Theoreticians expected that Nuclear EMP effects would burn away receiving systems directly below the blast. The orbital height at which each test warhead was ignited would therefore be critical to civilian and commercial safety. The only expected geophysical effects would be an augmentation of the various ionospheric strata underlying the Belts directly below the blast point. Layers D, E, F, an G would be completely deranged for a time. Extra free charges would be released into these layers, synthetic auroras being the expected visual outcome of the blast. It was thought that a partial shortwave communications blackout might occur for several hours at most. Airlines and ocean going vessels had to be warned to clear the entire region below the blast site, as the United States imposed their test on the whole world.

ARGUS I was launched from the South Atlantic on 29 August 1958 and was detonated at a height of 12,900 miles. This placed the blast well within the newly discovered Van Allen Belts. Mimicking the disruptive force of a solar flare, the artificial irradiation of the Van Allen Belts did more than destroy electronic receivers beneath the blast site. The resultant Nuclear EMP completely destroyed powergrid integrity in several cities, an unexpected side effect. No one had believed this stupendous demonstration could occur from such an elevation. The high aerial plasma had sufficiently concentrated enough dielectric energy to bring these effects up into ground surface locations directly beneath the blast. The other unexpected effect had tremendous significance, as an impervious curtain of radio static and UHF distortion completely destroyed the integrity of all but certain high powered VLF channels. The effects lasted on certain channels for days. Here was a new weapons potential, one which could neutralize any offensive force without destroying cities or territories. First the EMP, then the blackout; a twofold “punch”.

Here was the deliberate manufacture of sustained communications blackouts on a world wide scale. Its effect greatly cushioned by magnetic pressures, the power of this single Nuclear EMP was spread across the Inner Belt. Colorful auroras flooded the entire hemisphere, conjugately following the magnetic lines to the North Atlantic. This expansion across the Belt wiped out all normal radio communications for more than a day, an effect which greatly disturbed military around the world. Instruments indicated the formation of an artificial shell of ions, an additional zone created within the natural Van Allen Belts.

ARGUS II (30 August) and ARGUS HI (6 September) followed in relatively quick succession. A total of three nuclear blasts, and Project ARGUS was terminated. What the military had ascertained did not concern itself only with the behavior of nuclear weapons in suborbital transit. Whatever effects they observed has remained classified, facts which do not concern our discussion. While the weapons packages were not to our knowledge substantially altered, damaged, or transmuted by passage through the Van Allen Belts, other important data now emerged. This data suggested that other methods might produce the desired communications blackout effect without a nuclear evoked EMP. The synthetic auroral effect which used nuclear warheads could not pinpoint any single target for the blackout phenomenon. No specified city or territorial locus could be precisely affected without wreaking havoc across the entire hemisphere. Lacking such precision however, did not eliminate the technique as a potential nonnuclear application.

Nuclear EMP could not be relied upon in conventional conflicts, but a few geophysicists understood how this blackout condition might be engineered from the ground. This triggered a new research direction which eventually produced “ionospheric heaters”. Project STARFISH (1962) placed a thermonuclear warhead in the Belts at 27,000 miles near the North Magnetic Pole. This experiment was designed to produce an artificial ionization layer. Part of its several goals was the development of persistent ionization layers at specified extreme altitudes. The use of such a persistent ionization layer, one capable of reflecting RADAR beacons over the horizon, represented an attempt at rapid “over the horizon” identification of warheads transiting the north polar route. This blast produced an immense Nuclear EMP shockwave which deformed magnetic and terrestrial dielectric fields southward across North America. EMP strikes occurred everywhere, accompanied by worldwide communications blackouts. In certain cities, regional powergrids overloaded and failed. A technique for the purposeful disruption of enemy communications on a worldwide front had now been secured. An indirect means for interrupting electromagnetic systems across the world had been demonstrated, the remarkable result of nuclear-induced geoelectric modulation.

Despite all of these tests, true geophysical hazards, one fact remained clear.

Target precision did not yet exist in the Nuclear EMP method. Moreover, it became clear that the United States was not alone in the new capability. Later in the same year, the Soviets tested their space weapons potential at 16,000 miles, producing a synthetic ionization zone which corroborated the US findings. Projects ARGUS (1958) and STARFISH (1962) taught United States Military how to best use space detonated nuclear weapons to produce EMP and other plasma effects both in the ionosphere and on the ground. These effects were not restricted to the region directly below the blast area. Sourcetexts indicate the effective destruction of several large powergrids in the Pacific area, positioned several hundred miles over the horizon from actual blast effects. In these demonstrations were realized the modulation of geomagnetic and geoelectric energies by nuclear detonations.

The effect was especially potent when used at the poles. The radial nature of geomagnetic lines at polar positions could literally guide the blast products all along a conjugate “route”. Terrestrial geoelectric concentrations would magnify the effect, by using the plasma ball as a permeable focus. A blast focus placed to one side or the other of a geomagnetic pole could produce literally explosive Nuclear EMP effects all along a specific geomagnetic sector. One could, by appropriate adjustments of altitude also specify the effective width of Nuclear EMP effects along that route, the “skewing” of Nuclear EMP effects being controlled by proximity from ground. These geophysical modulations produced effects far in excess of those attained by the blast focus alone. Here, military might was obtaining new potentials for destruction by direct coupling with geophysical potentials. But even now, with better and more refined data, the technique could not be truly referred to as “failprooF. The use of nuclear detonations, while potent and instantaneous, was far too precarious a tool to employ. How would one isolate a target zone and localize the EMP effects in wartime?

Tagged on: ,