When it comes to throwing everything at a wall and seeing what sticks, few organizations commit as hard as the military. They’re willing to try anything to see if it gets them an advantage, from using bats as explosives to giving psychic soldiers a try. Not every idea works, of course, and sometimes an idea gets dropped pretty quickly. That doesn’t necessarily mean it was even bad, it just wasn’t right at the time or for what they needed. And with that in mind, here are 10 of the most remarkable experiments the military abandoned.
10. Marine Skateboards
There was a period where nothing was cooler than a skateboard. Just go back through the PlayStation catalog of Tony Hawk games. Skateboard culture was huge. So huge that the military took the time to consider if there were any advantages to some highly skilled Marines transitioning from a crooked grind to a Casper flip.
Naturally, a Marine wouldn’t use a normal skateboard. They were issued urban combat skateboards which, from the pictures, look exactly like normal skateboards and were bought off of normal store shelves. The plan, according to what was published about them, was that they’d be used in detecting things like trip wires and snipers.
The logistics of how these detect trip wires and snipers is never fully explained, but you can do some guesswork based on what you know of skateboards. They move quickly so the idea seems to be you’d be able to trip a trip wire and skate on down the road before the ensuing booby trap causes harm. Likewise, a sniper would have more trouble hitting a faster moving target.
The skateboards were actually tested in 1999 as part of some Urban Warrior exercises. It seems like they didn’t prove their mettle, however, and the boards have not become commonplace.
9. Ricin Bullets
According to at least one doctor, you have a 95% chance of surviving a gunshot wound if you get to the hospital while your heart is still beating. Obviously a bullet to the heart or brain is going to push you closer to that unlucky 5% than a bullet in the foot will. But still, those odds don’t sound as bad as you probably thought. So maybe that’s why the military experimented with ricin-coated bullets.
Ricin is a fairly potent poison derived from castor beans. It prevents your cells from making essential proteins. Thus, the cells die, and so do you if exposure is bad enough. Even if it’s not deadly exposure, it can still cause bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and organ failure.
During WWI, the US government experimented with coating bullets in ricin to increase their effectiveness. If 95% of people can survive a gunshot, this would have brought that number down. Ultimately, it didn’t pan out because of thermal sensitivity. Bullets got too hot when being fired from a gun, which destroyed the effectiveness of the poison.
8. Camel Corps
When you hear that the US military once created a camel corps which was, quite literally, a battalion of camel-mounted soldiers, it’s easy to laugh at. Today it sounds silly. In 1837, when it was first proposed, they also thought it was stupid. There has rarely been a time when the idea wasn’t considered stupid by someone. But it still happened, if only for a short period of time. And it was actually for a decent reason.
Back in the mid 1800s, there were no massive military transport vehicles. Soldiers moved on horseback. And there were only 42,000 soldiers to cover the entire nation. So when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo added over 500,000 square miles to the United States, and settlers started moving to California for the Gold Rush, the army had massive swaths of land to try to cover. And a lot of that new land was desert.
With water and supplies hard to come by, and arid land hard to travel, the idea of camels became less and less silly. They were adept at handling desert terrain, and they needed far less water than a horse. Plus, they could still carry supplies. In 1855, Congress allocated $30,000 to purchase camels.
Thirty-three camels were purchased from the Middle East and shipped to America. There were now thirty-four camels as, even though a couple died, more had been born. They proved to be more than up to the task and proved themselves several times.
The Civil War effectively ended the camel experiment. Rebel soldiers captured and killed several. The rest were sold at auction and some were just sent loose. The last known army camel died in 1934.
7. Cloud Seeding
Cloud seeding involves releasing particles in clouds to promote rain. It’s something several states, including California, have tried to combat droughts. But the military has also tried their hand at cloud seeing in the past, for different reasons.
Back in 2001, it was revealed that severe flooding in 1952, which led to the deaths of 35 people, came after the Royal Air Force tried out a rainmaking experiment in the UK. In one month, North Devon experienced 250 times their normal rainfall. People said it fell so hard from the sky that it hurt their flesh, and whole buildings were swept away in the floods.
The experiment involved dumping dry ice directly into clouds. Planes flew through them, dropped their payload, and watched as it rained some 30 minutes later. The experiments were to see if cloud seeding could have military applications, including hindering enemy movements or making rivers impassible. After the flooding and deaths, the experiments were halted.
6. Flying Sheep
The Italo-Ethiopian War took place from 1935 to 1936 and was a precursor to WWII as Italy tried to take control of Ethiopia. The Italian troops chose to cross the Danakil desert, which spans 120 miles of volcanoes and inhospitable land that National Geographic called the cruelest place on Earth. The troops had to travel light if they had any chance of making it and that meant few supplies.
Word is Italian soldiers were a bit finicky, and they refused to eat pre-packaged meals, but fresh meat never would have lasted. So the military opted to air drop supplies. This concept, while relatively new at the time, is by no means new to us today. But what is new and unusual was that the Italians dropped live sheep.
Seventy-two sheep and two bulls were dropped so the Italians would have fresh meat. In the future, Italian soldiers would end up relying on things like MREs like most other armies, though some of theirs do contain alcohol.
5. Project Iceworm
During the Cold War, the US military wanted to keep things cold and secret with something called Project Iceworm. The plan was to hide nuclear weapons deep underground so they would have a secret nuclear launch site in the frozen north from which to stage an attack against the Soviets if need be.
Camp Century was to be a city beneath the ice of Greenland. With room for 200 soldiers, it would also house 600 nuclear weapons, all under the guise of a polar research station. The missile silos would be connected by rail cars underground, allowing them to constantly change location and over 52,000 square miles.
The Pentagon ultimately scrapped the idea, but not before plenty of infrastructure had been built. Greenland’s shifting ice made the location unpredictable and dangerous. The military left 9,2000 tons of gear behind, as well as 53,000 gallons of diesel and radioactive material.
4. Lightning Weapons
Mankind has developed some amazing weapons, from simple melee tools like swords to projectiles like arrows and bullets and even energy weapons like lasers. But have we created anything that seems as powerful and dramatic as lightning? The perfect weapon was already made by nature long before we arrived on the scene. Maybe that’s why the CIA at least toyed with the idea of weaponizing it.
A lightning bolt offers up about 300 million volts and 30,000 amps. If you know electricity, you know current is what’s dangerous and a current of 0.1 amps for a few seconds can kill you. So lightning would be a good weapon. The plan was to release super thin wires that were miles long into clouds. The wire would fall to the ground and lead lightning down to wherever had been targeted.
The feasibility of the plan never really panned out, and it seemed to be abandoned. That said, they did develop a gun that can fire a laser guided lightning bolt at a target, so perhaps there’s still potential.
3. Guard Geese
Any military installation needs security. You can rely on electronics, but supplementing that with living guards will always offer greater security. Sometimes that’s just humans, sometimes dogs are also employed. And once, in Germany, the US military opted to use geese.
In Scotland, Ballantine distillery uses geese as guards because the birds are extremely loud and are quick to notice anything disturbing their territory. The idea dates back to Roman times, however. US forces took an interest and tried them out on several of their bases in Germany. The plan was to employ up to 900 of them in total.
Amazingly, 900 geese cost around half of what one single guard dog costs, so it certainly wasn’t a bad idea. Despite that, it never really caught on anywhere else. It’s likely the issue of how to clean up after 900 geese was in part responsible for that.
2. Pneumatic Dynamite Guns
The evolution of weapons can be more or less distilled to “how can we make this kill more people further away?” Arrows gave way to guns, gave way to missiles, and now we can just shoot people from space if we want. But between where it started and where it is, there was the pneumatic dynamite gun.
In the late 1800s, there was a major logistical problem with bombing things. TNT was relatively unstable. You couldn’t just shoot it out of a cannon because the blast that would launch it would also set it off. But the pneumatic cannon proved to be a viable solution to the problem. A burst of air could force the dynamite out without setting it off.
1. Battle Sharks
The military has used animals time and again for centuries, from Hannibal’s elephants to the aforementioned bat bombs. Sometimes they work well – horses are a great example of an animal that was tamed and adapted to war. Other times, things don’t always go as planned, even if the idea sounds amazing on paper. Like when the military wanted to use sharks as weapons.
The military funded a plan to implant sharks with devices that could control them and allow them to be used as aquatic spies. The hope was that a shark’s natural ability to sense electrical signals would allow it to track enemy vessels. That story dates back to 2006 and, as you may be aware, there are currently no known shark spies in the world, meaning the plan didn’t exactly pan out.
From 1958 to 1971, the military was also working on a much more dramatic plan. They wanted to arm sharks with bombs strapped to their heads, and use them as living torpedos. The bomb would have a compass in it with a pre-programmed course. If the shark strayed, they’d get shocked from one side of the head or the other to keep it on course. No mind control needed, just painful stimuli.
Why sharks and not dolphins? Because dolphins are too noisy. Sharks are very stealthy, so they were deemed ideal. Except that sharks don’t respond well to negative stimuli and will often fight back rather than acquiescing. They also weren’t good at carrying large items. The plan was abandoned as a result.