The Soft Bomb


In war, one of the first things the Pentagon likes to do is turn out the lights. Along with liberal use of high explosives, it now does the job with a cluster bomb whose canisters spin out a payload that looks much like angel hair—the fine fibrous stuff you used to find in packets of itching powder as a child.

This classified weapon has been called the “blackout” or “soft” bomb, the latter because it doesn’t explode with a big bang or tear people to bits outright while going about its business. Whether it is actually harmless is still a matter for debate. The Pentagon, you see, won’t talk about it much, and the only pictures of the thing seem to come from former Yugoslavia, where it was used to destroy Serbia’s power grid in 1999.

The bomb works by spraying a large cloud of tiny carbon filaments into the air over electrical generation facilities, switching stations, and high-voltage wires. Like paper clips stuck in a wall socket, the filaments cause arcing and short circuits on contact. The onslaught of sparking, melting, and electrical fire is apparently more than enough to cause the collapse of a nation’s power system.

Mainstream U.S. war journalists, as alert and enterprising as ever, have never actually reported what it’s like for people to endure a good “soft bombing,” with exposure to clouds of carbon filament of classified nature (fibrosis in the lung 10 years on, anyone?) or proximity to short-circuiting power plants. Instead, the soft bomb is said to be really groovy because it avoids collateral damage—the military euphemism for civilians being killed, fast or slow, or otherwise made to cry out in pain.

The soft bomb’s cost is estimated to be about that of an average cluster bomb—several hundred thousand dollars—making it easy on the taxpayer wallet by Department of Defense standards.

History indicates that the soft bomb was probably not built with an eye to avoiding casualties, but instead came about by accident. The original story, perhaps apocryphal, is that the U.S. military was testing an anti-radar wire off California decades ago when winds shifted and blew the chaff over the coast. It came down across power lines and caused a local blackout.

The Pentagon weaponized the trick and attacked Iraq’s power grid in Gulf War I with Tomahawk missiles carrying carbon-filament wire. Then came Yankee innovation and, voilà, the soft bomb was born.