The Air Force’s ‘Screaming Meemie’ Was Supposed to Annoy the Hell Out of the Enemy—Then Blow Up
A psychological weapon with a twist
In 1967, the U.S. Air Force’s Special Operations Center at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida tested a “psychoacoustic weapon” that could be dropped from an airplane. Dubbed “Screeming Meemie,” the new weapon was a combination of loudspeaker and landmine—and was meant to perform “minute-by-minute harassment” of the enemy.
Screeming Meemie fulfilled a requirement for a new weapon that could blend conventional and psychological effects. The report on the 1967 test notes that regular bombs and guns could be “effective for demoralizing the enemy” but that the “destruction and harassment ceases when the aircraft leaves the target.”
On the other hand, existing psychological warfare tools like propaganda leaflets and airplanes with loudspeakers did not offer the possibility of “tangible destruction.”
With all this in mind, the Special Operations Center had started work on a new weapon in November 1966, eventually coming up with a rough prototype. The next year, the Hayes International Corporation submitted an unsolicited proposal to the Special Operations Center for a refined design.
Hayes had already been working with the Air Force on cluster bombs and likely heard about this requirement through the grapevine.
The company’s box-shaped Screaming Meemie consisted of five major components. The primary element was the siren, which generated what was described as a “warbling tone,” plus four loudspeakers—one for each side of the box.
The siren could be set to function continuously or intermittently. The battery could keep it running for 12 hours.
There was a self-destruct and booby-trap function. The 25-pound high-explosive charge would detonate if someone pushed the device over or tried to open it, or if the battery dropped below a certain level.
All of this was stuffed inside a rectangular aluminum box fitted with a parachute. Screeming Meemie also had a cushion made of an aluminum honeycomb that would crush on impact to soften the landing.
In addition, after being released from an aircraft, four stabilizing legs—one on each side of the box—would snap into place to prevent it from tipping over on the ground.
The 1967 tests involved dropping weapons from three different aircraft: the C-47 and C-123 cargo planes and the A-26A, a refurbished World War II-era attack aircraft that the Air Force had bought specifically for counter-insurgency missions.
The goal of the tests was mostly to see whether or not the boxes and their contents would survive the drop. The testers also wanted to see how well the audio system functioned. The test weapons had dummy explosives to simulate the proper weight.
Screeming Meemies dropped from an airlifter like any other cargo—a normal static line opened the parachute. On the A-26A, a multipurpose dispenser held the devices in the aircraft’s bomb bay. Coincidentally, Hayes also made the SUU-24/A dispenser for dropping cluster bombs from various U.S. warplanes.
The tests were unspectacular. The basic system functioned more or less according to plan, but testers described the siren’s sound as “more entertaining than frightening.” With fresh batteries the sound was already below 130 decibels, which had been established as the threshold for pain—even if a person held his ear a mere six inches from the speaker.
The testers suggested that a short recorded message, such as a propaganda slogan, might be more effective.
Given the lackluster test results, however, the Screeming Meemie project came to an end. Pacific Air Forces canceled its requirement for “a noise-making weapon for psychological warfare” in December 1967. When the Special Operations Center published its own findings in 1968, it recommended that no further work be done on the project.
Still, using sound as a weapon remains a topic of interest for the U.S. military. Air and ground loudspeakers remain in use for psychological warfare and interrogation. U.S. troops blasted rock music to try and force Manuel Noriega out of the Vatican’s diplomatic mission during the American intervention in Panama in 1989.
More recently, the U.S. military has begun using a variety of so-called “acoustic hailing devices,” including the Long Range Acoustic Device. According to the Department of Defense’s Non-Lethal Weapons Program, LRADs “provide scalable, directional warning tones or intelligible voice commands beyond 500 meters.”
The hailers can be tuned to a loud, high pitch to induce pain and confusion. LRAD and similar systems have been deployed to Afghanistan and were also in Iraq, but they’re most famous as anti-pirate weapons.