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Dolphins: The Secret Assets Of The Russian Navy

by Bharat Duggal
Dolphins: The Secret Assets Of The Russian Navy

January 15, 2021

For decades, human beings have used animals' highly evolved capacities- from horses' strength and birds' flying. But a 2019 discovery in Norway turned the spotlight on animal training for military purposes.

A beluga whale wearing a Russian harness coupled with a GoPro camera holder – in the first glance, a whale with all this equipment might as well seem like a part of some majestic aquatic circus or carnival. Rather, Norwegian fishers reportedly sighted this well-equipped whale in dense waters, stirring rumours that the Russian Navy has trained the animal for ‘reconnaissance’ purposes.

Although this theory has not been proved yet, it can’t be denied either. There is a long and troubling history, not mainly restricted to Russia, of armed forces exploiting marine mammals for spying missions.

Secret Assets

Russian state television reported in 2017 that the country was experimenting the use of beluga whales, bottlenose dolphins, and other species of seals to guard and support divers entering naval bases. However, Russian scientists aren’t the only ones reportedly training animals for use in the armed forces. 

Since the 1960s, dolphins and sea lions have been trained by the United States and some other countries to detect sea mines and recover inert torpedoes and test objects used in naval exercises. According to a New York Times story, during the Cold War, the Soviet Navy prepared dolphins for military use, but the plan was discontinued sometime after 1991 (possibly due to the fall of the Soviet Union). 

Dolphins were also stationed in the Iraq war, performing mine detection and clearance operations in the Persian Gulf to help humanitarian ships safely deliver aid to the wounded. In the process, a sailor assigned to explosive ordnance disposal unit worked with a bottlenose dolphin before a night training exercise.

Why Dolphins?

The multi-talented persona of dolphins isn’t hidden from anyone. From sea-themed water parks to emphatic aquatic zoos organising ‘dolphin competitions’, the marine mammal is uniquely sharp and adaptive. But what makes them distinct is their bio-sonar capability which is better than any human-made sonar.

Dolphins produce sonar waves from their foreheads, and they can quickly locate things that humans cannot. They can also repeatedly dive deeper than human divers, reaching underwater depths that we could otherwise reach using robots.

The dolphins "see" enemy frogmen by sensing sound waves bouncing off the hard calcium deposits in human bones, and can sense mines buried by mud and silt on the seafloor by sensing the air void inside the mine's casing.

- John Ismay, New York Times War Reporter Tweet

Dolphins are also used to detect mines buried in the seafloor or floating in the water, tethered to an anchor, according to a National Geographic report. A Russian reserve colonel, who has written previously about marine mammals’ military use, shrugged off Norway’s concern about the beluga. But he did not deny that it could have escaped from the Russian Navy.

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A sailor assigned to explosive ordnance disposal unit worked with a bottlenose dolphin before a night training exercise in May 2013.

Other Animals

Animals are not a recent addition to the armed forces around the world. Various other animals such as horses, elephants, and camels have been used for transportation and mounted attacks. And we are all aware of the K-9 or K9 police dog units used in various militaries and police departments worldwide.

Going back in history, Sanskrit hymns record elephants’ use for military purposes as early as 1,100 B.C. Dogs have long been used in a wide variety of military objectives, more recently focusing on guarding and bomb detection.

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A Russian reserve colonel, who has written previously about the military use of marine mammals, shrugged off Norway's concern about the beluga. But he did not deny that it could have escaped from the Russian navy.

As you might already know, pigeons’ use for communication and photographic espionage has been recorded in recent human history. On the other hand, chickens were used in an operation called Kuwaiti Field Chicken (KFC) during the Gulf Wars to detect poisonous gases; the US Marines’ designation for chickens used in this role was ‘Poultry Chemical Confirmation Devices’.

Dogs were used for war purposes by the ancient Greeks. The mighty Romans specially trained the Molossian dog for combat, frequently coating them with protective spiked metal collars and mail armour.

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Commodore Tony Millar, of the Royal New Zealand Navy, tossed a fish to a bottlenose dolphin during a visit to United States Naval Base Point Loma in July 2018. Credit... Matthew Stroup/U.S. Navy

Surprisingly, animals’ usage has not been limited to direct action; they have also been used as psychological weapons. For example, the Achaemenid forces used cats and other animals as psychological strategies against the Egyptians in the Battle of Pelusium (525 BC) between the Achaemenid Empire and Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians avoided hurting cats due to religious beliefs.

While many of these animals, such as dogs and pigeons, are still used today by armed forces, dolphins and the outcry against it seem to be a recent phenomenon.

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