Dolphins, whales, sea lions—these swimming soldiers are as highly trained as the U.S. Navy’s SEALs.
Like service dogs who used their exceptional sense of smell to protect troops on land, the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program takes advantage of the superior swimming characteristics of swimming mammals to do a variety of underwater missions—anything from harbor patrol and protection, to rescue and recovery, to naval mine detection.
The Navy acknowledges having used over a dozen different animal species at different points in the Marine Mammal program since its inception in 1959, including stingrays, sharks, turtles, and different types of birds, but today relies primarily on the California sea lion and Bottlenose dolphin. While both species are excellent swimmers, the dolphin is particularly suited to underwater missions like mine detection.
“Dolphins naturally possess the most sophisticated sonar known to science. Mines and other potentially dangerous objects on the ocean floor that are difficult to detect with electronic sonar, especially in coastal shallows or cluttered harbors, are easily found by the dolphins,” the Navy explains.
Dolphins benefit from having a waxy, fatty organ in their head, known simply as a melon, that helps them communicate and acts as a sort of sound lens, allowing them to focus ambient underwater sounds and the echolocation signals they emit into usable information. This is particularly important for locating mines, likely one of the dolphin’s primary tasks.
Both species can easily outperform even the best human divers in the world. “Both dolphins and sea lions have excellent low light vision and underwater directional hearing that allow them to detect and track undersea targets, even in dark or murky waters. They can also dive hundreds of feet below the surface, without risk of decompression sickness or "the bends" like human divers.”
The Navy states explicitly that the Marine Mammal Program has never been used in offensive attack missions, though there has been considerable speculation to the contrary. The Navy’s primary argument against using the animals offensively is a solid one though. They explain that although the animals they use have extremely good hearing and eyesight, it is next to impossible to train them to discern between friendly and enemy ships and impossible to tell the difference between divers they should attack, and divers they should leave alone.
The Marine Mammal Program is not exclusively the domain of the United States however—Russia, too, has a similar program—that has been spotted near in the Middle East.
The Russian Connection
Earlier this month, the naval expert H I Sutton uncovered evidence that Russia too is using marine animals at their port in Tartus, Syria. The open-source intelligence seemed to indicate that the mammal unit in Syria may normally be stationed at Sevastopol, in Russian-annexed Crimea. It is possible that the marine soldiers are either seals or dolphins, with dolphins being the more likely of the two.
Though speculative, it has been suggested that the mammals there are used for protecting Russia ships at the port from sabotage by enemy divers, and could additionally be trained for locating and marking naval mines, as well as performing intelligence missions.
Russia also trains Beluga whales. While less agile than dolphins or seals, the Belugas are much better adapted to icy-cold Arctic conditions and seem to be the Russian Navy’s mammal of choice at high northern latitudes. The Belugas garnered some media attention in 2019 when one of the Russian-trained whales showed up off the coast of Norway. The whale, nicknamed Hvaldimir, was friendly and not at all afraid of people. It was also wearing a harness with a Cyrillic inscription that stated “Equipment of St. Petersburg.”
“Animals” of the Future
Though agile, the mammals used by the Navy are likely going to slowly give way to robots. Perhaps most notably, the Navy recently awarded over $13.6 million to General Dynamics for the continued development of their Knifefish underwater mine detection drone. The small submarine-like robot has an internally integrated sonar array and an estimated endurance of sixteen hours—and you don’t have to catch it, you don’t have to train it, and you don’t have to feed it. The days of the mammal might be coming to an end.
Caleb Larson is a defense writer for the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Rhododendrites