Russia’s dolphin guards are part of a long tradition

As a teenager, I read “The Day of the Dolphin,” a Cold War potboiler about a scientist who teaches dolphins to communicate with humans.

The dolphins are stolen by a shadowy government group, which tries to use them to assassinate the U.S. president. The movie was directed by Mike Nichols, written by Buck Henry and featured George Scott — a trio guaranteed to provide a subtle tone of paranoia and parody. (Nichols and Henry were responsible for “The Graduate,” and Scott was the inimitable Gen. Buck Turgidson in “Dr. Strangelove.”)

I recalled “The Day of the Dolphin” last week after reading reports that Russia had deployed dolphins to guard the entrance to the Sevastopol harbor, a key Black Sea port that houses an important Russian naval base. The news was a reminder that animals have been an integral part of the military since armed forces were first organized and planners and strategists continue to devise ways to use them more efficiently and creatively.

Satellite photos show two dolphin pens at the entrance to Sevastopol harbor. The port is beyond the range of the Ukrainian missiles that are believed to have sunk the Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea fleet, but there are fears that Kyiv has other ways to sabotage Russian warships. The dolphins serve as underwater sentinels, detecting and attacking divers or other saboteurs.

Both the United States and the Soviet Union trained dolphins and other sea mammals for military duty during the Cold War. Both governments prized the dolphins’ speed, sonar and ability to dive deep without decompression problems. The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program credited dolphins and sea lions with being “highly reliable, adaptable and trainable marine animals” that possess “excellent low light vision and underwater directional hearing.”

Dolphins were trained for guard duty, to locate lost or sunken underwater objects, including ordinance and to spy on or surveil harbors and other maritime facilities. A key assignment has been finding mines: Scientists believe that bottlenose dolphins can outperform any machine when it comes to mine detection. The U.S. used dolphins for just that purpose in the 2018 Rim of the Pacific exercise, the world’s largest maritime warfare exercise that is held every two years near Hawaii.

Sea lions are prized for their vision. Advocates insist that a sea lion, two handlers and a rubber boat can more efficiently search for objects on the ocean floor than a full-sized naval vessel and its crew, a group of human divers and their support team. They have also been deployed in shallow waters to attach clamps to an adversary’s legs to guard against intruders.

Both the U.S. and the Soviets denied using those animals for offensive purposes, but the BBC found a former Soviet military officer who claimed that dolphins had been trained at the Sevastopol base to plant mines on ships. In another report, a former dolphin trainer said he was told that the dolphins could be armed with needles connected to carbon dioxide cylinders, which they would use to attack intruders; he also said that they can be deployed by parachute from helicopters.

Ukraine is reported to have created its own dolphin training program but lost control of that initiative when Russia annexed Crimea, where the military aquarium and the animals were located. Public interest in the program was briefly revived in 2016 when the Russian Defense Ministry published a tender for five bottleneck dolphins.

That ad quickly disappeared but the stories took on new life in 2018, when H. I. Sutton, a submarine analyst who first noted the dolphin pens in Sevastopol, pointed out similar pens at the Tartus naval base in Syria, located in the part of the facility reserved for Russian submarines. Then in 2019, Norwegian fishermen found a beluga whale wearing a harness that read “Equipment St. Petersburg” and had apparently been trained to retrieve items from the ocean floor. Subsequent investigation discovered whale pens at three locations near Russian naval bases near Murmansk.

Throughout history, militaries have enlisted all sorts of animals. The most common chore has been transportation, with horses, mules and oxen shouldering the bulk of that burden. In the pre-mechanized era, they were often at the frontlines, either carrying officers or hauling freight. It is estimated that 8 million horses were killed in service during World War I.

Elephants have been a military mainstay since ancient times — Hannibal famously led his troop over the Alps during the Second Punic War — and are still in service in some countries today. U.S. special forces have used elephants when the need and opportunity arose. Massive and unyielding, elephants were used as well to clear roads or pull heavy equipment (like planes). They could also be used to charge enemy positions, their thick skin rendering them impervious to enemy weapons, while their size and noise disoriented adversaries and their tusks did great damage. Not for nothing were they called “tanks of classical warfare.”

That seeming indestructibility prompted some strategists to recruit pigs, whose size, smell and sound could be used to disorient the massive beasts. There are reports from ancient times of pigs being doused in pitch, set afire and then driven among the elephants to repel the invaders: In some cases, the panicked pachyderms trampled their own forces as they fled.

Dogs play important roles, too. They serve as guard dogs (duh!), help locate explosive devices and join in search and rescue missions. Cats were used during World War I to detect gas in the trenches.

Birds also contribute. Pigeons provide a reliable means of communications: fast, efficient and hard to intercept. The CIA is said to have trained pigeons to photograph restricted sites in the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War and used other birds to plant spying devices on window sills. The Islamic State was reported to have used birds to deliver messages between some of its factions. Eagles have been used to attack drones.

Perhaps the oldest efforts involve insects, making what is called an entomological weapon. Scorpions and bees have been weaponized for thousands of years, collected and thrown into fortresses to demoralize and weaken defenders. There are many episodes in which military scientists used insects for research on biological weapons, from plague to malaria to yellow fever; they even explored the use of beetles to infect and decimate an enemy’s food supplies.

Bugs remain a research priority but for different reasons. Scientists believe that bees have a keen sense of smell that can be used to identify explosives or drugs. The more fantastic plans — which Pentagon agencies have promoted — involve the mechanization of bugs to “create technology to reliably integrate microsystems payloads on insects to enable insect cyborgs.” In the ideal form, technology would be inserted in the pupa that could be used to manipulate the insect after it matured.

That idea was born of the failure of engineers to replicate the extraordinary capability of most insects. Instead, they have turned to manipulating the real deal — living insects — although they have allegedly proven stubbornly resistant to those efforts. It is proving impossible to improve on evolution to create “micro air vehicles.” While scientists dismiss some of the plans as hopeless dreams, there remains hope for cyborg insects.

This brief history allows us to put the discovery of three ichthyosaurs — ancient marine reptiles — in the Swiss Alps in a new perspective. Paleontologists have focused on what they tell us about plate tectonics — and how fish fossils managed to get 3,000 meters above sea level — as well as explain their size. These after all may have been the largest animals to ever inhabit the Earth. I have a different question: Might they be an early version of the Swiss Guard and should the Vatican consider papal porpoises?

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

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