Photo by Bernard Spragg
By Cade Keating-Hudson
A beluga whale suspected of spying for the Russian Navy has made headlines around the world. The whale appeared in Norwegian national waters and approached a fishing vessel where the sailors discovered a camera which later appeared to be Russian Navy espionage equipment. This purported criminal activity serves as a reminder that many marine mammals are enlisted in militaries worldwide to serve in a variety of roles.
Animals have been used by humans for military purposes throughout history. Marine mammals were first used during the Cold War when the U.S. Navy began a classified program aimed at hiding the research from their Soviet adversaries in 1959. When the program began, all forms of aquatic life, including manta rays, sharks, whales, seals, dolphins and porpoises, were tested to determine their capability to discover mines and other navy equipment in the ocean as well as locate enemy divers in navy ports. The program was classified by the U.S. Navy until 1990 to hide this ability from their Soviet adversaries. Sea lions were also deployed by the U.S. Navy in 2003. Today, both dolphins and seals protect U.S. Navy harbors. In a 2011 public test conducted not far from the University of California at San Diego, U.S. Navy dolphins and seals stopped a mock enemy diver from sabotaging ships entering the San Diego Harbor.
However, the United States is not the only nation that has taken advantage of these underwater assets as the Soviet Union also trained dolphins. It is rumored that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, these dolphins were sold to Iran, though this has never been officially confirmed. Similarly, the Ukranian Navy was confirmed to be using combat dolphins during the invasion of Crimea, . The fate of these dolphins is still unknown and has caused a diplomatic row between the nations. Ukraine’s government claims that the captive dolphins perished heroically giving their lives for Ukraine. Russia officially denies this claim and maintains that dolphins were sold to aquariums or died of natural causes. It is possible other countries secretly use marine life in their nations’ military even to this day.
Though officially denied, it is hotly contested whether the U.S. Navy or U.S.S.R. Navy ever used dolphins for offensive capabilities. According to a BBC article from 2000, the Soviet Union had trained their dolphins to float armed mines into enemy ships in what appeared to be suicidal tactics. The Guardian also confirmed with a retired Soviet Colonel that these dolphins were trained in using explosives to sink ships. Additionally, the US Navy has apparently trained its own dolphins to kill enemy divers. Former Navy Seal Brandon Webb claims that he trained with these dolphins firsthand. Richard O’Barry, an animal rights activists, dolphin trainer, and former navy officer says that he was asked by the CIA to train dolphins to plant explosives. Whatever the case is, it is clear that the full truth about marine mammal programs around the world may never be fully known.
Due to developing technologies, there is uncertainty regarding the future use of marine mammals for military purposes. Nonetheless, there is potential for it to render the use of marine life in military operations obsolete . While there is no existing sonar system as effective as that of a dolphin, there is potential that one could be developed. Additionally, emerging submersible drone technology is investing in being able to neutralize enemy divers. It is important to note that despite all the modern technology currently available, there still is no viable alternative to using marine animals in military operations. We could expect these programs to be replicated elsewhere as the Trump Administration seeks to make the military of foreign nations less reliant on American resources.
The question of animal rights and ethics has also cast some concern for the future use of marine mammals. Animal rights campaigns accuse the Navy of animal cruelty. Animal rights advocates raise concerns over the question of inhumane treatment of feeble retired dolphins often subjugated to medical experimentation by navy veterinarians. Additionally, environmental activists point out that marine mammals are still wild animals, and also do not choose to serve, but rather forced into it. Contrarily, the United States Navy argues that the animals in question are given proper care and are treated well. They point out the contribution to research of 1,500 scientific articles produced as a direct result of the Navy’s program.
It is important to note that the use of these animals remains a controversial topic without a clear solution. On the one hand, these marine mammals are not domesticated animals and it is against their nature to be working with humans. While animal rights activists claim that these marine mammals should not be conscripted, to this day there are certain cases where they are considered the most tactful method for military purposes to date. This leaves little chance for a navy to surrender them, a decision that may give their adversary an advantage. Until technology evolves to outperform marine mammals, they will likely remain in the service of navies around the world.