Although dolphins were used in the U.S. military exercise operation "Blue Game" to clear practice mines off the coast of Norway in 2001, this is the first time they have been deployed in a real war situation. The Navy developed the method of using dolphins to locate mines in the mid-1980s, but has been training marine mammalsincluding beluga, pilot and killer whalesfor a variety of tasks since the 1960s.
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Dolphins have also been used to detect enemy swimmers and divers, and potentially, to attach markers. The swimmer defense system was deployed in Vietnam in the early 1970s and also in the Persian Gulf during the Iran/Iraq war of the late 1980s.
According to the Navy, dolphins and human divers are recovered and removed from the area before "target neutralization" of mines, if required, occurs. Though using dolphins for mine detection might seem a risky activity, the Navy argues the animals are unlikely to be hurt.
Sea mines are specifically set up not to detonate when dolphins, sharks and other fishes swim by, said Lapuzza, "otherwise they'd be going off all the time." The mines, which pick up magnetic signals, detonate when a large mass of metalsuch as a naval vesselpasses overhead, he said.
However, some organizations disagree with the Navy's assessment of the risks involved. "We believe that our troops deserve the very best defense possible, but this isn't it," said Stephanie Boyles, Wildlife Biologist at the People For Ethical Treatment of Animals, a lobbying group in Norfolk, Virginia.
Boyles argues that though the animals are perfectly capable of performing the tasks, they are so intelligent and free-willed that they sometimes choose not to. "You can't have that kind of subordination in a life or death situation, " she said. "The dolphins have no idea that lives will be lost if they fail to perform a task properly [Therefore] the U.S. military is putting them in harm's way," said Boyles.
Dolphins are just as reliable as drug-sniffing dogs and guard dogs, said Au. Over 30 years and many hundreds of thousands of instances of releasing dolphins, untethered, to locate dummy mines in the open ocean, no more than seven animals have failed to return to their handlers, according to Navy figures.
Next week, National Geographic News will publish a story about the dogs of war. Please see the related stories links below for how the military is turning to nature to look for the next generation of secret weapons.
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