Drafting Dolphins: A History of the Military’s Marine Mammal Program

During the Cold War, the US Navy trained dozens of dolphins and sea lions to perform military tasks, such as locating mines and detecting enemy special forces swimmers and divers.

Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin

When it comes to water, we humans are virtually helpless. Even with all the benefits of modern diving technology, we are slow and ponderous underwater, we can’t see very well, we can’t go very deep, and can only stay there for short periods (and must then spend a long time “decompressing”). Marine mammals like dolphins, orcas and sea lions, on the other hand, are perfectly adapted to life in the water–they can swim rapidly and can execute deft precise maneuvers at virtually any depth, they can see at least five times further underwater than we can, especially in low light, they have excellent hearing which is, in whales and dolphins, supplemented by sophisticated echolocation systems, and they are intelligent animals which are readily trainable. As always, Mother Nature is better than our best technology.

It is little wonder, then, that the military took a keen interest in these animals, and found ways to utilize their natural abilities. During the Cold War both the United States and the Soviet Union were training marine mammals to carry out military operations. Most of these programs are still heavily classified, but over the decades some details have leaked out, giving us some idea of what they do and how they do it.

The Navy’s initial interest in dolphins was centered around submarines. The US was building and deploying nuclear-armed Polaris missile submarines, and thought that by studying dolphins, engineers could learn how to make their subs more streamlined, faster, and quieter. In 1959 a military team was sent to collect data from the dolphins at Marineland in California.

The idea for more direct uses began in 1964, when sonar expert Dr James Fitzgerald casually remarked to some Navy brass at a party in Annapolis that dolphins, with their sophisticated sonar systems, might be useful to the military. At this time, most people knew “dolphins” only from the TV show “Flipper” and from performing shows at tourist aquariums. The Navy liked the idea, and soon captured a number of wild Pacific White-Sided Dolphins and Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins (in later years the Navy began captive-breeding its own marine mammals) and began training them. Most of the training happened in California, while cold-water operations were conducted in Alaska.

Training a dolphin isn’t much different than training a dog. The most effective process is called “positive reinforcement”. The desired actions are broken down into a series of simple steps which are then taught individually and later strung together. When the trainee animal performs the desired action, it is rewarded with a food treat or with lavish social attention. And when the trainee fails to perform the requested action, there is no coercion or punishment–instead the animal is simply ignored. Over time, the animal learns to perform on request a number of complex tasks. A typical dolphin would spend five or six years in training, and individual dolphins were specialized in different military programs. Over the years more species of marine mammal such as California sea lions, orcas (or “killer whales”), belugas, and pilot whales, which could dive deeper, swim further, were more maneuverable, or were physically stronger than dolphins, were added to the training. The program became known as the Marine Mammal System (MMS), which was later expanded into the Advanced Marine Biological Systems (AMBS) and then renamed the Navy Marine Mammal Program (NMMP).

The first known use of a military-trained dolphin was in 1965. As part of its SEALAB project to carry out longterm underwater research, the US Navy had a number of divers living for weeks at a time in an ocean-floor module off the coast of California. One of the dolphin trainees, named Tuffy, was taught to deliver mail to the underwater “aquanauts”.

But when the US began its involvement in Vietnam, the Navy’s ambitions expanded rapidly. Various groups of dolphins were separated into different projects, each with its own particular military task. We only know about a few of them. The project known as MK4 trained dolphins to find naval anti-ship mines that were tethered to the sea floor, and mark them with an electronic locator or floating buoy for later destruction. Project MK5 taught California sea lions to find various sorts of objects on the seafloor–things like torpedos, mines, and bombs, and, some rumors say, lost nuclear weapons–and attach “grabber” devices with cables so they could be recovered. The techniques worked equally well for accidentally-lost American weapons and for Soviet weapons that the US wished to examine, especially in very deep water where human divers could not go. MK6 trained dolphins and sea lions to serve as underwater sentries around ports or ships, to swim around and find enemy swimmers or special-forces teams (and, perhaps, kill them). The MK7 program used dolphins to find lost objects on the sea floor, but took advantage of their sonar to also locate objects that were buried in the sediment. Project MK8 used teams of dolphins to find and mark underwater mines or anti-ship obstacles at potential Marine landing beaches. The Navy has not acknowledged that dolphins were also trained to attach explosive limpet mines to the underwater hulls of enemy ships, which would then be remotely detonated to sink them, but we know from leaked information that they were. They also were apparently trained to attach electronic trackers or listening devices to the hulls of enemy ships and submarines. It is likely that all of these programs, plus new ones that we don’t know about, are still in service today.

Much of what the AMBS-trained dolphins did in Vietnam remains classified. Ironically, most of what we know comes from the archives of the former Soviet Union, who were backing their North Vietnamese allies. From the reports of Russian Spetsnaz “special forces” teams who were operating in Vietnam, we know that the US had deployed dolphins from the MK6 project to patrol places like ports and Navy bases. The Soviets recorded that two of their Spetsnaz divers, who were planting a limpet mine on an American cargo ship, had been killed by American dolphins, and as a result the Russians began training their special forces to defend themselves against the animals–and also began a marine mammal program of their own. We do not know exactly how the American dolphins killed the swimmers, but leaked information in the 1970’s revealed that both sea lions and dolphins had been trained in anti-personnel attacks. The animals had been taught to approach enemy divers and tear off their air hose and face mask, forcing them to the surface and exposing them to “other security assets”. The highly-maneuverable sea lions were also trained to attach a special clamp to a diver’s leg. This prevented him from swimming and also contained an electronic marking device, allowing US divers to locate him. Some of the clamps would reel out a thin but strong line which the sea lion carried to a nearby US patrol boat, allowing them to literally pull the enemy diver in like a fish. And, according to some leaked sources, some of the dolphins carried a special gas gun, originally designed for divers as a defense against sharks, strapped to their nose. This was a long barbed hollow needle that was attached to a canister of compressed CO2 gas, which could be triggered either on impact or remotely to inject the gas into the diver, which then explosively expanded inside him and produced what was presumably a messy death.

At its peak, during the Reagan years, the marine mammal program had over 100 dolphins, an unknown number of other animals, and a budget of $8 million. Congress granted a partial exemption to the Marine Mammal Protection Act which allowed the Pentagon to take a number of dolphins and whales from the wild for “national defense purposes”. (Today, the Navy says, it captive-breeds all its own animals, and begins training them within several weeks of birth.) When the Cold War ended, the Navy reduced the program, gave away about one-third of its marine mammals, and declassified information about the existence of the program (but did not release any of the operational details.)

The existence of the military dolphin program, however, had already been revealed through a leak in the 1970’s, and it provoked a storm of outrage from environmentalists and animal-welfare activists. The Navy denied that it was mistreating any of the animals (pointing out that it cost a lot of money to train each of them), and also denied that the animals were being used to actually kill people. When citizens sued the Navy in the 1980s over a plan to use dolphin and sea lion sentries in Puget Sound to guard the Trident Submarine Base there, the court appointed independent reviewers to examine the conditions under which they were being kept. They found that the Navy animals had a survival rate of over 95%, the highest of any organization worldwide that maintains large numbers of marine mammals.

The marine mammal program next appeared in action during the Second Gulf War, when, during the invasion of Iraq, six dolphins were used to clear beaches ahead of Marine landings, uncovering at least 100 anti-ship mines. Other dolphins were used to search captured Iraqi ports for mines, and trained Sea Lions were deployed in harbors where US ships were anchored, to patrol for enemy swimmers and saboteurs. This program was known as the Shallow Water Intruder Detection System (SWIDS). Similar programs had been used in the 1980s during American interventions in the Middle East, and during the Iran-Iraq War the dolphins had been used to search for mines inside Persian Gulf shipping lanes.

In all, the Navy acknowledges having deployed trained marine mammals in 25 countries (and though we don’t know all of the countries, we do know that the list includes Vietnam, Iraq, Bahrain, and South Korea). One of those nations was the US itself, where dolphin sentries have been used to patrol many Navy ports and submarine bases. In 1996, trained dolphins and sea lions were sent to patrol San Francisco Bay, to help protect the Republican Party National Convention. Today, the US program consists of 80 dolphins and 30 sea lions. The Soviet Union also had an active marine-mammal program, which continued in Russia after the end of the Cold War. According to documents, the USSR trained some of its dolphins as living torpedoes, strapping an explosive charge to them and sending them to swim underneath an enemy ship. The Russians also rather cleverly designed a parachute harness for their dolphins, which allowed them to be dropped from an airplane: the US in turn developed a small boat with a hatch in the hull for the clandestine release of dolphins and sea lions.

Currently, there are reports that the marine mammal program may be in the process of being phased out. Modern electronic underwater drones have become so sophisticated that they can now perform most of the tasks that the dolphins and sea lions were trained for. So it is possible that the Navy’s 110 dolphin and sea lion warriors may soon be unemployed, perhaps to end their days entertaining children in a zoo or marine park.

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