As the Navy looks to the future with high-tech battleships, fighter jets, and even guided lasers, the seaborne armed forces still rely on aquatic animals to complete their global mission.
Even with technology rapidly replacing roles traditionally filled by humans and animals, dolphins and sea lions hold a unique purpose in the modern military that machines have yet to completely replace. Dolphins are mainly trained by handlers to detect underwater mines or to guard ships from terrorists. Sea lions also serve as underwater guard dogs for Navy ports, taught to clamp a “bite plate” onto a swimmers leg and drag the captured trespasser to its handler.
Unmanned underwater vehicles, or UUVs, are slated to be the future of surveying the deep oceans, but for now, years of evolution still give dolphins and sea lions some advantages over anything man can think up. Dolphins have built-in sonar, or echolocation, allowing them to see objects with complete clarity in murky waters, while sea lions sharp eyes allow them to easily spot enemy swimmers. Both dolphins and sea lions can dive to hundreds of feet and surface rapidly without suffering the bends that threaten human Navy divers. They’re intelligent, maneuverable, and ask only for food as a reward for their service.
Few people have heard of the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program, despite its fascinating history. It began in 1960 with training dolphins and sea lions in mine detection and studying them for submarine design, following the failure to train more than 19 other animals including sharks and birds. With the encouragement of President John Kennedy, the program expanded. Today, it operates with a budget of $28 million a year and a team of 90 dolphins and 50 California sea lions. The program is based in San Diego, where the animals and their handlers drill constantly, staying fit for duty.
When a real-life scenario occurs, the animals are deployed to a conflict area as readily as their two-legged brothers and sisters in arms. They’re lifted onto a plane or ship, where the sea lions are kept in special enclosures while the dolphins sit in stretchers suspended in water-filled containers. Wherever they go, so does a team of handlers and veterinarians to attend to their needs.
The animals have an impressive service record, both in war and on the homefont. They’ve guarded ammunition piers at Cam Ranh Bay during the Vietnam War, and now patrol the waters around bases in Georgia and Washington, protecting valuable cargo, such as the nuclear-equipped Trident submarines. During the 1980s, six dolphins patrolled the harbor in Bahrain to protect U.S. flagships, and escorted Kuwaiti oil tankers through dangerous waters. And with ongoing threats by Iran to mine the Strait of Hormuz and insurgents threatening ships in the Persian Gulf, the dolphins and sea lions remain on high alert.
The marine mammals have also courted controversy. In 1974, the movie “Day of the Dolphin,” the Navy-trained marine mammals were captured with the goal of assassinating the President, and that depiction, as far-fetched as it was, seems to have left a lasting impression. Rumors still abound that miltiary dolphins are used to plant mines or kamikaze-dive enemy submarines. The Navy insists that the dolphins and sea lions are not trained to carry explosives or to harm or kill humans, and never have been. Nevertheless the program is dogged with criticism on the way it treats its animals, altough the Navy allows outside experts to monitor the dolphins and sea lions’ welfare.
While dolphins and sea lions still claim a place in today’s military, their days may be numbered. A new series of robot, called the Knifefish, promises to provide all of the benefits of underwater patrol and mine detection that seals and dolphins offer, meaning a honorable discharge for most the Navy’s aquatic mammals by 2017. But some military experts have questioned if the robot is up to task. The Department of Defense has long searched for a technological replacement for trained bomb dogs, but admits that man’s best friend still reigns supreme. And even the Navy has stated that marine mammals may still be used for specialized missions beyond 2017 that robots can’t pull off.
But as of now, the majority of marine mammals are set to be phased out. They’ll leave a legacy of paving the way for mine detection, influencing groundbreaking Navy technology, and inspiring their human companions with their natural drive to serve and protect. Like the rest of their longtime veterans, the Navy plans to care for them the rest of their lives. In gratitude for their years of service, the military promises them a well-earned retirement, including housing, medical care, and of course, a generous pension of all the fish they can eat.