Earlier this year, the Russian Federation announced its inten- tions to purchase five dolphins, which will subsequently be trained for military use. Their skill set includes things like flagging mines, protecting ships and har- bors and detecting submarines. Before we start criticizing the Russians, let us examine the sur- prising history of combat dolphins.
If you were thinking that exploit- ing small mammals for militaris- tic gain definitely sounds like an American idea; you are correct. American military researchers in 1960 were looking to dolphins as inspiration for designing bet- ter missiles. That idea ultimate- ly progressed to just using dol- phins for military tasks. As this was the height of the Cold War, the Soviets, followed suit and adopted this innovative mam- malian escapade five years later.
Today, the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Training Program in San Diego, California houses 85 Bottlenose dolphins. The Russians, on the other hand, are current- ly trying to rebuild their marine mammal training program. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Crimea, where their dol- phin training program was located, became a part of the Ukraine. With the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia is again looking to beef up its military marine mammal presence.
The human race is no stranger to using animals for our benefit; the most prominent and versatile of those animals are dogs. While humans have only been inter- acting heavily with dolphins for the past century, the domestica- tion of dogs goes back millennia.
When looking at aggression in dolphins versus dogs we find one major difference – dogs will harm and kill humans without training, while dolphins will not. The United States has promised to never train a dolphin to kill; the Russians have made no such promises. While training Russian military dolphins to kill would be unacceptable, at this point, no such training pro- gram exists. In fact, military dol- phins have never seen combat – the closest they came was during the Vietnam war. Furthermore, the dol- phins do not look likely to see com- bat any time in the future either.
In terms of underwater mili- tary prowess, dolphins are an easy choice. Smarter than sharks and beluga whales, dolphins fill a void. Due to their ability to dive to depths of over a thousand feet and stay submerged for over ten minutes, dolphins have evolved in just the direction that would enable them to help humans militarily. In addition, dolphins are extremely intelligent and social mammals that frequently communicate with each other and, on occasion, with humans. Because of characteristics such as these, it appears that, at the moment, there are few better options to help keep the oceans safe.
The reconnaissance roles that dolphins are playing in national security are nonviolent and likely to stay that way. Their usage in military tasks is really no more of an ethical problem than the role of K-9 dog units used across the world. Additionally, any ethical qualms about the use of the dol- phins will probably be remedied soon; in today’s enlightened age of technology it is increasingly likely that we will soon find alter- natives to the skill set of military dolphins. However, at about $5,000 per dolphin (training not includ- ed), they are not a bad bargain.
Christine Barkley ’18 (barkle1@sto- laf.edu) is from St. Paul, Minn. She majors in Russian Area Studies.