Paramilitary: No Substitute For Military Mammals


January 19, 2023: The U.S. Navy is having a problem with introducing new robotic tech t0 do jobs already performed by trained sea mammals, especially dolphins. One faction in the navy wants to replace the dolphins with new tech while another faction points out that the tech has not yet been able to match the performance of the dolphins. There is still a role for the tech because if there is a major war and a lot more demand for what the dolphin’s do, more tech can be manufactured quickly than more dolphins can be trained.

Over a decade ago, the navy expanded the number of jobs its force of about a hundred trained sea mammals (dolphins, sea lions and seals) can carry out. The animals were now trained to carry a tow line down to an underwater object, so that it can be hauled up, or simply into view. Some of the mammals are also trained to patrol an area, equipped with a harness containing a camera.

In 2007 the navy sent 30 trained dolphins and sea lions to help guard a submarine base in Puget Sound (near Seattle, Washington) against hostile swimmers. The dolphins are trained to either drop beacons, if they spot a swimmer, or slip a cuff around a swimmer’s leg. The cuff is attached to a rope, and this allows the dolphin handler to reel in the swimmer.

In 2003, some of these sea mammals were sent to the Persian Gulf to guard against hostile swimmers getting near coalition ships or port facilities with bombs. Called the "Mk 6 anti-swimmer dolphin system", these dolphins normally worked with Explosive Ordnance Disposal units. This is because the dolphins are mainly trained to search for underwater explosives and mines, using their natural sonar ability.

For example, it took four decades of trial and error for the navy to determine how its dolphins could perform certain military functions like finding mines close to shore. This job, when done with human divers, is dangerous and often impossible at night. Human divers can be spotted and killed. Dolphins blend right in, and have built in sonar and other sensors to enable them to cover a much larger area than trained human divers. The human handlers finally found a way to teach the dolphins how to find mines and report what they have found. The dolphins are rewarded with food and affection. Although the navy still classifies the program as "experimental," recent exercises using the dolphins shows that the sea mammals are ready for prime time.

About as intelligent as dogs, each sea mammal bonds with its handler. Without that bond, the sea mammals could just wander off and not come back when turned loose to work. Occasionally a sea mammal will disappear for a few days, particularly when there are wild members of the same species in the area. But dolphins and sea lions are pack animals, and it is difficult for a domesticated sea mammal to be accepted into a group living in the wild. The sea mammals tend to bond with their handler. It takes about 18 months to train a new animal, and most can continue to serve 10-20 years before being retired. As with dogs, the sea mammals found life with their human “pack” attractive enough to stick with it.

The U.S. Navy has been training sea mammals since the 1960s, and has found that they are as trainable as dogs, but live twice as long. When too old to work, dolphins and sea lions are retired to a facility which feeds them, looks after their health and lets them out for swims in the open water. These are domesticated animals, and prefer the company of humans. Because they work under water, these animals don't get a lot of attention in the media.

In contrast, dogs have been used by the military for centuries and are easier and quicker to train for essential tasks only the dogs can perform. This was demonstrated after 2001 when the war on terror brought back military dogs in a big way. Within five years over two thousand were in service with American troops. The uses are many, and include patrolling, narcotics and explosives (and land mine) search. For most dogs, it takes nearly a year, and some $60,000, to train them to perform useful military skills. After 2001 the army issued a new Field Manual on military working dogs. By 2003 there were several hundred military dogs in combat zones like Afghanistan and Iraq.

War Dogs are an ancient military practice. But for thousands of years, the dogs were used mainly for helping guard the camp, and for helping out in combat. During the 20rth century, as warfare changed, so did the use of dogs. They were used to carry messages during World War I, but by World War II were also trained for patrolling, delivering messages in combat, detecting mines and crowd control. Most were still used for guard duty. During World War II, some 10,425 dogs were taken into U.S. military service, with another 1.500 mobilized for the Korean war and, in the Vietnam war, some 4,000 dogs were trained. In Vietnam 281 were killed in combat. The marines used 327 dogs in the Pacific during World War II, and 29 died in battle. The troops in the Pacific, both during World War II and Vietnam, found the dogs particularly useful for detecting enemy ambushes during patrols. The dogs could detect enemy troops up to a thousand meters away. In Iraq, the dogs were very useful for guarding bases, guarding prisoners, finding bombs and hidden enemy troops.

In Iraq, a seven-pound flak jacket was developed for dogs used in dangerous situations. Costing about a thousand dollars each, the Kevlar protective vests protect the dogs from stab wounds, shell fragments and some bullets. The K-9 Protective Vests weigh about seven pounds, which for a 90-pound German Shepard, is about the same burden as the 17-pound vest worn by the heavier marines. The K-9 vests have some special features as well. There are compartments on the inside of the vests for the insertion of cold packs (soft, flat plastic bags containing a chemical that, when activated, becomes very cool). Since dogs do not deal with heat as effectively as humans (dogs don’t sweat), and Iraq is a very warm place in the summer, the cold packs can prevent heat stroke. There are also attachments on the vest to enable the dog to be dropped by parachute, or hauled up via a rope. The vests hinder the dog’s mobility a bit, especially when they are jumping. But the dogs have quickly adjusted to the vests.

After World War II, until 2000, when the law was changed, military dogs were used until they were about ten years old, then killed. It was thought that the retired military dogs could not adapt to family life. But decades of police, and some military experience, with dogs living safely with their handlers and family members finally caused the policy to be changed. Dog handlers had long urged that retired dogs be allowed to stay with their handlers, or be put up for adoption.

Many other countries still used military dogs. In some nations civilian dogs with special skills are quickly put to work by the military. For example, two decades ago the Philippine army used police-trained bloodhounds to track Islamic terrorists who were pursued by soldiers.




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