Why Does Russia Have a Dolphin Army and Does the U.S. Have One?

Satellite images suggest that Russia has deployed an army of dolphins to protect their naval base in the Black Sea.

According to the US Naval Institute (USNI), Russia placed two dolphin pens at the entrance to the Sevastopol Harbor naval base in February, around the point they invaded Ukraine on February 24. But why?

Why does Russia have a dolphin army?

The dolphins are said to be guarding Russia's most important naval base in the Black Sea.

Sevastopol Harbor lies to the south of Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014. The ships anchored there may be out of range from Ukrainian missiles, but they are at particular risk from underwater attacks.

And the dolphins are there to prevent such a thing from happening, according to the USNI.

The marine mammals have likely been trained to guard the ships, and carry out "counter-diver operations," the Institute said.

Dolphins have been selected for this task as they possess a natural sonar—one of the most sophisticated known to scientists. This means they are skilled at detecting mines and dangerous objects that may lie on the seafloor. Electronic sonar systems are no match for dolphin's natural senses, meaning they have been deployed in military operations throughout the years.

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Dolphins are pictured alongside a boat during sonar training exercises. For several decades, the U.S. Navy marine mammal program was classified. David McNew/Getty Images

Does the U.S have dolphin soldiers?

The U.S. Navy has been training dolphins for use in its military since 1959.

When the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program was first being developed, several marine animals including dolphins, rays, sharks, turtles and sea birds were tested to see how helpful they would be. Eventually, the Navy settled on two species for the job: dolphins and the California sea lion.

Since the 1960s, the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program has been based in Point Loma, San Diego.

The U.S. Navy dolphins are used for the same purposes their Russian counterparts are—to detect mines and other threatening objects around coastal areas. The dolphins are even trained to swim alongside naval boats when moving to different areas.

For several decades, the U.S. Navy marine mammal program was classified, and lead to widespread speculation that the animals were used as offensive weapons. The program has said these claims are untrue.

The U.S and Russia were the first to deploy such an army alongside their militaries and since then, other countries have developed similar programs. Russia's remains the most prominent, gaining the most widespread attention.

These recent satelite images are not the only thing to suggest Russia is increasing its use of military marine mammals, the USNI said. Russia has deployed marine mammals in other operations in recent years.

Russia's dolphin program gained widespread attention in 2018 when a dolphin from the Ukranian navy that had been captured by Russian forces during the annexation of Crimea four years earlier died. A Ukranian official said the dolphins went on "hunger strike," refusing food from their Russian handlers after the take-over.

It is also believed that the Russian navy uses beluga whales in its operations. This surfaced in 2019, when reports from Norway claimed that one had been found wearing a Russian harness and a GoPro camera.

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A stock photo shows two dolphins jumping. Some dolphins have been deployed to protect Russia's naval base in the Black Sea. Sally Hinton