Tuesday, 27 June 2023

Russian Navy ‘Likely’ Training Combat Dolphins, UK Defense Ministry Says

 The Russian Navy is “likely” training combat dolphins to intercept enemy divers in the Black Sea, according to the U.K. Ministry of Defence.

The information came in an “Intelligence Update” from the ministry on Friday, which revealed imagery around the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s main naval base at Sevastopol, Crimea.

“Russia has trained animals for a range of missions, but the ones housed in Sevastopol harbour are highly likely intended to counter enemy divers,” the statement said.

The intelligence gathered by the U.K. showed nets, booms, and marine mammal pens used to defend the base and train dolphins for military purposes. The ministry’s post stated,“This includes at least four layers of nets and booms across the harbour entrance. In recent weeks, these defences have highly likely also been augmented by an increased number of trained marine mammals.”

The U.S. Naval Institute (USNI) reviewed the imagery and confirmed the intelligence, concluding that Russia moved the two dolphin pens to Sevastopol in February. According to the USNI, the dolphins could “be tasked with counter-diver operations” and “prevent Ukrainian special operations forces from infiltrating the harbor underwater to sabotage warships.”

The Sevastopol base is the Russian Navy’s most important naval base in Crimea and stores many high value Russian ships. The base is seen as especially vulnerable to Ukrainian sabotage since it is out of range of Ukrainian missiles.

“Imagery shows a near doubling of floating mammal pens in the harbour which highly likely contain bottle-nosed dolphins,” the statement continued. The suspected dolphin training comes alongside heightened security in Sevastopol following Ukrainian drone strikes in April, according to The Tennessean

Bottle-nosed dolphins can detect underwater mines and enemy swimmers using echolocation — sounds the dolphin emits and then bounce back to the dolphin. According to the Naval Information Warfare Center, dolphins have the most sophisticated sonar known to science. 

Russia has previously used Beluga whales and seals in the Arctic Ocean for naval surveillance missions. A Beluga whale made headlines in 2021 when it appeared on the coast of Norway when it appeared to be used for Russian intelligence. Locals nicknamed the whale “Hvaldimir” and freed the whale from its camera-bearing harness.

This isn’t the first time dolphins have been used in a military context. The U.S. studied and trained dolphins and beluga whales to improve their own sonar technology and improve their vessels’ speed, according to “A Whale of Business,” a PBS’ episode of “Frontline.”

The Marine Mammal Program (MMP), starting in 1960, “also trained dolphins, beluga whales, sea lions and other marine mammals to perform various underwater tasks, including delivering equipment to divers underwater, locating and retrieving lost objects, guarding boats and submarines, and doing underwater surveillance using a camera held in their mouths.”

According to PBS, the MMP had over 100 dolphins and operated with an $8 million budget in the 1980s, playing a key surveillance role in the Cold War. 

The U.S. Navy used bottlenose dolphins in the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars to patrol waters, alert guards, and tag enemy swimmers with a tracking device so American troops could capture or neutralize the swimmer. Though the Navy denies it, the episode claims that dolphins were also trained to shoot enemy swimmers.

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