Why Russia's military needs a few (more) good dolphins

Russia's Ministry of Defense is recruiting dolphins and may plan to revamp a Cold War-era program of training combat dolphins. 

Pavel Golovkin/AP
Dolphins play, at the Sevastopol State Oceanarium in Sevastopol, Crimea, Sunday, March 30, 2014. A Soviet-era military program training dolphins and seals for combat will be revived in Crimea after its annexation by Russia, according to Russian state media. (AP Photo/

Russia's military is seeking recruits for its tanks – aquarium tanks, that is.

Five healthy dolphins are requested by the Ministry of Defense on the government's official website, prompting speculation that the Soviet Union's Cold War dolphin program has been revived by Russia, state-owned news agency TASS reports.

The government wants two female and three male dolphins in their prime, caught by marine specialists and delivered in bathtubs of water by Aug. 1, and it will pay 1.75 million rubles ($24,475) for them, according to TASS. The military offered no explanation for the purchase order.

This isn't the first time the news media has suggested that Russia is using dolphins for military purposes. In 2014, military officials dismissed any need for "exotic methods of protecting the adjacent water area," following rumors that the Russian navy had conducted exercises with dolphins. 

Few Americans knew about it at the time, but the Cold War had a marine mammal component. Both US and Soviet forces trained dolphins to carry out underwater missions at a level that neither man nor machine can yet replicate. 

“Americans looked into this first,” retired Colonel Viktor Baranets, who witnessed the Soviet dolphin training program, told the AFP. “But when Soviet intelligence found out the tasks the US dolphins were completing in the 1960s, the defense ministry at the time decided to address this issue.”

The Soviet Union's "combat dolphins" could attach explosives to enemy ships and search out sunken torpedoes in the Black Sea. The dolphin training center, located in Crimea, passed into Ukrainian hands and was sometimes used to provide dolphin therapy, the AFP reported. Russia retook the facility in 2014, and the call for new dolphins suggests it reverted to its wartime mission.

An unnamed employee at the Crimea facility told RIA Novosti that Russian researchers were revamping the dolphins' high-tech gear

"Our experts have developed new devices, which convert the detection of objects by the dolphins' underwater sonar to a signal on an operator's monitor," the source told RIA Novosti. "But the Ukrainian Navy lacked the funds for such know-how, and some projects had to be shuttered."

Military training of dolphins, as well as sea lions, occurs in only one other location – a US naval facility in San Diego – but marine biologists say the mammals are remarkably suited for the complex missions. 

"[Bottlenose dolphins] are better than any machine as far as detecting mines," Paul Nachtigall, leader of marine mammal research at the University of Hawaii, told National Geographic. 

The US Navy has reportedly committed $14 million per year to its dolphin training program through 2020, and the animals have helped clear underwater bombs during military engagements in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, Pierre Bienaimé reported for Business Insider.

The US Navy firmly denies it has ever trained killer dolphins, according to the program's website, although several sailors told Business Insider they were trained to avoid armed Soviet combat dolphins during the Cold War.

Dolphins work more quickly and are less affected by stormy seas than humans or radios, and their intelligent, but "hardy" natures make them easy to train, according to National Geographic. Their echolocation skills, which enable them to distinguish between different materials even when buried beneath water and sand, surpass any robotic equivalent. 

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