As rhetoric heats up regarding possible military action on Iran, some military officials are advocating the use of a little talked about arsenal in the military's arsenal: marine mammals. Marine mammals such as dolphins and sea lions have already been enlisted, and some are advocating the use of dolphins in the Strait of Hormuz.
Speaking to NPR, retired Adm. Tim Keating touted dolphins as part of a strategy for navigating the Strait of Hormuz if Iran were to put mines there:
The U.S. has several options if Iran tried to close the Strait of Hormuz now.
"Laying mines is an act of war, so it would be up to our nation's leaders to determine how aggressive our response would be," says retired Adm. Tim Keating, who commanded the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain during the run-up to the Iraq war.
He says the best way to defeat mines is to spot them.
"We'd likely know immediately, if not very shortly thereafter, which ships did it, where they're coming from, where they're going back to," Keating says.
The surveillance includes sophisticated drone aircraft — and a sophisticated mammal.
"We've got dolphins. ... They are astounding in their ability to detect underwater objects," he says.
The U.S. Navy sent dolphins to the Persian Gulf as part of the American invasion force in Iraq. Keating confirms they were "present in the theater," but he declines to talk about whether the animals were used or not.
The Atlantic Wire notes that while the Navy states that the dolphins would be used to just detect the mines,
the mammals are large enough to detonate a live mine, a prospect that doesn't delight animal rights groups.
The U.S. Navy Marine Mammal program states on its website:
... the U.S. Navy has found that the biological sonar of dolphins, called echolocation, makes them uniquely effective at locating sea mines so they can be avoided or removed. Other marine mammals like the California sea lion also have demonstrated the ability to mark and retrieve objects for the Navy in the ocean. In fact, marine mammals are so important to the Navy that there is an entire program dedicated to studying, training, and deploying them.
The use of these mammals has prompted opposition. Bioethics professor and author Peter Singer wrote that these dolphins are essentially involuntarily drafted soldiers with no rights:
The United States no longer conscripts its citizens to fight its wars. All its human troops are volunteers. But even conscripts have some basic rights. The dolphins have none. [...]
... just when we are starting to realize how gravely we are wronging animals, and to do something about this – like the very welcome European Union ban on standard battery cages for laying hens, which came into effect on 1 January this year – we ought not to be finding new ways to exploit them.
Dolphins have nothing to do with the dispute over Iran's nuclear plans. Whatever the rights and wrongs of taking military action against Iran, let's leave the dolphins out of it.
The Marine Mammal Program isn't new, as Frontline documents:
The Navy's Marine Mammal Program began in 1960 with two goals. First, the Navy wanted to study the underwater sonar capabilities of dolphins and beluga whales to learn how to design more efficient methods of detecting objects underwater, and to improve the speed of their boats and submarines by researching how dolphins are able to swim so fast and dive so deep. In addition to this research component, the Navy 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. Dolphins were used for some of these tasks in the Vietnam War and in the Persian Gulf. The Marine Mammal Program was originally classified, and was at its peak during the Cold War. The Soviet Union's military was conducting similar research and training programs in the race to dominate the underwater front. At one point during the 1980's, the U.S. program had over 100 dolphins, as well as numerous sea lions and beluga whales, and an operating budget of $8 million dollars. By the 1990's, however, the Cold War was over, and the Navy's Marine Mammal project was downsized. In 1992, the program became declassified. Many of the dolphins were retired, and controversy arose over whether or not it would be feasible to return unnecessary dolphins to the wild.
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This video from the U.S. Marine Mammal Program, complete with pleasant music, shows some of the tasks the dolphins and sea lions perform: