Ukraine Was Never Crazy About Its Killer Dolphins, Anyway

Covert cetacean operations have lost their luster since the Cold War.
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A trainer works with a former Soviet military dolphin in Sevastopol, in 1995. (Reuters)

Today's strangest headlines in global defense news come courtesy of the Russian news agency RIA Novosti, which reports, based on a tip from an anonymous aquarium employee, that the Russian Navy has enlisted the Ukrainian military's dolphins. Ukraine's sea lions have also "become Russian," since they, like the dolphins, are housed and trained in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, territory now claimed and controlled by Russia.

Amid the Ukrainian army's withdrawal from the southern peninsula, some are interpreting the marine-mammal annexation as a coup de grâce--the "final act of humiliation," as The Independent put it. But this overlooks the fact that Ukraine was never all that thrilled with the combat-dolphin program it inherited from the Soviet Union.

In fact, the Ukrainian Navy was reportedly planning to shutter its program next month. In February, a naval source told RIA Novosti, “We haven’t decided yet what to do with the dolphins—whether to set them free or to sell them to aqua parks.” The Russians, apparently, are more than happy to take the creatures off their hands. "The Sevastopol State Aquarium resumes activities to train combat dolphins in the interests of the Russian Navy," the Russian news site Pravda.ru declared on Wednesday. "The work will save unique scientific developments that were abandoned due to Ukraine's reluctance to finance the research in the field." In other words: Silly Ukraine, you didn't realize how valuable your dolphins were! 

Both the United States and the Soviet Union started training dolphins for military purposes in the 1960s, in what Viktor Baranets, a retired Russian colonel, has called "a dolphin arms race." In addition to sending dolphins on seafloor mine-detecting missions, the Soviets also allegedly trained them to attack human divers—something the U.S. Navy says it has never had its dolphins do (America's dolphins, which are based in San Diego, have been sent on a variety of missions, including mine-hunting in Iraq). Soviet dolphins also reportedly acted as undersea kamikazes by planting explosives on enemy ships. The program thrived through the 1980s. 

When the U.S.S.R. broke up in 1991 , so did its Black Sea Fleet. The dolphin program, still based in Sevastopol, became an asset of the Ukrainian Navy. Under Ukraine's supervision, however, the program languished, and many dolphins were sold to aquariums and marine parks around the world. The ones that remained in the Crimean city primarily participated in therapy sessions for disabled children. In 2000, four ex-Soviet dolphins—along with a handful of other military-trained sea creatures—were sold to Iran. At the time, one Russian newspaper described the dolphins as "mercenaries," and fumed, "In essence, Iran has bought our former secret weapon from Ukraine on the cheap."

Then, in 2012, Ukraine suddenly announced that it would begin training its remaining 10 dolphins to serve the navy again. "The killer-dolphins will be trained to attack enemy combat swimmers using special knives or pistols fixed to their heads," another anonymous source told RIA Novosti (which, incidentally, appears to be the world's leading publication for anonymously sourced news on Soviet/Ukrainian killer dolphins). Former Navy SEAL Brandon Webb told Wired that the idea seemed "far-fetched," and the initiative appears not to have gone anywhere.

So what exactly can Russia do with these warrior dolphins that it hasn't already done? RIA Novosti's source said that naval engineers are developing new instruments to read dolphin sonar—a decidedly less alarming proposal than dispatching gun- and knife-wielding dolphins. No word yet on how Crimea's sea lions will be integrated into the Russian military.

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Svati Kirsten Narula is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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