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Russia Has Taken Control of Ukraine’s Military Attack Dolphins

Ukraine relinquished control of its "fleet" of militarized dolphins, trained to spot mines and defend ships from enemies in the water.
Photo by Pierre G. Georges

Dolphins are friendly, adorable marine animals. Except, of course, in Russia, where they are suicide bombers.

The latest spoils of war following Russia’s Crimea takeover are dolphins that had been trained by Ukraine’s Navy. From the 1960s until the fall of the USSR, the Soviets trained dolphins housed at a research center in Sevastopol to hunt mines, kill frogmen with harpoons and knives attached to their backs, drag enemy divers to the surface so sailors could deal with them, and carry out suicide attacks against enemy vessels with bombs strapped to their bodies.


When Ukraine became an independent nation, they kept the dolphins. Now Russia has taken them back.

"The oceanarium's engineers are developing new instruments for new applications to boost the operational efficiency of the dolphins," said an employee at the Sevastopol facility who wouldn't give his name. "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 Ukrainian Navy lacked the funds for such know-how, and some projects had to be shuttered."

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Russia and Ukraine weren't the only country to use our aquatic mammal friends as deadly weapons. A marine mammal program also started in the United States in the 1960s. Testing was done on the hydrodynamic properties of dolphins and porpoises in order to help scientists understand how to build a more effective torpedo. The original purpose of the program was a failure, but like the Benedictine monks who accidentally discovered champagne, the scientists found an unexpected use for the dolphins. Turns out the mammals were excellent at finding objects and people underwater. The program was immediately classified, and dolphins were trained to run anti combat–swimmer missions.

In 2000, Russia sold 27 trained marine animals to the Iranian military.

Combat swimming is a technique employed by maritime Special Forces around the world, in which they use scuba and other diving apparatus to sneak into a port or harbor and attack a boat or installation. A diver underwater at night is almost impossible to detect or deter — except by using a mammal. Unbeknownst to many people, dolphins sometimes guard the extremely strategically valuable US Navy nuclear submarine fleet against the threat of combat swimmers.


The US Navy vehemently denies that its dolphins employ lethal technologies. Instead their animals — both dolphins and sea lions — focus on mine recovery and retrieval, and non-lethal swimmer interdiction. The animals are able to approach enemy swimmers and attach a clamp to one of their legs, which then allows sailors to reel them into patrol boats like marlin.

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There are currently two countries that publicly acknowledge having a militarized marine mammal program. The ex-Soviet “combat dolphins” were supposed to stay in post-Soviet states like Russia and Ukraine after the Soviet Union collapsed, but much like other Soviet weapons, the dolphins were sold to other countries.

In 2000, Russia sold 27 trained marine animals to the Iranian military, including not only dolphins but also beluga whales, walruses, and sea lions. Along with Iran, North Korea and Israel are also rumored to have experimented with the use of mammals for military purposes.

There were six dolphins total in Ukraine’s “fleet.” They are rumored to deploy harpoons and bang sticks (12-gauge shotgun shells) that are lethal to their targets. But the full operational capabilities of the Crimean — rather, Russian dolphins remain unknown.

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