Greetings Readers. A new and exciting component for this year’s International Mine Countermeasures Exercise (IMCMEX) has been the addition of specially trained marine mammals as an innovative mine hunting and maritime security force. These well cared for animals introduce a unique and effective program for the protection of ships and harbors. Sea lions from this program recently displayed their capabilities during tours provided to distinguished visitors including U.S. Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander, U.S. Central Command, and Vice Admiral John W. Miller, commander, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. 5th Fleet, Combined Maritime Forces, and dozens of international news media representatives during IMCMEX’s media day.
“Part of our comprehensive approach to IMCMEX this year is the inclusion of Marine Mammal Systems – with their abilities to operate in highly-cluttered environments and deep depths in support of discovery, marking, and recovery of persons or objects of interest,” said Miller.
A part of the Navy for over 50 years, this special program based in San Diego is known as the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program (NMMP). It incorporates bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions to detect and defend against mines and enemy swimmers. This once highly secret program only became declassified in the 1990s.
NMMP conducts training in the San Diego Bay plus off the coast of the Pacific Ocean and provides constant swimmer interdiction security at the Trident Submarine Bases in Kings Bay, Ga., and Bangor, Wash. There are a total of five marine mammal teams with each team trained for a specific type of mission. For IMCMEX, NMMP is demonstrating its marine mammal expeditionary swimmer interdiction system (Team MK6) and mine recovery system (Team MK5). Most NMMP teams can be deployed with 72 hours notice by ship, aircraft, helicopter, or land vehicle operations around the world.
Examples of operational NMMP animals in action include mine-clearance dolphins deployed to the Arabian Gulf during the Iraq War in 2003. As part of the Navy Special Clearance ONE, these dolphins, along with divers and unmanned underwater vehicles, helped clear the port of Umm Qasr of mines so that Royal Fleet Auxiliary Sir Galahad (L3005) could dock and provide humanitarian aid supplies.
MK6 uses both dolphins and sea lions as patrols to protect harbor installations and ships against unauthorized seaborne intruders. MK6 was first operationally deployed with dolphins during the Vietnam War from 1965 to 1975, in Bahrain from 1986 to 1988, and again from 2003 through 2005. When an enemy diver or seaborne intruder is detected by a sea lion such as Jabba (pictured), the animal attaches a cuff to one of the enemy’s limbs, usually a leg. This device is attached to a line leading to a Navy patrol boat that can then reel in the diver for apprehension. This procedure was a particularly exciting demonstration as part of this year’s IMCMEX. While the animals depend on their superior underwater senses and swimming ability to defend against counterattacks, the explicit intent of this procedure is to avoid attacking the intruder versus capturing them via human intervention. The animals are trained to detect all swimmers in an area of concern and to report back to their human handlers.
NMMP is one of several new technologies and programs on display for this year’s IMCMEX. Based on the positive responses from observers and participants, utilization of these animals will garner continued attention and interest.