A battalion of sea lions and dolphins, especially trained by the U.S. military, is expected to see service if war breaks out in Iraq.
Based in the Californian city of San Diego, they have been trained to play a key role in defending marine assets from attacks, either during war or in preventing terrorism at home, their military trainers told reporters.
Known as the Marine Mammal Program, the U.S. navy unit boasts 20 sea lions and about 70 dolphins specifically trained to defend U.S. sailors and installations.
Some have already been deployed for key training exercises in the Gulf as the U.S. build-up for an expected attack on Iraq reaches fever pitch. Washington and a number of key allies are pushing in the U.N. Security Council for an armed conflict to topple the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein over repeated violations of a 1991 Gulf War armistice.
Some of the sea lions have already joined the U.S. Navy fifth fleet in Bahrain, in a key test of the animals' ability to detect enemy divers menacing the fleet. While the U.S. Navy has used sea lions for recovery missions for 30 years, some are now being re-trained to not only to detect enemy divers, but also catch them.
"We train a select small set of sea lions to actually find divers and attach recovery lines" allowing them to be captured, said Tom LaPuzza, a spokesman for the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Centre in San Diego, which runs the program. "Those are the sea lions that are in Bahrain."
"This is a new capability that we are demonstrating for the first time," he said, adding that if the new recruits did well in their test, they could be used to protect U.S. harbours.
The mammals are trained to attach a restraint device - a C-shaped, handcuff-like clamp - to the leg of an intruder with their mouths before deploying a floating marker signalling the attacker's position. Dolphins are trained to spot undersea mines and enemy scuba divers who may be trying to plant explosives in deep waters, while sea lions can work in shallow waters and even up on land.
The scheme, under the command of the U.S. Marine Corps, remains largely experimental, but its aquatic troops have already fought in previous U.S. wars during the 40-year history in the military, he said. Dolphins were deployed in the 1991 Gulf War as well as the Vietnam War.
"The dolphins have a wonderful sonar system that enables them to locate objects that you don't know if they're there or not," said LaPuzza.
But officials believe that sea lions - which can swim at up to 40 kph and dive repeatedly to as deep as 300 m - are better suited to operations in the Gulf than their dolphin colleagues, due to the region's higher temperatures and shallower harbours.
"We look at the capabilities of each animal and choose the one who works best for the particular mission you have in mind," LaPuzza said.
La Puzza said candidates for the program, which costs about US$20 million a year, found its 'recruits' by buying them - mostly from San Diego's Sea World Aquatic Park.
"We get them when they're newborns," he said adding that the mammals lived for around 25 years and never left the service. "They are in the Navy for life."
Despite tough U.S. laws - and a vocal lobby - against the exploitation of animals, LaPuzza claimed his program had not encountered major opposition. The military's use of animals is protected under national security exclusions.
Trainers say sea lions are unlikely to suffer casualties, as they are too quick to be targeted by a potential enemy.
Animal rights groups disapprove the use of animals in warfare. "To say they're not putting the animals in harm's way is ridiculous," said Stephanie Boyd, a biologist with People for Ethical Treatment of Animals.
BY Christophe Carmarans