Dogs and horses are well known companions of the Armed Forces but dolphins, sea lions, monkeys, pigeons and elephants all feature in the history of the militarisation of animals.
A cat has even been recruited as a spy.
Insects have been weaponised.
There's an army of monkey commandos.
Elephants might be thought of as war animals consigned to distant historic battles – but there is one military force in the world that still uses elephants today.
Throughout history, animals of all shapes and sizes have played a crucial role in assisting the armed forces.
Animals have joined men and women in combat, played a vital role in discovering the location of improved explosive devices, been invaluable during search and rescue operations, and helped transport troops - all while protecting and supporting their human counterparts.
From elephants and insects to military working dogs and spy cats, animals small and large have proven themselves time and time again to be fiercely loyal and useful.
Here, we take a look at a selection of animals and the variety of different ways they have helped defence in history, through the First and Second World Wars to the present day.
Elephants, as well as their use dating back to battles in ancient history, were used as late as the Second World War in the Far East where it was difficult to use bulky vehicles on unreliable roads.
The skill and strength of earth's largest land animals mean they were ideal for tasks like removing fallen trees blocking roads or pulling aircraft into position.
For many, the term 'War Elephant' conjures up images of military commander Hannibal leading an army of elephants across the Alps during the Second Punic War, 218 to 201 BC.
The elephants, or as Philip Ball, science writer for The Guardian calls them, 'tanks of classical warfare', were used to transport supplies and men and their thick skin was almost impenetrable by the enemy's spears and swords.
Gavin de Beer, Director of the British Museum of Natural History (1950-60), explained in his 1955 study, ''Alps and Elephants'' why Hannibal might have chosen to use the gentle giants. He wrote:
''Not only did the elephants' appearance, their smell, and the noise of their trumpeting alarm both men and horses opposed to them, but they were highly dangerous when charged, fighting with their tusks and their trunks and trampling down their opponents.''
There is one place on earth where elephants are still used by an armed force.
In Myanmar, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), branded by the government as a terrorist organisation, defends its land, Kachin State, against what it believes is domination by Myanmar’s military.
The KIA military group uses elephants because, while deep in the jungle, it is difficult to bring in supplies any other way in the unforgiving terrain.
Food, medicine and weapons, which any other military might transport by a vehicle, are easier to transport by elephant.
Jacob Shell, a geography professor at Temple University and author of 'Giants of the Monsoon Forest' and an expert on elephants, claims the large mammals are the ideal animal to assist humans in the jungle. He said:
“[Asian elephants] are evolved to be mobile in precisely these sorts of conditions.
“They’re happy in the rain, don’t get stuck in mud — the musculature in their feet prevents this — and can ‘fuel up’ by eating the bamboo shoots and other nutritious vegetation they encounter as they traverse the landscape.”
Keeping Elephants Safe
On June 16, 2004, the United States Army published a field manual (FM) as a “guide for Special Forces (SF) personnel to use when conducting training or combat situations using pack animals.”
It captures some of the expertise and techniques that have been lost in the US Army over the last 50 years. However, at one point, the FM makes it clear the material in the manual “is not intended as a substitute for veterinary expertise nor will it make a veterinarian out of the reader.”
The FM covers animals like horses, donkeys and camels – all mammals associated with transporting either people or items over large distances.
However, it also covers elephants, perhaps the largest animal used by humans for combat and, in the modern period, non-combat engineering and labour roles.
The FM categorically states that because elephants are an endangered species, after being drastically poached for their ivory tusks for centuries, they should not be used by US military personnel. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the number of elephants has decreased from an estimated 10 million in 1930 to as little as 415,00 in 2016 across Africa.
To keep elephants healthy, the FM recommends that elephants need 169 litres of water per day and they should “quit work” in temperatures over 39.4C.
Elephants are no longer used by British or American forces. Instead, the British Army now plays a vital role in keeping them safe.
The British Army is playing a crucial role in the fight to prevent poaching. Teams from various regiments remove traps set by poachers to kill endangered wildlife that resides in places like Liwonde National Park in Malawi, East Africa.
They also pass on the latest operational techniques that could enhance anti-poaching teams in Africa in their war on the illegal trade in animal ivory, pelts and bones.
A CIA project, codenamed ‘Acoustic Kitty’, was launched during the Cold War in the 1960s to help the United States spy on the Kremlin and Soviet embassies.
In the 1995 BBC documentary ‘The Living Dead: Three Films About the Power of the Past’, British filmmaker Adam Curtis looked at the fascinating story of the cat whose life’s purpose became to fight the Cold War.
According to former CIA employee and whistleblower Victor Marchetti, the project cost around $25 million.
The idea was for a veterinary surgeon to create a ‘spy cat’ by turning the feline secret agent into a prowling audio device by inserting technology into the animal via surgery. Victor said:
“The cat that was used for the experiment had to be cut open and have a power pack placed inside its abdomen.
“Wires were run up to its ear, to its cochlea, wires to its brain to determine when it was hungry or sexually aroused and wires to override these urges."
Sadly, the experiment did not go as planned. Once the scars had healed, the cat was sent across the street to eavesdrop on a conversation while being monitored. Suddenly, everything changed. Victor said:
“As this poor little monstrosity waddled across the street, a taxicab came down and ran it over.
“So, it was $25 million down the drain.”
The Often Forgotten Hero Of War - The Horse
Horses have been right at the heart of military operations for thousands of years.
During the First World War, horses were a regular sight on the battlefield.
Taken from farms back home, they were sent into service alongside soldiers, where they faced the horrors of trench warfare.
And they weren’t just used to carry officers or cavalry charges.
Every bit of kit from candles to cannon was transported by horsepower.
By the end of World War One, eight million horses died on all sides.
As recently as 100 years ago, horses would have gone to battle, but now the horses stay behind when the soldiers go to war.
Instead, their moment to shine comes at state occasions such as royal weddings and military parades.
Horses are still used around the world, not only for military ceremonies, but also as an aid to transport, alongside other animals such as mules.
In 2010, a former version of 1st Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment (1 YORKS), who were based in Munster, Germany at the time, welcomed visitors at the camp gate with some furry and sometimes disobedient recruits.
Ferrets, Imphal and Quebec were a gift to the battalion by a farmer near their base.
During the First World War, ferrets would be used when there were food shortages. They would be encouraged down holes to bring rabbits up to be eaten.
The Yorkshire tradition of keeping ferrets has since declined but Imphal and Quebec stayed with 1 YORKS until 2012.
The sharp-clawed pets had their own passports and even wore little camouflage jackets. Corporal Terry Walters, who was given the title of 1 YORKS Ferret Handler, spoke to British Forces News reporter Julie Knox in 2010 and said:
“On parade obviously they’ve got their own jackets and we walk them up and down on the leads.
"People come up to us and ask us questions about them and basically the kids come up and stroke them and things like that.”
Helping Farmers In Afghanistan
In March 2011, a Veterinary Teaching Initiative was established by troops from Delta Company of Canterbury-based 5 SCOTS to help develop farming across Helmand - assisting local veterinarians to tackle some of the many problems arriving at their doors.
Many farmers would bring their animals to clinics which were supported by the Afghanistan Government. Some animals had worms or internal problems. Others had been injured and some had diseases from other countries or parasitic diseases.
The scheme was led by Captain Lowe who spent time educating local nationals on better ways to care for their animals. The event was very popular; approximately 60 people attended on the first day and more than 100 on the second. Captain Lowe said:
“The aim of these two days was to educate the local people on modern methods of animal husbandry practices and medical care.
“This knowledge will help to make them more self-reliant and also help to improve their livelihoods.”
The scheme was designed to help boost farming, make it a viable source of income to take people away from poppy growing and to provide more food for the local community.
The Strong Bond Between Handler And Dog
There is a long history of dogs in active military service – in everything from serving alongside their handlers in patrols, search and rescue missions, sniffing out arms and explosives and working alongside military police forces.
Dogs can be trained to the highest standard and handlers often form an incredible bond with their Military Working Dogs.
For instance, the British Army’s Canine Training Squadron, part of the Defence Animal Training Regiment, trains dogs for an array of sectors within the Ministry of Defence, while RAF Police train dogs to carry out searches of airfields and bases among other defence and policing duties.
Some of the world’s militaries have used dogs as therapy and morale dogs, an uplifting presence during deployments to conflict zones, for example, or as a mascot to keep up spirits.
One notable partnership in recent history was that of the British Army's late LCpl Liam Tasker, of the 1st Military Working Dog Regiment, who with his devoted dog Theo, held a record for the most confirmed finds of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) ever, in the months before the pair died in the service of their country while on deployment.
In just five months, they had uncovered 14 Taliban roadside bombs and hidden weapons.
Their actions helped prevent the potential deaths of countless numbers of British personnel.
On one occasion, the brave pair discovered an underground tunnel leading to a room in which insurgents were suspected of making bombs and hiding from coalition forces.
Sadly, their incredible teamwork came to an end on March 1, 2011, when 26-year-old Lance Corporal Tasker was shot by insurgents while on patrol and died of his injuries.
Just hours later, Theo died after suffering a seizure.
Theo was posthumously awarded the PDSA Dickin Medal for his heroic actions on 25 October 2012. His citation stated:
“Without doubt, Theo’s actions and devotion to his duties, while in the throes of conflict, saved many lives.”
The medal is the highest award any animal can receive for life-saving bravery in conflict.
Theo’s ashes accompanied his handler’s coffin when they were repatriated, and the pair were laid to rest together in Scotland.
How Have Militaries Weaponised Insects?
In July 2015, San José State University School of Information lecturer and author Dr. Susan L. Maret filed a Freedom Of Information Request about “DARPA’s role in the development and application of Hybrid Insect Microelectromechanical Systems and microelectromechanical (HI-MEMS) systems.”
Because of this request, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) released an 88-page document about their vision for Hybrid Insect Microelectromechanical Systems and Susan shared this with the world when she published it all on her blog in October 2016.
DARPA’s vision was to “create technology to reliably integrate microsystems payloads on insects to enable insect cyborgs.”
Early Metamorphosis Insertion Technology (EMIT)
The document revealed experiments were taking place in the 1940s to discover whether microsystems could be reliably inserted into pupas for insect control. They would cut pupas in half and insert pipes for hormone transport. They said:
“... it is a challenge to implant electronic systems to modulate the insect’s flight without disturbing the insect’s own efficient flight mechanism.
They were able to prove that when halved, a pupa will still develop into a moth. They then successfully inserted a glass tube to transport hormones between the two halves. The next step was to create a miniature flying cyborg by correctly inserting microsystems to control the insect.
It was discovered that insertion during the early or late pupae stage resulted in fair to good electrical and mechanical coupling.
There were concerns whether a Micro-Air-Vehicle (MAV) or insect-sized autonomous aircraft would be able to create enough lift or energy to work for long periods.
The 88-page document said:
“EMIT can benefit from any insect/animal that has metamorphic development (moths, butterflies, beetles, etc.) to create insect cyborgs with different locomotion capabilities.”
The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) surprised many in 2006 with an unusual request.
They asked scientists to submit "innovative proposals to develop technology to create insect-cyborgs".
This caught the attention of Michel Maharbiz, a professor with the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of California, Berkeley who specialises in extreme miniaturization of technology.
He presumed that many scientists would choose to experiment with moths, like in the 1940s or flies so he and his team chose to work with beetles instead as they are sturdier.
Their work involved stimulating the left and right wings of flower beetles to change its flight course.
A micro-backpack was attached to the beetle and electrodes were connected to the beetle’s optic lobes and flight muscles. Maharbiz said:
“In our earlier work using beetles in remote-controlled flight, we showed excellent control of flight initiation and cessation, but relatively crude control of steering during free flight.
“Our findings about the flight muscle allowed us to demonstrate for the first time a higher level of control of free-flying beetles.”
This research could, in turn, lead to making search-and-rescue operations in areas too dangerous for humans much safer.
The US Navy trains bottlenose dolphins as part of its Marine Mammal Program.
The aquatic mammals are trained to search for and mark the location of undersea mines, either floating from an anchor or buried in the seafloor.
The US Navy began working with dolphins in the 1960s to help with mine detection and the design of new submarines and underwater weapons.
The largest maritime exercise in the world, The Rim Of The Pacific (RIMPAC) takes place every other year in and around the Hawaiian Islands and involves 25 countries, including Australia, Brunei, Canada and the UK.
The US Navy uses RIMPAC to carry out training with their bottlenose dolphins as part of their mine countermeasure.
The mammals are used in a simulated mine hunting session where they are directed to seek out and mark simulated mines.
Video: US Navy video by LT Andrew Thompson
Paul Nachtigall, Director of the Marine Mammal Research Program at the Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology in Kāne‘ohe Bay, says dolphins cannot be beaten when it comes to finding mines.
"[Bottlenose dolphins] are better than any machine as far as detecting mines."
This is because dolphin's sonar is so precise.
Dolphins navigate around their environment by sending out a series of sounds that ‘bounce off’ objects found in the sea like coral, whales and submarines. Just like bats, the mammals pick up the return echoes and form an idea of what is around them. This is known as echolocation or biosonar.
Sea Lions And Beluga Whales
Sea lions and beluga whales join dolphins in the list of sea creatures used by armed forces around the world for military strategies.
Russia and the United States are among nations that have turned to sea lions and belugas to bolster their marine and naval forces.
Russian state television reported in 2017 that its military had been carrying out experiments to train beluga whales and other marine creatures to guard naval base access points, work alongside armed forces divers and even ward off intruders who entered military marine territories.
American military has trained marine animals such as Californian sea lions, as well as dolphins, in experiments dating back to the 1960s.
Reports suggest these marine creatures can detect and hunt out undersea mines faster than their human counterparts.
The US Navy trains the animals to locate mines that are tethered to anchors, floating or covered on the sea floor in murky waters – an operation that humans often struggle to carry out with such efficiency even with the best technologies.
Sea lions and bottlenose dolphins are also trained to hunt down and retrieve missing equipment that has been lost or discarded during training exercises, such as unarmed training ordnance like practice mines, and to identify intruders in restricted military zones.
While dolphins have excellent sonar abilities, sea lions have excellent eyesight which allows them to carry out such operations with a degree of efficiency over and above human divers.
Earning Your Dolphins
Incidentally, the Royal Navy's 'Dolphin Badge' is awarded to all submariners who successfully pass their training to join the Submarine Service.
The tradition started in the 1950s and the current badge has been issued since 1972.
Pigeons And Other Birds
During the Second World War, an arm of the British intelligence service, known as MI14, is reported to have run a Secret Pigeon Service.
The UK intelligence would parachute containers with the birds over occupied European territories with a questionnaire. Those pigeons that returned carried messages useful to predict and counter-act German missions.
A pigeons could fly at speeds of up to 60mph, they were fast and efficient in delivering coded messages from the front.
Their speed and flight altitude made it difficult for snipers to pick them out.
Britain’s Armed Forces paid civilian pigeons fanciers to look after about a hundred pigeons for military use right up until about 1950.
With the advent of the Cold War, the majority of British pigeon operations are believed to have shut down, but not the CIA's.
Declassified documents revealed in 2019 how the CIA trained pigeons to carry out clandestine spying missions by photographing restricted sites inside the Soviet Union during the 45 years of the Cold War, which stretched from the late 1940s to the earlier 1990s.
Pigeons, and other birds such as ravens, had been used to carry bugging devices and other spying gadgets and leave them on window sills.
By 1967, the CIA was spending more than $600,000 (today's rough equivalent of $2.2m, or £1.7m) on three programmes which involved animals and spying operations.
Some armed militia are reported to still use pigeons in today's conflicts. It emerged in 2016 that Islamic State had turned pigeon fanciers themselves to train birds to carry messages between some of their factions.
The People’s Liberation Army of China has enlisted the service of macaque monkeys to defence aircraft from migrating birds, which present the threat of bringing down military planes by inadvertently flying into aircraft engines.
China’s monkey commandos are keeping swathes of birds, in one of the busiest migration routes for birds in the world, away from air force jets in an animal operation that is succeeded where human endeavour has failed.
Soldiers had been using various tactics such as the setting off firecrackers, firing guns, putting up scarecrows and climbing trees to destroy nests but the birds still kept on finding resting places around a Chinese military base, the location of which has been kept secret by Chinese state media in its reporting of the monkey commandos.
It has been reported that the monkeys are trained to destroy bird nests and scare away birds in flight on command.