It was a big-money military contractor's dream. Build a fleet of futuristic underwater robots to replace the Navy's famous corps of mine-hunting dolphins and sea lions, headquartered at their San Diego base.
"In general, we’re looking to phase out that program beginning in fiscal year 2017,” captain Frank Linkous, head of the U.S. Navy’s Mine Warfare Branch, told the BBC two years ago this month.
Among other prominent appearances by the local Navy dolphins was their May 2013 discovery of a 125-year-old torpedo in Pacific waters off the Hotel del Coronado during a mine-hunting exercise run by the Navy's SPAWAR Systems Center Pacific.
The controversial use of marine mammals by the Navy to do battle with ocean-borne foes has been going on since 1960, according to a history of the project posted online by PBS's Frontline.
"The Marine Mammal Program was originally classified, and was at its peak during the Cold War. The Soviet Union's military was conducting similar research and training programs in the race to dominate the underwater front. At one point during the 1980s, the U.S. program had over 100 dolphins, as well as numerous sea lions and beluga whales, and an operating budget of $8 million dollars."
Per the account, "Bottlenose dolphins are used to detect and defend against enemy swimmers. This procedure was used in both the Vietnam war and the Persian Gulf to protect Navy anchored vessels from enemy swimmers seeking to plant explosives. The dolphins would swim slowly, patrolling the area with their sonar, and alert armed trainer guards if they located a swimmer. They are also trained to 'tag' the enemy swimmer with a marker so that Navy personnel can apprehend him."
In addition, “Bottlenose dolphins detect and mark underwater mines. The animal locates a mine and then deposits a weighted buoy line near the mine in order to mark it."
Adds the timeline, "During the Vietnam war, rumors circulated about a 'swimmer nullification program' in which dolphins were also being trained to shoot at enemy swimmers with a device similar to the tagging device. The Navy denies that any such program existed or that any dolphin has ever been trained to attack a human."
By 1992, the program had been declassified and downsized. "Many of the dolphins were retired, and controversy arose over whether or not it would be feasible to return unnecessary dolphins to the wild."
Tussles with environmentalists ensued when two ex–Navy dolphins transferred to a Key West, Florida, sanctuary were released into the Gulf of Mexico without federal permits. The animals were ultimately recaptured and returned to captivity in San Diego, per the PBS account.
"Besides the ethical considerations, it's a faulty weapons system. It doesn't even work, okay? It doesn't work," Ric O'Barry, who released the dolphin pair, was quoted as saying in 2014.
"The public is being ripped off. It didn't work in Vietnam. It didn't work in the Persian Gulf, and it didn't work anywhere they tried it. They're not dependable, the dolphins. Once a dolphin has been fed their full allotment of fish you no longer have control over the dolphin."
Enter Project Knifefish, developed with contractor General Dynamics, which was supposed to produce a relatively low-cost robotic answer to the problem by next year.
"The Knifefish is a self-propelled, untethered, autonomous underwater vehicle designed to find underwater mines," explains a partially redacted audit by the Pentagon's Office of Inspector General dated November 8.
"The Knifefish is capable of operating independently in shallow ocean water, and is launched and recovered from the Littoral Combat Ship — a fast, agile ship designed for operations in environments near the shoreline."
But government auditors say they have discovered that the device remains far from ready for use, and its cost is soaring. "The Knifefish program is at risk of not being ready for the initial production decision in the fourth quarter of FY 2017," according to the document.
“As of February 2016, the program office had received approximately $91.0 million of the program’s estimated acquisition program baseline for research, development, test, and evaluation funds. However, the Knifefish program has not demonstrated the system’s ability to perform the key performance parameter of single pass detection, classification, and identification of bottom and buried mine capabilities."
Warn the auditors, "If the Knifefish cannot meet its primary requirement to detect, classify, and identify mines, the Navy could spend an additional $751.5 million in remaining funds for Knifefish research, development, test, and evaluation; procurement; and operations and maintenance to procure and sustain a system that may not achieve the capability the Navy originally planned."
The document identifies "numerous [littoral combat ship] interface problems, including loading the launch and recovery device on the [littoral combat ship] deck and maneuvering the launch and recovery device on the ship."
Among other operational issues plaguing the project, according to the audit:
"The Knifefish program office is not effectively executing testing. Specifically, the Knifefish program office and contractor are shortening test schedules to minimize schedule delays.... Because the program office condensed developmental testing schedules and combined test events, the program is at risk of not being able to correct design problems identified during testing."
Adds the report, “Specifically, the Navy could spend an estimated $58.2 million procuring three Knifefish Unmanned Undersea Vehicle engineering developmental models and up to five initial production systems without having demonstrated the system's ability to perform the key performance parameter (primary requirement) of single-pass detection, classification, and identification of bottom and buried mine capabilities.”
The head of the Navy's Expeditionary Warfare Division disputed the findings in a September 2 response, which drew a retort from the Inspector General's office, saying in part, "The Commander's comments did not explain his plans for assessing the Knifefish program as solution to single-pass detection, classification, and identification of bottom and buried mines. We request additional comments by December 8, 2016."