The US military maintains a dolphin program, too.

The US military maintains a dolphin program, too. Photo: Reuters

Simferopol: Russian forces have completed their takeover of the Ukrainian navy's assets in Crimea with the storming of the minesweeper Cherkasy.

The Ukrainian navy has been reduced to only 10 vessels, with the other 51 it held at the beginning of this month, including its only submarine, now flying the Russian flag.

But of all the Ukrainian military assets Russia has seized during the annexation, none is quite as unusual as the combat dolphin program.

The Soviet Union began training dolphins and other marine mammals to locate mines, mark underwater obstacles and detect - and if necessary kill - enemy frogmen in the 1960s. The program is shrouded in myth, but the dolphins are believed to have been trained to kill frogmen with special harpoons or knives fitted to their backs, or drag them to the surface to be captured.

They were also reported to be fitted with packets of explosives and trained to carry out suicide attacks against enemy vessels, using their natural sonar to distinguish Soviet submarines from potential targets.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine inherited the animals and the experts who trained them at Sevastopol.

With fewer geopolitical foes to worry about, the dolphins found a new role providing therapy swimming for disabled children.

Ukraine relaunched the military program in 2012 and the current generation of dolphins is already proficient at marking lost weapons and underwater obstacles with buoys. But last month, the defence ministry in Kiev announced plans to release the dolphins into the wild or rehouse them in civilian aquariums in a cost-cutting move.

Now the base is hoping for a new lease of life under a better funded Russian navy. "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," an employee told Russia's RIA Novosti news agency on Wednesday.

"But the Ukrainian navy lacked the funds for such know-how."

The program has not always run smoothly, however. In March last year three dolphins reportedly "deserted" to look for mates.

The only other country to train military dolphins is the US, which runs a program in California.

Much like Soviet-era military equipment, "graduates" of the academy are reportedly to be found in militaries around the world. In 2000, Boris Zhurid, a former submariner who ran the training program in Sevastopol, sold 27 marine animals including walruses, sea lions and a beluga whale to Iran, saying he had run out of food and medicine for them at the Black Sea base. It is unclear whether the animals are still in the service of the Iranian military.

Telegraph, London