10 Animals Used for Military Purposes

Many are already familiar with the role that animals such as horses and dogs have played in the history of armed conflict. But what about other animals? Over the course of thousands of years, from sea lions to fleas, various creatures have been used to fight wars. Some have achieved legendary status, while others remain forgotten footnotes of military history.

Here is a list of 10 species of animals and how they have been used in armed combat and other military operations.

animal weapons war

Project X-Ray bat bomb canister. US Air Force photo.

1. Bats: Napalm Death

The US military’s Project X-Ray planned on releasing thousands of bats equipped with napalm charges in Japan. However, the plan was scrapped when some bats escaped in New Mexico, destroying an aircraft hanger and a general’s car.

2. Camels: Walking Water Fountains

In the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1979–1989), Sunni Mujahideen fighters used camel ‘suicide bombers’ against Soviet occupying forces.

Camels were also used as mobile water tanks during the Muslim conquest of Syria (634–638 AD). First forced to drink as much as they could, the camels’ mouths were then bound to prevent cud chewing. They were slaughtered en route from Iraq to Syria for the water in their stomachs.

3. Dolphins: Cetacean Bomb Squad

Highly intelligent, trainable and mobile in marine environments, military dolphins have been used to locate mines by both Soviet and US navies.

Dolphins have also been trained by the US Navy Mammal Marine Program to attach floatation devices to the air tanks of enemy divers.

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A dolphin equipped with locator. US Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Brien Aho

4. Fleas and Flies: Plague and Pestilence

Japan used insects as weapons in World War Two in order to infect China with cholera and plague. Japanese airplanes sprayed fleas and flies or dropped them inside bombs over heavily populated areas. In 2002 an international symposium of historians found that these operations resulted in around 440,000 Chinese deaths.

5. Monkeys: Pyromaniac Macaques

Though it is difficult to confirm, Indian sources from the 4th century BC describe trained monkeys carrying incendiary devices over the walls of fortifications in order to set fire to them.

6. Oxen: Enter the Dragons

Records describing the Siege of Jimo in 279 BC in eastern China tell of a commander frightening and subsequently defeating invaders by dressing up 1,000 oxen as dragons. The ‘dragons’ were released at the enemy camp in the middle of the night, causing panic among the surprised soldiers.

7. Parrots: Who’s Not a Clever Boy Then?

In World War One, trained parrots were positioned on the Eiffel Tower in order to warn against incoming aircraft. A problem arose when it was found that the parrots couldn’t tell German planes from Allied ones.

8. Pigeons: Doves of War

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BF Skinner’s Project Pigeon

In the Second World War, American behaviourist BF Skinner devised a plan to train pigeons to ride in missiles and guide them to enemy ships. Though Project Pigeon was never realised, it was resurrected from 1948 to 1953 as Project Orcon for a second, last-ditch effort.

9. Rats: They Smell One

Trench rats were a common horror of the First World War and so a common sight. In World War Two, however, British Special Forces used explosive dummy rats in order to disable munitions factories in Germany.

A Belgian NGO has also used rats to detect land mines through smell.

10. Sea Lions

Along with dolphins, the United States Marine Mammal Program trains sea lions to detect enemy divers. The sea lion spots a diver and attaches a tracking device, shaped like a handcuff, to one of the enemy’s limbs.

They are also trained to locate and recover military hardware as well as crash victims at sea.

military animals

Sea lion attaching a recovery line to a test device. Photo from NMMP

Graham is an editor and contributor at Made From History. A London-based writer originally from Washington, DC, he holds a master's degree in Cultural History from Malmö University in Sweden. Graham also contributes environmental news articles to asiancorrespondent.com and latincorrespondent.com.