by REBECCA FRANKEL
Dogs have been fighting alongside U.S. soldiers for more than 100 years, seeing combat in the Civil War and World War I. But their service was informal; only in 1942 were canines officially inducted into the U.S. Army. Today, they're a central part of U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan -- as of early 2010 the U.S. Army had 2,800 active-duty dogs deployed (the largest canine contingent in the world). And these numbers will continue to grow as these dogs become an ever-more-vital military asset.
So it should come as no surprise that among the 79 commandos involved in Operation Neptune Spear that resulted in Osama bin Laden's killing, there was one dog -- the elite of the four-legged variety. And though the dog in question remains an enigma -- another mysterious detail of the still-unfolding narrative of that historic mission -- there should be little reason to speculate about why there was a dog involved: Man's best friend is a pretty fearsome warrior.
Above, a U.S. soldier with the 10th Special Forces Group and his dog leap off the ramp of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter during water training over the Gulf of Mexico as part of exercise Emerald Warrior on March 1.
Daredevil dogs: The question of how the dog got into bin Laden's compound is no puzzle -- the same way the special ops team did, by being lowered from an MH-60s helicopter. In fact, U.S. Air Force dogs have been airborne for decades, though the earliest flying dogs accompanied Soviet forces in the 1930s.
Dogs usually jump in tandem with their trainers, but when properly outfitted with flotation vests they can make short jumps into water on their own. A U.S. Navy SEAL, Mike Forsythe, and his dog, Cara -- pictured above -- recently broke the world record for "highest man/dog parachute deployment" by jumping from 30,100 feet.
The scent of war: According to Mike Dowling, a former Marine Corps dog handler who served in Iraq, there's a simple explanation for why the Navy SEALs took a dog along on the Osama raid: "A dog's brain is dominated by olfactory senses." In fact, Dowling says, a dog can have up to 225 million olfactory receptors in their nose -- the part of their brain devoted to scent is 40 times greater than that of a human.
"When you're going on a mission," Dowling says, "a raid or a patrol, insurgents are sneaky -- they like to hide stuff from you. But a dog can smell them. .... [Think about] Saddam Hussein ... what if Osama had been [hiding] in a hole in the ground? A dog could find that. A dog could alert them to where he's hiding because of the incredible scent capabilities. ... You can only see what you can see. You can't see what you don't see. A dog can see it through his nose."
Above U.S. Marines from the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade wait for helicopter transport as part of Operation Khanjar at Camp Dwyer in Helmand Province in Afghanistan on July 2, 2009.
It's not the gear that makes the dog: Military working dogs (MWDs in Army parlance) may not enjoy all the privileges of being full-fledged soldiers, but the U.S. military no longer considers them mere equipment. (The war dogs deployed to Vietnam during that conflict were classified as "surplus equipment" and left behind.) Today, MWDs are outfitted with equipment of their own -- a range of specialized gear that includes Doggles (protective eye wear), body armor, life vests, gas masks, long-range GPS-equipped vests, and high-tech canine "flak jackets."
In August 2010, The Register, a British online tech publication, reported that "top-secret, super-elite U.S. Navy SEAL special forces are to deploy heavily armoured bulletproof dogs equipped with infrared nightsight cameras and an 'intruder communication system' able to penetrate concrete walls." The article also reported that the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Group had "awarded an $86,000 contract to Canadian firm K9 Storm Inc. for the supply of 'Canine Tactical Assault Vests' for wear by SEAL dogs." The K9 catalogue boasts an array of high-tech canine devices, from storm lights to long lines and leads to an assortment of vests -- assault, aerial insertion, and patrol-SWAT -- which are rated from "excellent" to "good" in protecting the animal from harm due to everything from bullets to ice picks.
Lethal weapons: Not all military dogs are trained to kill. According to the U.S. Air Force, a dog only enters advanced training after a basic obedience program is successfully completed. The focus of this more intensive training is "controlled aggressiveness" in which the dog is "taught to find a suspect or hostile person in a building or open area; to attack, without command, someone who is attacking its handler; to cease an attack upon command at any point after an attack command has been given..." Make no mistake, these animals can be lethal weapons: "The average German Shepherd's bite exerts between 400 and 700 pounds of pressure," according to the U.S. Air Force.
Above, a U.S. Army soldier trains an attack dog at Camp Forward Operating Base Wilson in Zari district in southern Kandahar province on Oct. 21, 2010.
Fierce protectors: Military dogs and their handlers often form deep bonds -- it's an essential part of the canine-handler relationship that is specifically built into their training regimen. The personal attachments are often so intense that it can take weeks of training before a dog can begin working with a new handler.
Not only are these dogs fierce assault weapons, they are loyal guardians. When Private First Class Colton Rusk was shot after his unit came under Taliban sniper fire during a routine patrol in Afghanistan, Rusk's bomb-sniffing dog, Eli, crawled on top of his body, attacking anyone -- including Rusk's fellow Marines -- who tried to come near him. Rusk did not survive the assault, but Eli was granted early retirement so he could live with Rusk's family.
In the photo above, Staff Sgt. Erick Martinez, a military dog handler uses an over-the-shoulder carry to hold his dog, Argo II, at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, on March 4. The exercise helps build trust, loyalty, and teamwork.
The nose knows: A canine's olfactory powers are well known -- dogs are now even being used to sniff out rare types of cancer -- and that natural ability hasn't gone unnoticed by the U.S. military. When President Barack Obama traveled to Asia last fall, an elite team of 30 bomb-sniffing dogs were part of his security entourage. (All in all, it was a pretty cushy assignment: The dogs stayed in 5-star hotels and rode in vehicles tailored to their comfort and safety.)
More remarkable still are vapor-wake dogs. Scientists at Auburn University's College of Veterinary Medicine have genetically bred and specially trained canines to not only detect stationary bombs or bomb-making materials, but identify and alert their handler to the moving scent of explosive devices and materials left behind in the air, say, as a suicide bomber walked through a crowd -- all without ever tipping off the perpetrator. While not as expensive as some military-trained dogs, the cost of breeding and training these dogs cost is not cheap at around $20,000 each.
Above, U.S. sergeant Matthew Templet and his bomb-sniffing dog Basco search for the explosives in an abandoned house in Haji Ghaffar village during a clearance patrol in Zari district of Kandahar province on Dec. 27, 2010.
The best of the best: U.S. and allied forces have been fighting a losing battle against improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan. In the first eight months of 2010 there were more roadside bombs in Afghanistan than in the same period in 2009.
In October 2010, the Pentagon announced that after six years and $19 billion spent in the attempt to build the ultimate bomb detector technology, dogs were still the most accurate sniffers around. The rate of detection with the Pentagon's fanciest equipment -- drones and aerial detectors -- was a 50 percent success rate, but when a dog was involved it rose 30 percent.
A canine surge: Over the last two years, there has been an effort to rapidly increase the number IED detection dogs in Afghanistan and Iraq. Currently, the Marine Corps has 170 bomb-sniffing dogs, but has plans to deploy as many as 600 dogs to their program before September 2012. In late 2010 the Marines have also awarded a contract to American K-9 Interdiction for "as much as $35 million" to train and kennel their dogs.
In February, Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos stated that he'd like to see "a dog with every patrol."
Above, U.S. Marines attached to 1st Battalion, 6th regiment, Charlie Company relax with their bomb-sniffing dogs Books and Good one in Huskers camp on the outskirts of Marjah in central Helmand on Jan. 25, 2010.