Washington, May 5: Two helicopters ferried 79 commandos and one dog into Osama Bin Laden's compound for Sunday's successful kill operation. The question that arises is: Why did the Pentagon send in a canine with the special forces?
The identities of all 80 members of the Navy Seal team who thundered into Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden are the subject of intense speculation, but perhaps none more so than the dog.Little is known about what may be the nation's most courageous dog.
Even its breed is the subject of intense interest, although it was likely a German shepherd or a Belgian Malinois, according to military sources.
But its use in the crucial raid reflects the military's growing dependence on dogs in wars in which improvised explosive devices have caused two-thirds of all casualties. Dogs have proven far better than people or machines at quickly finding bombs.
He was part of the operation in which the elite US Navy Seals lowered themselves down ropes from three Black Hawk helicopters into the terrorist supremo's hideout in the town of Abbottabad, Pakistan, on Sunday.
The world's most wanted man, 54, was shot dead by a Special Forces marksman during the raid.
Heavily armoured hounds — equipped with infrared night-sight cameras — have been used in the past by the top-secret unit.
The war dogs wear ballistic body armour that is said to withstand damage from single and double-edged knives, as well as protective gear which shields them from shrapnel and gunfire.
German Shepherds have been leading the way in SAS raids in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wearing oxygen masks, the pooches have been trained to jump from aircraft at 25,000ft, before seeking out insurgents in hostile environments.
The animals will attack anyone carrying a weapon and have become a pivotal part of special operations as they crawl unnoticed into tunnels or rooms to hunt for enemy combatants. The cameras on their heads beam live TV pictures back to the troops, providing them with critical information and warning of ambushes.
Dogs were also used in the capture of Saddam Hussein and in the killing of the Iraqi dictator's two sons.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of United States forces in Afghanistan, said last year that the military needed more dogs. “The capability they bring to the fight cannot be replicated by man or machine,” he said.
“By all measures of performance, their yield outperforms any asset we have in our inventory.”
Maj. William Roberts, commander of the Defense Department's Military Working Dog Center at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, said the dog on the raid could have served a variety of functions. First, the dog could have quickly checked the compound for explosives and even sniffed the handle of the door to the house to see if it was booby-trapped.
And given that Saddam Hussein was found hiding in a narrow, dark hole beneath a two-room mud shack in Iraq, the Seal team might have brought the dog in case Bin Laden had built into his compound a hidden room, hole or other hiding place.
“Dogs are very good at detecting people inside of a building,” Major Roberts said.
Another use might have been to catch anyone escaping the compound in the first moments of the raid. A German shepherd or Belgian Malinois runs twice as fast as a human. Anyone who made it out of the compound in the first seconds of the raid could have been tracked down relatively quickly by the dog.
Tech Sgt. Kelly A. Mylott, the kennel master at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, said that dogs are ideal for getting someone who is running away without having to shoot them. “When the dogs go after a suspect, they're trained to bite and hold them,” Sergeant Mylott said.
Some dogs are big enough that, when they leap on a suspect, the person tends to drop to the ground, Sergeant Mylott said. Others bite arms or legs. “Different dogs do different things,” she said. “But whatever they do, it's very difficult for that person to go any further.”
Finally, dogs can be used to pacify an unruly group of people — particularly in the Middle East.
“There is a cultural aversion to dogs in some of these countries, where few of them are used as pets,” Major Roberts said. “Dogs can be very intimidating in that situation.”
Sergeant Mylott said that dogs get people's attention in ways that weapons sometimes do not. “Dogs can be an amazing psychological deterrent,” she said.
There are 600 dogs serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that number is expected to grow substantially over the next year, Ensign Brynn Olson of the United States Central Command said.
Particularly popular with the troops are the growing number of Labrador retrievers who wander off-leash 100 yards or more in front of patrols to ensure the safety of the route.
A Silver Star, one of the Navy's highest awards, was awarded posthumously in 2009 to a dog named Remco after he charged an insurgent's hideout in Afghanistan.
The training of dogs in Navy Seal teams and other Special Operations units is clouded in secrecy. Maj. Wes Ticer, a spokesman for United States Special Operations Command, said that the primary functions of dogs on such teams “are finding explosives and conducting searches and patrols.”
“Dogs are relied upon,” he continued, “to provide early warning for potential hazards, many times, saving the lives of the Special Operations Forces with whom they operate.”
Last year, the Seals bought four waterproof tactical vests for their dogs that featured infrared and night-vision cameras so that handlers — holding a three-inch monitor from as far as a 1,000 yards away — could immediately see what the dogs were seeing.
The vests, which come in coyote tan and camouflage, allow handlers to communicate with the dogs with a speaker, and the four together cost more than $86,000. Navy Seal teams have trained to parachute from great heights and deploy out of helicopters with dogs.
The military uses a variety of breeds, but by far the most common are German shepherd and Belgian Malinois, which “have the best overall combination of keen sense of smell, endurance, speed, strength, courage, intelligence and adaptability to almost any climatic condition,” according to a fact sheet provided by the Military Working Dog Unit.
Suzanne Belger, president of the American Belgian Malinois Club, said she was hoping the dog was one of her breed “and that it did its job and came home safe.” But Laura Gilbert, corresponding secretary for the German Shepherd Dog Club of America, said she was sure the dog was her breed “because we're the best!”