In a secluded section of Raleigh, North Carolina live 16 carefully selected recruits for a high-priority Pentagon project that could play a life or death role in Afghanistan.
None of them have any previous military experience, so their training is necessarily disciplined – if they get through the programme their work could pave the way for others, like them, who will be called on to make life-saving decisions in high-stress environments. As a result, nothing is left to chance. Their days involve intense physical and mental training to see if they are able to cope with the rigors of war.
Outside, a trainer introduced me to one recruit, Jimmy, who is outfitted with a telemetry vest, which can measure his physiological changes, such as heart rate, breathing, and skin temperature. It gives him an almost Olympian look, like an athlete whose every breath is measured by a team of coaches.
But you also get a sense that Jimmy gets a kick out of it. As he is ordered forward, he is panting and his tail is wagging with the enthusiasm of youth.
The good-natured black Labrador retriever is the Jason Bourne of dogs – part of a specialised Navy programme designed to select and train the most highly skilled members of his breed for a high-priority mission: finding improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on the battlefield. While prototypes of the dogs have already been deployed, research on Jimmy and his colleagues is part of a “2.0” version of the programmme, which is based on formal science studies being conducted here at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and other universities.
Over the past six years, the Pentagon has spent over $18 billion trying to find ways to detect and neutralise roadside bombs – the leading killer of US troops in Afghanistan –by investing in everything from better mine detectors to newfangled devices that shoot beams of energy. But in North Carolina, a state that is home to a 300-year hunting dog tradition, everyone seems to agree on the best technology for the job.
In the lab, I’m introduced to Dakota, one of Jimmy’s colleagues. In front of Dakota are two small containers, one scented with vanillin and the other with ethanol. Dakota, who is learning to signal when she detects a scent, is supposed to select the vanillin, a training aid that will later be switched to ammonium nitrate used in explosives. If she selects correctly, she’ll be rewarded with a treat. She gets the first one right, choosing vanillin, misses the next two, but then got the fourth one right. At that point, she was averaging 50-50, which is not good, but she was still a beginner with time to learn.
Though war dogs may be high profile these days – thanks in part to Cairo, the Belgian Malinois who accompanied Navy Seals on the Osama bin Laden raid – there were virtually no deployed military bomb dogs working on battlefields when the US invaded Iraq, and hadn’t been for decades. After the Vietnam War, the military’s working dog programme was handed over to the Air Force, which used them to patrol missile fields in the United States. Those dogs were used to being guided on leashes, living in air-conditioned kennels and working limited shifts: a far cry from a war zone.
That quickly changed with the arrival of IEDs and in 2007, 13 dogs – all Labs – were deployed with the Marines to Iraq and Afghanistan. When the dogs started finding bombs, Marines asked for more, and today there are some 600 dogs.