Dogs of War

The most technologically advanced army in the history of mankind still relies on animals that were once used by Attila the Hun. And no one trains them as well as the soldiers at Lackland Air Force Base.
Dogs of War
THE BITE STUFF: Eight hundred dogs train at Lackland, making it the largest facility of its kind. 
Photograph by Randal Ford

On the first night of May 2011, two Black Hawk helicopters took off from Afghanistan on a top-secret mission to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. The Black Hawks, which had been modified to disguise their heat signatures and mask them from radar, were bound for Abbottabad, Pakistan, where bin Laden was suspected of hiding. The crew included 23 members of the Navy’s elite SEAL Team Six, members of the Army’s select Night Stalkers regiment, and a dog named Cairo.

It was a dark, moonless evening—“low loom,” in military parlance. Cairo, a seventy-pound Belgian Malinois, sat on the floor of the second chopper, huddled among eleven SEALs and an interpreter. He likely wore a lightweight tactical vest made with dual Kevlar panels, which were designed to withstand everything from knife attacks to shrapnel, and an infrared camera that could transmit images back to his handler. All told, he probably carried more than $20,000 worth of gear.

His skills and intelligence, however, were what made him indispensable to the mission. Cairo was trained to fill any number of roles. The first would be to stand guard outside the compound, alerting the soldiers to anyone who approached. If a crowd gathered, he could help keep the locals at bay. Inside the compound walls, Cairo could sniff out bombs or booby traps; he could even help locate bin Laden, in the event he was hiding in a spider hole or some other secret area. If someone in the house tried to escape, Cairo could chase him down, utilizing his speed (twice that of a human’s) and strength (a bite pressure of seven hundred pounds per square inch). In the most extreme scenario, he might even be used to take down bin Laden, attacking without hesitation on a simple command: “Get ’im!”

According to the mission, Cairo’s helicopter was supposed to hover over one corner of the compound as a few SEALs rappelled to the ground, with Cairo strapped to his handler’s chest. But things in the military seldom go according to plan. The first chopper spun out of control and had to ditch, so the second chopper’s pilot landed in a field across the street. Cairo and four of the SEALs quickly set up a perimeter, and the rest of the team stormed the compound. Thirty-eight minutes later, bin Laden was dead, and Cairo and the SEALs were on their way back home.

In the celebratory days that followed, the members of SEAL Team Six were hailed as national heroes. President Obama met them at a Kentucky Army base, where he presented them with a special citation. He shook their hands and thanked them for their service. But there was one member of the group he inquired about specifically.

“I want to meet that dog,” Obama said.

For almost as long as there has been war, there have been war dogs. The ancient Romans used to arm their dogs with chain mail and spiked collars. The ancient Britons used mastiffs to defend against those Romans. Napoleon stationed guard dogs at the gates of Alexandria. The Germans ushered in the modern era of war dogs, establishing the first dog-training school in the thirties. Even in today’s high-tech military, with its biometric imaging and laser-equipped Predator drones, there’s still no substitute for a well-trained dog, and since 9/11, the number of military dogs deployed in the field has more than doubled. The United States currently has 2,800 dogs deployed worldwide, more than any other country. General David Petraeus, the former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has summed it up this way: “The capability [dogs] bring to the fight cannot be replicated by man or machine.”

Half a world away from Abbottabad, on more than nine thousand acres in southwest San Antonio, Lackland Air Force Base has established itself as the largest military dog school in the world. Lackland is the home of the 341st Training Squadron, a.k.a. the Military Working Dog Program. Since its inception, in 1958, the program has trained tens of thousands of dogs. At any given moment, roughly eight hundred dogs are stationed here, undergoing the equivalent of canine basic training.

In the predawn darkness earlier this summer, I met Master Sergeant Rick Reidel, who supervises Lackland’s dog program, in a dusty field near an old munitions dump. Because of the intense Texas heat, dog training often starts before dawn and usually finishes by ten o’clock. A dozen dogs were leashed among the oak trees, drinking water from gallon jugs; there was also an air-conditioned trailer idling nearby. In the distance, you could hear dogs barking back at the kennels, hungry for their breakfast.

The dogs at Lackland (Reidel calls them “our four-legged students”) are typically trained in various specialties. The most common are patrol-explosive-detection dogs. These animals—usually German shepherds or Belgian Malinois, like Cairo—go out on patrol, keep watch outside bases, and conduct basic scent searches. One handler called them “the Swiss army knife of dogs,” because they can do just about anything. They also have the temperament to be aggressive when necessary; that morning, I watched as several dogs took turns sprinting forty yards across a field and leaping teeth-first at a soldier wearing a bite sleeve. “They’re trained to love biting more than anything,” another handler told me.

The other types of dogs are more docile. Combat trackers use their keen sense of smell to find people. Usually sporting breeds like retrievers, they can conduct search-and-rescue missions for missing soldiers or find enemies hiding miles away, often based on nothing more than the scent on a scrap of clothing.

Specialized search dogs, meanwhile, use their noses to find things: weapons caches, explosives, or drugs. Technology may change, but that remains a task that dogs are superior at. In 2010, for instance, after spending four years and nearly $19 billion researching technology used to locate IEDs, a Pentagon task force admitted that it hadn’t come up with anything as good as a dog.

On another morning at Lackland, I

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