The Cuban Missile Crisis – Reflections

Dan Conley

By the Editor – The Cuban Missile Crisis remains the most well-studied and harrowing example of a thermonuclear showdown between the superpowers. The author reflects on the important lessons, and the significant naval implications, of this watershed event. A 10 minute read.

CIA reference photograph of a Soviet medium-range ballistic missile in Red Square, Moscow

Sixty years ago, in October 1962, the world was on the brink of nuclear war between the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. This article sets out the key events arising during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and particularly focuses on naval activities during the crisis. Clearly, there are lessons relevant to the current crisis in Ukraine.

Chronology

The establishment of American nuclear missile sites in Turkey was, to the Soviet psyche, a close pressing of its borders – a threat it found intolerable and which it countered by establishing launch sites for nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba. On 14October 1962 a U2 reconnaissance aircraft overflying Cuba photographed several of these missile sites under construction. Analysis quickly revealed that these were intended for the installation of Soviet medium and intermediate range nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. The majority of the US’ eastern cities – not to mention the Southern American hemisphere – were therefore brought into range, with a minimum warning time of attack. Two days later, President John F. Kennedy was briefed of this new, highly significant, strategic threat development.

Kennedy decided that urgent action was required and directly formed an Executive Committee (ExComm) of the National Security Council, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), the board which provides professional military advice to the Secretary of Defense, and the President. Key participants on the JCS included General Curtis LeMay, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and Admiral George Anderson, Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). Both were belligerent, believing that nuclear war with the Soviet Union was inevitable, and strongly advocated an attack upon the Cuban missile sites. On the other hand, the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, assessed that the installation of nuclear missiles on Cuba did not significantly alter the overarching strategic balance. Such diverse views inevitably resulted in strong tensions.

Over the next six days, the ExComm deliberated the options for a US response. These can be summarised as follows:

  • Seek removal of the missiles by negotiation. However, true to character, the Soviet leadership’s initial response was denial that nuclear-capable missiles were being installed in Cuba.
  • Effect a naval blockade or quarantine around Cuba, preventing the shipment of missiles, warheads and launch systems. Quarantine was the preferred definition as a blockade was undeniably an act of war.
  • Air attack to destroy the missile sites.
  • Attack Cuba and launch a full-scale invasion.

Despite bellicose advice from his military chiefs, Kennedy decided upon the quarantine option as being the “most probable action to have the best probable outcome.” Amongst other factors, he was very aware, at the least, that an attack upon Cuba might result in a Soviet take-over of West Berlin. At the worst, it might invoke a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the US. Later evidence revealed that this was what the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro, strongly advocated to his Soviet masters. 

On 22October a demand was made to the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, to remove the missiles. At the same time, the JCS brought US forces to Defence Condition Three (Defcon 3) – High Alert. That evening, Kennedy broadcast to the nation his administration’s plan to quarantine shipping entering Cuba, with the intention of preventing the delivery of nuclear-capable missiles and warheads. He warned – “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response against the Soviet Union.”

Two days later, the quarantine was put into effect and the military alert was raised by the JCS to Defcon 2 – Prepare for Nuclear War. The USAF’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) commenced maintaining a continuous airborne force of over 100 nuclear armed bombers, about 20 of those adopting holding patterns just outside Soviet airspace. Seven Polaris SSBNs took up station in their respective launch positions in the Norwegian Sea, and Pacific-based Regulus missile-equipped submarines prepared for weapons launch. At the same time, land-based strategic missiles were readied for firing. In the Soviet Union, missile and strategic bomber forces were put on an equal alert footing.

On 27October a U2 reconnaissance plane was shot down over Cuba and the pilot, Major Rudolf Anderson, was killed. On the same day, another U2 aircraft wandered into Soviet airspace in the Arctic and was intercepted by Soviet fighters but, due to its very high altitude, they were unable to attack it. In response, the US scrambled fighters armed with nuclear-equipped missiles to escort it back to base. Fortunately, by the time they arrived on the scene, the U2 was out of Soviet airspace. Both these separate actions seriously concerned Kennedy that events were rapidly spiralling out of control. That night he dispatched his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, to meet with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, and offer a top-secret deal to peacefully end the standoff. The US pledged to withdraw intermediate nuclear missiles from Turkey, and not invade Cuba, if the Soviets agreed to remove their nuclear missiles from Cuba. However, Robert Kennedy issued a verbal warning that if the missiles were not withdrawn, the sites would be attacked.[1]

On 28 October Khrushchev, indeed, acknowledged the presence of the missiles. Against the background of the US’ very robust stance, and aware of the overwhelming strength of the American nuclear arsenal, Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles and ordered his transport ships heading to Cuba to put about. Nuclear war had been averted and the world stepped back from the brink of thermonuclear disaster. Meanwhile, however, the American strategic forces remained on high alert until 21 November, by which time incontrovertible evidence of the Soviet withdrawal of its missiles from Cuba had been confirmed.

Of note, the USN deployed over 150 warships and support vessels to carry out the quarantine. However, by the time the quarantine was put into place, the majority of the missiles and their warheads had in fact already been unloaded in Cuba. Until there was firm evidence of their removal, the JCS continued with plans to attack and invade Cuba, if necessary, deploying tactical nuclear warheads in the process.

Soviet Submarine Activities During the Crisis

Early in October, the Soviets deployed four Foxtrot-class diesel submarines to the waters around Cuba. Each boat was provided with one nuclear-tipped torpedo. Their commanding officers had discretion to use these weapons if attacked by US vessels. Three of the four boats were detected and tracked by US ASW forces during the enforcement of the quarantine. To coerce the Soviet submarines to surface and reveal themselves, Practise Depth Charges (PDCs) were dropped from the blockade force. Information had been passed to the Soviets regarding the use of these charges to signal that the submarine must surface. But this information was not actually passed onto the submarines. The use of PDCs raised serious concerns with Kennedy as being potentially escalatory.

The PDCs contained only a small amount of explosive, but on detonating under the water they made a loud report. In the dreadful conditions onboard the submarines, with temperatures nudging into the 50s, oxygen levels low and the propeller and sonar sounds of numerous anti-submarine warships above them, such explosions were bound to be extremely unnerving. Subsequent evidence has revealed that two of the Foxtrot commanders, their stress levels almost at breaking point, seriously considered firing their nuclear torpedoes at the harassing forces. In B130, the CO was persuaded by his political officer not to do so. In B59, the situation was more serious, with its CO ordering the weapon to be prepared for launch. Fortunately, the overall commander of the four boats, Vasily Arkhipov, overruled the CO’s instructions. No doubt self-preservation came into the decision-making process: the torpedo’s 15 kiloton nuclear detonation could have caused lethal damage to the firing submarine. Nevertheless, had a nuclear weapon been used, and USN ships been destroyed, the inevitable American retaliation might have led to total war. Arguably, this was the closest the two Cold War superpowers came to nuclear war.

It is difficult to establish why the Soviets did not deploy nuclear missile armed submarines (the SSGN Golf-class or the SSBN Hotel-class) to the Cuban area, but low reliability and missile fuel instability may have been prohibiting factors. In the event, two nuclear missile-armed SSGNs of the Zulu-class were in fact deployed, pennant numbers B75 and B88. The former was ordered back to Murmansk while on transit to Cuba, but the Pacific-based B88 spent several days patrolling off Pearl Harbor.

USN Submarine Activities

On the ordering of Defcon 2, the five Polaris-equipped submarines on patrol took up their firing positions in the Norwegian Sea. Two additional boats, which were alongside the tender USS Proteus in the Holy Loch, prepared for sea and departed on patrol within 24 hours. Once they had slipped, Proteus got underway and headed out to sea to avoid presenting itself as a possible target. Of note, one of these boats, the USS Ethan Allen had, earlier in the year, fired a 600 kiloton nuclear-armed missile which travelled over 1,000 miles to a target area north-east of the Solomon Islands. This successful firing of a fully armed Polaris missile was one of a kind, and has not been repeated with the Trident missile system. Undoubtedly Soviet leadership would have been briefed about this emphatic demonstration of US SLBM capability.

While the USN had seven Polaris-equipped boats on station in the Atlantic, there were none in the Pacific. However, there were three Regulus-equipped missile-firing boats on patrol in the Bering Sea. These had a total of eight nuclear warheads, targeting Soviet Pacific harbour infrastructure. Commander William Gunn, CO of one of these boats – USS Grayback – recalled receiving the alert to prepare for firing. “We went to ‘Battle Stations Missile’ and checked out all missiles. Then we remained on alert for the next two weeks, ready to shoot . . . And you know we had the feeling that this is what we are supposed to do, and this is it, and we are here, and if it happens, we are the people who are going to execute it.”

The United Kingdom’s Response

In the UK, its 200 plus strong nuclear bomber fleet was put on high alert: 15 of these aircraft were nuclear armed, ready for take-off within 15 minutes. More prominent were the preparations to launch the 60 Thor intermediate-range ballistic missiles which were dual key-operated by RAF and USAF personnel. Situated in 20 sites around the east of England, their removal from bunkers and vertical erection on a launch tower must have had a highly chilling effect upon those people living nearby.

In respect to ongoing RN activities, several submarines deployed into the Atlantic: HMS Astute and Alderney, under Canadian operational control, took part in a ASW barrier set up between Newfoundland and the Azores, with the goal of detecting Soviet submarines heading to Cuba. They made no detections. Several warships hastily stored for war and headed out to sea, with the probable aim of being out of harm’s way. Nevertheless, it could be concluded that the gravity and severe danger of the crisis was underestimated by the UK’s politicians and senior military leadership.

There was frequent dialogue by telephone between Prime Minister Harold MacMillan and President Kennedy, sometimes as often as three times a day. The latter was clearly keen to keep his closest ally well appraised of the developing situation. In one of these conversations, MacMillan suggested using the UK-based Thors as a bargaining chip for removing the Cuban missiles, but Kennedy was reluctant to make this concession.[2] Both had serious concerns that the Soviet Union might attack West Berlin in response to American actions. One very sobering telephone conversation at the height of the crisis inferred that future communications might well be between nuclear bunker command posts.

Post Event Considerations

There had been significant US intelligence failures regarding the installation of the Soviet missile sites as their build-up took place several weeks before detection. Clearly, US intelligence sources on the ground in Cuba had been weak. Indeed, by the time the quarantine had been put in place, most of the missiles and their warheads had been off-loaded. The situation was worsened considering that U2 flights over Cuba had been suspended from early September until the 14 October sortie, for various reasons.

Furthermore, the total force of 40,000 Soviet troops on the ground in Cuba was very much underestimated in terms of numbers. Even more worrying, the US was not aware of the presence of 40 battlefield nuclear missiles – known as Frogs – that were actually deployed in Cuba. It is highly possible that these would have been used against any invasion force. During November these missiles, and a force of nuclear capable IL-28 medium-range bombers, were also removed.

As mentioned above, there were strong tensions between Secretary of Defense McNamara and some members of the JCS. Furthermore, there were two separate lines of communication to the President from the respective heads of the USN and USAF. Defcon 3 was ordered without McNamara’s consent and it is recorded that, on one occasion, the CNO ejected him from the Pentagon’s Naval Operations Room. It was to take two subsequent badly controlled operations (the aborted Iran hostage rescue and the Grenada invasion) before the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act set in place measures to simplify and clearly define the US command structure during major operations. This act determined that the Secretary of Defense, having had the President’s approval, through the JCS, orders and deploys all forces and authorises operations. 

During the crisis, the US had available over 300 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICMBs), whereas the Soviet Union had only about 42.[3] Moreover, the American total of over 25,000 nuclear-warheads (a remarkable number – although many of these were artillery shells) dwarfed the Soviet inventory of about 3,500. No doubt the US’ marked nuclear weapons superiority was a key factor in coercing the Soviet leadership to remove the missiles. Of interest, both the Soviet Union and the US continued atmospheric nuclear tests during the course of the crisis.

Despite a number of direct and indirect communications between the White House and the Kremlin, Kennedy and Khrushchev and their advisers struggled throughout the crisis to clearly understand the other side’s true intentions, with the world hanging on the brink of possible thermonuclear war. In an effort to prevent this crisis from being repeated, a direct telephone ‘hotline’ link was set up between the White House and the Kremlin. Furthermore, having approached the brink of nuclear conflict, both superpowers began to reconsider the nuclear arms race and took the first steps in agreeing to a nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

To the Soviets, the crisis highlighted the severe limitations of their existing naval power as they had no means of escorting their ships through the quarantine area. Under the stewardship of the head of their navy between 1956 and 1985, Admiral Sergei Gorshkov, they thereafter built a navy capable of global power projection, spearheaded by a large force of nuclear submarines. It culminated in numbers and capability in the late 1980s.

As an aside, due to a border dispute, on 20 October China attacked Indian forces in the Himalayas region. This Sino-Indian war lasted about one month and ended with India conceding the loss of some territory. India had asked for arms supply from the West and this conflict certainly added to the concerns of the US administration during the peak of the crisis.

Summary

During the weeks of escalation and tension, the world stood at the brink of thermonuclear war. The real possibility existed of tens of millions of people being killed and many cities being destroyed. Eventually, however, the Soviet leadership backed down and ordered their ships to put about and head back to Russia. The missile sites already built were dismantled and the world breathed again. As a quid pro quo the US dismantled their Turkish missile sites. However, it had been a dreadful warning and called forth from the American administration leadership and coolness almost unparalleled in human history.

At the time of writing, there is a clear risk that Russian President Vladimir Putin might use tactical nuclear weapons if he senses his forces in Ukraine could be defeated and that Russia would incur international humiliation. It is hoped that NATO leaders are well-appraised of, and have rehearsed the lessons of, the Cuban Missile Crisis.

References


[1] Department of Defense Operations During The Cuban Missile Crisis dated 12/2/1963 – Page 19

[2] Kennedy MacMillan Telephone Conversation 26 October 1962

[3] Robert Norris – The Cuban Missile Crisis: A Nuclear Order Of Battle –  October 2012

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