By Juan O. Tamayo
The Miami Herald
U.S. intelligence for 30 years, the Soviet Union had sneaked about 100 small
nuclear weapons into Cuba at the time of the 1962 missile crisis, in addition to
its more powerful strategic missiles.
Cuban President Fidel Castro wanted to keep the tactical weapons --
short-range rockets and airplane bombs -- even after the crisis, and Moscow's
defense minister initially ordered his troops to train Cubans in their use.
But Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, horrified that Castro had urged him to
launch strategic nuclear missiles against the United States at the height of the
crisis, ordered that all the tactical weapons be swiftly removed.
The crisis ended and the last of the tactical warheads was reported returned
to the Soviet Union in December 1962, according to documents found by Western
and Russian researchers in once-secret Soviet archives.
``In retrospect, it shows the crisis was more dangerous than thought,'' said
George Washington University professor Jim Hershberg, an expert on the crisis.
``If we had invaded Cuba, and they had used some of these [tactical] weapons, it
would have been awful.''
The Soviet archives showed that the CIA's failure to spot the tactical nukes
led to a potentially catastrophic underestimation of the threat that Cuba posed
as President Kennedy was considering invading the island to knock out the
A Pentagon estimate issued in midcrisis that a U.S. invasion would suffer
18,500 dead and wounded did not include the possibility that Cuba had tactical
nukes. Most of the ``small'' weapons carried nearly the same punch as the U.S.
bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
The last of the tactical warheads was reported to have left Cuba on
Christmas Day, 1962. But it was not until 30 years later that U.S. officials
learned they had been deployed.
At a 1992 academic seminar in Havana on the missile crisis, Gen. Anatoly
Gribkov, of the former Soviet armed forces general staff, blurted out that
Moscow had sent Cuba nine nuclear warheads for ground-to-ground Luna rockets,
also known as FROGs, in 1962.
Used on battlefield
With a range of 30 miles and 2-kiloton warheads -- the Hiroshima bomb was 14
kilotons -- Lunas are considered tactical ``battlefield'' weapons, unlike
strategic missiles with a 1,000-mile-plus range and warheads of one or more
It was only much later, when Western researchers began sifting through
Soviet government and Communist Party archives after the collapse of the Soviet
Union, that the full story of the tactical nukes began to emerge.
Two recent books -- One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy,
1958-1964 by Timothy Naftali, a Cold War historian at Yale University, and
Russian historian Aleksandr Fursenko, and Gribkov's Operation Anadyr -- put the
number of tactical warheads deployed in Cuba at between 98 and 104.
The world has long known about Moscow's deployment in Cuba of SS4 and SS5
missiles. With that one stroke, Khrushchev hoped to double the number of Soviet
missiles capable of hitting the U.S. heartland, while extending his nuclear
defensive umbrella to Cuba.
But right from the June 10, 1962, meeting at which Khrushchev decided to
secretly send long-range missiles to Cuba in the code-named Operation Anadyr,
tactical nukes were on the Havana shipping list.
They included 80 FKR cruise missiles armed with 12-kiloton warheads. The FKR
was essentially a scaled-down, pilotless version of a MiG jet, with a target
guidance system good out to 100 miles, although it could fly much farther. It
was designed to defend the Cuban coastline and the land around the U.S. Naval
Base at Guantanamo Bay from any U.S. invasion attempt.
More tactical warheads
But when Kennedy made thinly veiled complaints about the Soviets' growing
military deployment in Cuba that August, Khrushchev decided on Sept. 7 to add
two more types of tactical nukes to the list, apparently hoping to bolster
Cuba's defenses against a U.S. land invasion:
- 12 Luna ground-to-ground rockets, with a range of 30 miles, with 2-kiloton
warheads. They were to be attached to Soviet motorized infantry regiments around
Havana and Guantanamo.
- Six 12-kiloton bombs for Il-28 bombers, with a range of 750 miles and
based near the central Cuban city of Santa Clara.
``This shows that Khrushchev had his finger on the trigger, and really had
decided to use tactical nuclear weapons if Cuba was invaded,'' Naftali said.
The Soviet freighter Indigirka, carrying 45 SS4 and SS5 warheads, 36 of the
FKR warheads and all of the Luna and Il-28 nuclear warheads, left the Soviet
Union on Sept. 15 and arrived in the Cuban port of Mariel on Oct. 4, three weeks
before the crisis erupted.
The Aleksandrovsk, carrying 24 strategic warheads and 44 FKR warheads,
docked in the north-central port of La Isabela on Oct. 23 -- the day before the
U.S. blockade of Cuba's shipping lanes went into effect.
A U.S. miscalculation
CIA analysts spotted the 30-foot Luna rockets in Cuba but concluded they
were armed with conventional warheads, Naftali said. Washington never learned
anything about the smaller FKRs or the Il-28 bombs until much later.
``Up to this point, Khrushchev had been able to send 41,902 men, including
10,000 combat troops, and about 100 tactical nuclear weapons to Cuba [but] U.S.
intelligence had not found any of these smaller nuclear devices and assumed that
all the Soviets on the island were support personnel for the ballistic missile
regiments,'' Naftali and Fursenko wrote.
The hot part of the crisis essentially ended that Oct. 28 when Khrushchev
agreed to withdraw the SS4s and SS5s in exchange for a public Kennedy promise
not to invade Cuba and a secret vow to remove U.S. nuclear missiles from Turkey.
The Aleksandrovsk left Cuba on Nov. 5, carrying all the strategic nuclear
warheads. U.S. spy planes snapped photos of all Soviet freighters departing the
island to verify the numbers of missiles and warheads leaving.
The aftermath of the crisis was the disposition of the Il-28 bombers, which
the Americans wanted out of Cuba because they were capable of carrying nuclear
weapons. Khrushchev agreed on Nov. 19, in exchange for a Kennedy promise to
immediately lift the naval blockade and move to the back burner a demand for
on-site inspections of Soviet warehouses in Cuba to ensure they were empty.
Issue of inspections
Had Kennedy known that tactical nuclear warheads remained in Cuba, he would
have strongly insisted on the on-site inspections, said Ray Gartoff, a Cuban
missile crisis expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
``Good thing the CIA did not know any better, because the Soviets would have
looked like liars -- they had sworn that all the warheads were gone -- and the
crisis would have gone on,'' Gartoff said.
As tensions wound down after the Il-28 agreement, Defense Minister Rodion
Malinovsky ordered Soviet troops in Cuba to begin training Cuban military units
in the use of the Lunas and FKRs and their nuclear warheads.
Castro, who had earlier stridently opposed removing the long-range missiles
and Il-28s, made a strong pitch to keep the tactical weapons in Cuba during a
Nov. 22 meeting in Havana with Anastas Mikoyan, the Soviet Communist Party
official who handled most Cuba-USSR relations.
``Wouldn't it be impossible to keep the atomic weapons in Cuba under Soviet
control without turning them over to the Cubans?'' Mikoyan quoted Castro as
asking, in a Russian-language report on the meeting that he sent to Moscow and
that was later found by Naftali and Fursenko.
Mikoyan reported that he quickly told Castro, on his own initiative, that
such a deal was impossible. Khrushchev had already made the same decision,
apparently believing that Castro could not be trusted with such weapons.
A bellicose view
At the height of the missile crisis, on Oct. 27, when the world seemed
poised on the edge of nuclear holocaust, Castro had appeared to urge Moscow to
launch a first-strike nuclear attack on America.
``If the imperialists invade Cuba,'' Castro wrote in a letter to Khrushchev,
``the danger that that aggressive policy poses for humanity is so great that
following that event, the Soviet Union must never allow the circumstances in
which the imperialists could launch the first nuclear strike.
``If they actually carry out the brutal act of invading Cuba . . . that
would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of
legitimate self-defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be.''
When the stunned Soviet ambassador in Havana, Aleksander Alekseev, asked
Castro if he was really advocating that Moscow be the first to launch its nukes,
``No,'' he answered, according to Alekseev's report to Moscow. ``I don't
want to say that directly, but under certain circumstances we must not wait to
experience the perfidy of the imperialists, letting them initiate the first
Juan O. Tamayo is a Herald Staff Writer
Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald