May 4, 1998

A nuclear secret in '62 Cuba crisis
100 Soviet warheads undetected by U.S.

By Juan O. Tamayo
The Miami Herald

Unknown to 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 strategic missiles.

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 megatons.

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, Castro demurred.

``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 strike.''

Juan O. Tamayo is a Herald Staff Writer

Copyright © 1998 The Miami Herald


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