Sixty-fourth Chapter in a Series Chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
Curtailing U-2 Over-flights of Cuba
In Chapter 57 of this series (http://napa.patch.com/blog_posts/downed-taiwanese-u-2-curtails-reconnaissance-over-cuba), we learned that on September 9, 1962, a Taiwanese U-2 was downed over mainland China by a Soviet-built SA-2 antiaircraft missile. This shoot-down, half a world away, intensified executive branch policy-makers’ fears that the same fate awaited a U.S. U-2 flying over any of the 24 SA-2 sites being established in Cuba. Together the policy-makers persuaded President Kennedy to curtail future U-2 reconnaissance missions over interior Cuba.
The second September mission—the first over-flew the interior on September 5th—became four missions: two in September would be quick in-and-outs, and two more in October would be flown along Cuba’s coastline entirely over international waters.
Both kinds of missions would scrupulously avoid Cuba’s interior, where, of course, they were most needed.
Avoiding Cuba’s interior and stretching these missions into October gave the Soviets four more weeks to prepare their strategic missile sites, undiscovered, than they would have had if U-2s had continued to over-fly the interior.
The Mission of September 26th
Mission 3093 (se the declassified CIA map above) flew well south of Jamaica, then northeast past the western end of Haiti to the Windward Passage, then west until it entered Cuba over the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo. When it went “feet dry,” Mission 3093 flew a curving track that took it over the Guantanamo-Santiago de Cuba areas north to the puzzling cruise missile sites near Banes first photographed on August 29th.
New SAM Sites, More Cruise Missiles Found
3093’s photographs showed new SAM sites being built at Chapara, Los Angeles, and Jiguani, all north of Santiago de Cuba, as well as what Dino Brugioni calls “a SAM support facility at Santiago de Cuba.”
At the puzzling Banes site, Mission 3093 photographed a clearly identifiable cruise missile on one of its launchers. A cruise missile is essentially an unmanned aircraft—really a warhead with wings—which is directed to its target by an internal or a remote guidance system. Coastal defense cruise missiles would attack troop ships before their soldiers could board landing craft. Cruise missiles were—and are—very difficult to defend against.
Mission 3093 also photographed cruise missile crates at three other sites, one of which was Mayari Ariba, about halfway between Banes and Guantanamo.
Brugioni says that the Soviets now had in place enough cruise missiles for fifteen additional sites to defend the Cuban coastline. These cruise missile sites, and the newly photographed SAM sites under construction, meant that Cuba’s defenses against invasion were growing much stronger.
What Brugioni didn’t know, nor would anyone know until 1998, was what was in those crates at Mayari Ariba and the two other locations, Guerra and Santiago de Cuba. They must have been, in my judgment, Soviet nuclear-capable FKR cruise missiles. Eighty FKRs had been shipped to Cuba, along with eighty 5 – 12 kiloton nuclear warheads. Their range was over 100 nautical miles. What they could have done to an invasion fleet—or fleets—is only too easy to imagine. For more on the cruise missiles in Cuba, see Chapter 55 in this series: http://napa.patch.com/blog_posts/another-bombshell-hits-the-white-house-september-7-1962-d3c0b618.
The Mission of September 29th
After Mission 3095 made a very short incursion inland near Cuba’s Bay of Pigs (of painful memory), it button-hooked and high-tailed it back to the Yucatan Channel via the Isle of Pines.
Despite its very brief stay over Cuban soil, Mission 3095 did photograph a new SAM site and a new cruise missile site at the southwest corner of the Isle of Pines. Not surprisingly, the cruise missile site was oriented southwestward towards the Yucatan Channel.
What the Late September Missions Did Not Photograph
As of the end of September 1962, there had been no photo reconnaissance over central Cuba for nearly four weeks—all because some high-level policy-makers in Washington were scared to death of the SA-2 antiaircraft missile sites being readied in Cuba.
RB-47s of the Air Force’s 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing (SRW) had performed electronic intelligence (ELINT) surveillance of Cuba since November 1960.
By 1962, according to Dino Brugioni, then at the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), RB-47s flew three missions a day recording signals from radars in Cuba. The RB-47 missions “were also used to support the U-2 photographic missions” by passing information about weather conditions to SAC headquarters, “which in turn passed the information along to U-2 mission planners.” Brugioni then writes, ominously,
“By late September these [RB-47] flights were being illuminated by radars that appeared to be operating in a tracking mode. There were, however, no reactions to the [RB-47] missions – no fighter aircraft were scrambled and no anti-aircraft or SAM warning shots were fired. Because of the duration of these illuminations, and since the radars employed had height-finding capabilities, the Soviets and Cubans were well aware of all these [RB-47] flights. It was also obvious that the tracking data that the Soviets and Cubans were acquiring would give them the capability to shoot down a U-2.”
The Big Question Is Still Unanswered
As September 1962 drew to an end, the U.S. intelligence community and policy planners knew that some of the 24 antiaircraft missile sites in Cuba were nearing operational status or were already operational. Their radars were actively tracking U.S. reconnaissance aircraft operating outside Cuba’s borders.
But what had the SA-2s been put there to defend? And when would they start shooting?
Email your questions to email@example.com or post a comment.
Sources and Notes
“Four more weeks”: Max Holland estimates that “the earliest date” when U-2 missions might have detected the arrival of Soviet missiles in central and northern Cuba was 17-18 September. As we saw in Chapter 61 in this series (http://napa.patch.com/blog_posts/cia-agents-reports-from-cuba-late-september-1962-77eae62d), this is the date when agents in Cuba saw “recognizable equipment” associated with the missiles in the San Cristobal area. See pp. 7-8 of Holland’s “The ‘Photo Gap’ that Delayed Discovery of Missiles.” Central Intelligence Agency, Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 94, No. 4, first posted on the CIA’s website at “Center for the Study of Intelligence” in April 2007.
Brugioni’s description of the August 26th mission appears on p. 158 of his Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of The Cuban Missile Crisis (Robert F. McCort, ed.). New York: Random House, 1991. See pp. 179ff for his discussion of the RB-47s’ ELINT surveillance of Cuba.
As we saw in Chapter 55, the Soviets had deployed two almost identical coastal defense cruise missiles in Cuba: 1) the conventionally armed Sopka; and 2) the longer-range, nuclear-tipped FRK. When the Banes site was first photographed, the U.S. intelligence community did not know either type existed. Photo analysts finally deduced the Sopka’s characteristics and labeled it conventional. They never had a clue the nuclear FKR existed, let alone that there were so many of them and so many of their warheads in Cuba. The fact that the Sopka and the FKR looked almost identical misled the analysts into thinking that only one type was present.
The Yucatan Channel is one of the two narrow waterway, or “choke points,” leading to and from the Gulf of Mexico. The other is the Florida Straits running between Cuba and the Florida Keys. We should not forget that whoever controls those choke points controls all shipping into and out of America’s Gulf seaports and the Mississippi River.
The date RB-47s began ELINT missions around Cuba appears on p. 12 of Sanders A. Laubenthal, Capt., USAF, “The Missiles in Cuba, 1962: The Role of SAC Intelligence.” SAC Intelligence Quarterly Project Warrior Study, May 1984. Formerly classified SECRET NOFORN. Declassified 27 October 1999. I am grateful to Robb Hoover, historian of the 55th SRW, for a copy of Capt. Laubenthal’s report.
The RB-47s carried detection devices that would tell the pilots when they were being tracked by radar and when—big difference—a fire control radar had locked onto them. When that red light lit up, they could expect the imminent arrival of one or more deadly SA-2 missiles.
The “R” in RB-47 means that the bomber’s bomb bay now carries ELINT equipment and technicians.