Defense Media Network

Cuban Missile Crisis 50th Anniversary: Discovery

Part 5 of a series on the anniversary of the October 1962 confrontation

From the moment the first ships of the Anadyr deployment fleet left their moorings, they sailed straight into a network of ships, submarines, aircraft, and land- and sea-based sensors designed specifically to warn the West of such a move. Throughout the summer of 1962, every ship in the Anadyr fleet was photographed multiple times during each trip, and communications were monitored continuously by the American National Security Agency (NSA) and similar agencies of NATO allies. Finally, acoustic sensors placed on the seabeds, including the U.S. SOSUS network, provided real-time position information on the deploying Soviet ships and submarines. What rapidly developed was a potentially alarming picture of a massive Soviet military movement toward Cuba.

“I think I know what you guys think they are, and if I think they are the same thing and we are both right, we are sitting on the biggest story of our time.”

– Arthur C. Lundahl, Director, National Photographic Intelligence Center, Oct. 15, 1962

While the Soviet strategic deception plan (maskirovka) had dictated the use of specialized merchant snips such as timber ships, with the large deck hatches necessary for the strategic missiles and all the nuclear/thermonuclear warheads to be stowed below, much of the other outsized weaponry had to moved as deck cargo. Photographic analysts, such as those led by Art Lundahl and Dino Brugioni at the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) in Washington, D.C., practiced an arcane science called “crateology” to build a picture of just what sort of weaponry was being sent to Cuba. By using their knowledge of shipping crates and other packaging obtained by earlier U-2 and Corona satellite photography, the NPIC analysts were able to identify a number of the weapons systems being shipped before they ever reached Cuba. This included MiG-21 interceptors and Kormar-class missile patrol boats, each of which had very distinctive crates.

U-2 SAM Site Photo #1

U-2 photography revealing an SA-2 SAM site in Cuba. U.S. intelligence could infer from this photo that there was something on the island that the Cubans and Soviets wanted to hide from the prying eyes of U-2s, which the SA-2s could shoot down. Photo courtesy of Norman Polmar, John D. Gresham, and Dino Brugioni

But fighter jets and patrol boats were not what the intelligence services were looking for. The real search was for any sign whatsoever of so-called “offensive” or “strategic” weapons – meaning those armed with nuclear or thermonuclear warheads – that could strike the continental United States. President John F. Kennedy had long warned the Soviet leadership than any attempt to place offensive or strategic weapons in the Western hemisphere would be unacceptable, based upon the tenets of the Monroe Doctrine and the Rio Pact.

Anadyr was exactly that kind of deployment, and U.S. and allied intelligence analysts were working around the clock to find signs of strategic/offensive weapons being moved to Cuba. The arrival of the first ships into their primary debarkation port of Mariel finally began to provide the U.S. and its allies with some hard evidence as they unloaded and their personnel and cargo began to move into the Cuban countryside.

Anadyr was exactly that kind of deployment, and U.S. and allied intelligence analysts were working around the clock to find signs of strategic/offensive weapons being moved to Cuba. The arrival of the first ships into their primary debarkation port of Mariel finally began to provide the U.S. and its allies with some hard evidence as they unloaded and their personnel and cargo began to move into the Cuban countryside.

The Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA’s) U-2 overflight program of Cuba dated back to October 1960, when missions were flown to support planning for the Bay of Pigs invasion. As soon as the first ships from Anadyr arrived, the CIA flew a U-2 mission (#3086) that covered the whole of Cuba on Aug. 5, which provided a baseline for future analysis as additional Soviet forces flowed onto the island.

The next mission, however, (#3087), was a game-changer in the course of the coming crisis, when the photography collected showed eight V-75/SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites on the western end of the island. This discovery immediately began to ring alarm bells in the intelligence community, Pentagon, and White House.

U.S. Air Force U-2

A U-2 in U.S. Air Force markings. By 1962, the U-2 had shown itself to be vulnerable to the SA-2 Guideline SAMs in some flight regimes, but it remained a potent reconnaissance asset, and indeed captured the images of missile sites that proved the Soviets were deploying strategic nuclear missiles into Cuba. Photo courtesy of Norman Polmar, John D. Gresham, and Dino Brugioni

For the intelligence community, SA-2s meant that the Soviets were bringing in something that required protection from being seen by the U-2s, which were vulnerable to SAM fire. This had been demonstrated when Francis Gary Power’s “Dragon Lady” was destroyed by an SA-2 over the USSR two years earlier, along with another CIA U-2 (in Republic of China air force markings) over the People’s Republic of China on Sept. 9. At the same time, in what was a visionary forecast, Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) John McCone floated the idea that the Soviets were about to deploy strategic missiles to Cuba.

The White House, however, had a much different view of the Anadyr deployment and the appearance of the SA-2 sites. For months, the President and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, had been conducting “back channel” discussions with the Kremlin through several trusted Soviet representatives in Washington. These had assured the brothers that the USSR would never deploy strategic offensive weapons to Cuba, and that only defensive conventional weapons would be shipped – and the Kennedys believed them. Unfortunately, so did Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, who collectively controlled U.S. military, foreign, and national security policy. The element of the Soviet maskirovka intended for Kennedy’s inner circle had worked, and would continue to do so for weeks.

The most immediate effect of the SA-2 discovery was the Kennedy Administration’s cancellation of further U-2 overflights of Cuba. The fear was a repeat of the 1960 shootdown over the USSR, which had severe repercussions for the U.S. government at the time. Only credible evidence of offensive strategic weaponry being shipped by the Soviets to Cuba would lift the overflight embargo.

The most immediate effect of the SA-2 discovery was the Kennedy Administration’s cancellation of further U-2 overflights of Cuba. The fear was a repeat of the 1960 shootdown over the USSR, which had severe repercussions for the U.S. government at the time. Only credible evidence of offensive strategic weaponry being shipped by the Soviets to Cuba would lift the overflight embargo. Five more “peripheral” U-2 flights were flown over the next six weeks, and located additional SA-2 sites and the crates for the MiG-21s arriving, but could not see deeper inland. The Kennedy Administration had chosen to blind its best “eyes” for penetrating the Anadyr Maskirovka just when the evidence they needed to see was about to arrive. Nevertheless, the intelligence community continued to look and listen, especially as the second wave of Soviet merchant ships arrived in September.

This all changed on Sept. 28, when a U.S. Navy patrol plane overflew and photographed the Soviet freighter Kasimov, which had ten large crates as deck cargo. An analysis showed the containers to be the kind used to transport Il-28 Beagle jet bombers, which were capable of delivering nuclear gravity bombs.

Il-28 Beagles

One of the photos from a U.S. Navy patrol plane of the Soviet merchant ship Kasimov with a cargo of IL-28 Beagle nuclear-capable bombers in crates on deck that so alarmed U.S. intelligence and military personnel. Photo courtesy of Norman Polmar, John D. Gresham, and Dino Brugioni

Suddenly, a Soviet offensive strategic weapons system headed for Cuba had been confirmed. And though it would take two more weeks to settle the last of the disputes over control of the overflight program and the products derived from the missions, reality had finally set in within the U.S. government. One of the worst intelligence policy failures of the Cold War had been reversed at the last possible moment.

One of the worst intelligence policy failures of the Cold War had been reversed at the last possible moment.

On Saturday night, Oct. 13, Maj. Richard Heyser, USAF, of the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing took off from Edwards Air Force Base (AFB), Calif., in a “borrowed” CIA U-2F (Mission #3101) repainted in military markings. Just past daybreak, Heyser flew southwest over the Gulf of Mexico, before turning north to make a south-to-north pass over western Cuba, where targeting analysis of the pattern of SA-2 sites indicated a probable ballistic missile buildup. He then landed at McCoy AFB near Orlando, Fla., and the film from the main and tracker cameras was sent to NPIC and Strategic Air Command (SAC) Headquarters at Offutt AFB near Omaha, Neb.

Medium Range Ballistic Missile Site

U-2 photography of a medium range ballistic missile site under construction in Cuba. U-2 photos of MRBM sites, along with the photo intelligence of Soviet ships with their deck cargoes, revealed just how massive and threatening the USSR’s Operation Anadyr really was. Photo courtesy of Norman Polmar, John D. Gresham, and Dino Brugioni

It took the night of Oct. 14/15 and most of the following day, but by the end of the day both SAC and NPIC had reached an identical conclusion: the Soviets were deploying an R-12/SS-4 Sandal Medium Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) Regiment in western Cuba, and that was what they had seen in just a single swath of U-2 camera film.

Bundy ordered the CIA to brief the Pentagon, White House and other principals in the U.S. government the following morning, Oct. 16, 1962. The “hot” phase of the Cuban Missile Crisis had begun.

Art Lundahl called his superiors at the CIA, who contacted McGeorge Bundy. Bundy ordered the CIA to brief the Pentagon, White House and other principals in the U.S. government the following morning, Oct. 16, 1962. The “hot” phase of the Cuban Missile Crisis had begun.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...