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Cuban Missile Crisis 50th Anniversary: Operation Anadyr

Part 4 of a series on the anniversary of the October 1962 confrontation

Operation Anadyr, named after a river in Far Eastern Russia, was the largest out-of-area deployment ever made by the Soviets, and a daunting enterprise for them by 1961 standards. Anadyr was a daring plan to restore the U.S./USSR strategic weapons balance, hold back the Stalinist elements in the Soviet Union, and provide protection for Castro’s Cuba against the Americans, even though the Soviet Union lacked a significant surface fleet, had little experience in tropical operations, and had hobbled nuclear submarine and strategic weapons programs. The reasons for Nikita Khrushchev’s daring, and political willingness to go “all in” with Anadyr could be explained by the balance of strategic forces in the fall of 1962.

  •  The United States had 142 Atlas, 62 Titan, and 20 Minuteman I intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the latter being deployed in hardened silos, against the Soviet Union’s six R-7/SS-6 Sapwoods, one R-26/SS-8 Sasin, and 17 R-16/SS-7 Saddler ICBMs.
  • The U.S. and U.K. also had 60 Thor intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) based in Great Britain, and the U.S. Air Force had 62 Jupiter medium range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) based in Italy and Turkey, while the U.S.S.R. had no comparable deployed force. Operation Anadyr aimed to alter that balance.
  • The U.S. Navy had 32 to 64 nuclear-tipped Polaris submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) at sea aboard two to four nuclear ballistic missile submarines, as well as six nuclear-armed Regulus I cruise missiles aboard two cruise missile submarines. Against this the Soviet navy had nothing, because its nuclear ballistic missile and cruise missile submarines were all in port for inspection and overhaul after submarine K-19’s reactor accident.
  • Finally, the U.S. Navy could deploy 220 nuclear-capable A-1 Skyraider, A-3 Skywarrior, A-4 Skyhawk, and A-5 Vigilante aircraft from five forward-deployed aircraft carriers, while the Soviet navy had no carriers at all.

The extreme imbalance above only reflects raw numbers of the strategic balance in 1962. In fact, the ratio of U.S./USSR warheads/bombs likely to be successfully delivered (in spite of air defenses), quicker launch/response times, and superior defense suppression/penetration aids meant that the United States would almost certainly prevail in any nuclear exchange.

Medium Range Ballistic Missiles

A declassified document depicting the estimated reach of Soviet MRBMs should they have been deployed in Cuba. Photo courtesy of Norman Polmar, John D. Gresham, and Dino Brugioni

Operation Anadyr’s central objective was to deliver, deploy, and support the delivery of five MRBM/IRBM regiments (eight launchers and 12 missiles per regiment, equipped with 1 megaton (MT) warheads) drawn from the 43rd Rocket Army, part of the Soviet missile belt in the Western USSR, as well as accompanying forces to protect and support the missile regiments. The forces included:

  • 79th, 191st, and 664th Missile Regiments (R-12/SS-4 Sandal MRBMs)
  • 665th and 668th Missile Regiments (R-14/SS-5 Skean IRBMs)
  • 10th and 11th Air Defense Divisions, each with 12 V-75 Divina/SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries (six launchers and 12 missiles per battery)
  • 40 MiG-21 F-13/Fishbed-C interceptors of the 32nd Fighter Aviation Regiment
  • 23 Il-28 Beagle light jet bombers (six equipped to drop 12 kiloton (KT) 407N nuclear gravity bombs)
  • A squadron of 33 Mil-4 helicopters for liaison/command support
  • 11 An-2 Colt/An-24 light transports
  • Two regiments of FKR-1/SSC-2a cruise missiles (each with eight mobile launchers and 40 missiles), equipped with 12 KT warheads.
  • Four Motor Rifle Regiments (MRRs – the 74th, 106th, 134th, and 146th) equipped with T-55 or T-34/85 tanks, armored personnel carriers (APCs), heavy artillery/field guns, and three Luna/FROG nuclear rocket artillery batteries (two launchers per battery, each with four rockets

The Soviet navy originally had grand plans for supporting Anadyr, including sending a force of cruisers, destroyers, and nuclear submarines to be based in Cuba. However, concerns about operating so far from home for extended periods, and the need to inspect/refurbish every nuclear submarine in the fleet following the K-19 disaster in 1961, meant the Soviet fleet’s contributions to Khrushchev’s Cuban deployment were fairly modest. In the end they only deployed a flotilla of six Project 183R/Komar-class fast attack craft (each with two P-15 Termit/SS-N-2 Styx ASCMs), an anti-ship missile regiment with six KS-1 Sopka/SSC-2b Samlet, and a squadron of 33 Il-28 Beagle light bombers equipped for torpedo attack and minelaying (including four nuclear mines). They also sent the 69th Torpedo Submarine Brigade, composed of four Project 641/Foxtrot-class diesel-electric attack submarines, each armed with 22 torpedoes (including one with a 15 KT nuclear warhead).

Since the deployment ran through the summer months, below decks temperatures often ran over 100°F, and fresh water supplies ran low. Several personnel of the Anadyr force died during the trips to Cuba, which were generally hellish voyages at best.

The maritime effort to transport the Anadyr JTF was a massive undertaking, consisting of 200 trips by 85 ships from nine ports in just three months. Done under a massive strategic deception plan (Maskirovka), where even the ship’s captains were unaware of their destinations until they had sailed, the merchant ships sailed west under severe operational and communications restrictions. Cargo had to be stowed to limit what might be observed from planes or other ships, and the 50,000 Soviet personnel embarked had to stay below decks during the day. Since the deployment ran through the summer months, below decks temperatures often ran over 100°F, and fresh water supplies ran low. Several personnel of the Anadyr force died during the trips to Cuba, which were generally hellish voyages at best. And through it all, from every direction, the American, NATO, and allied forces watched, photographed, and studied the Anadyr force as it headed West to Cuba.


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