1962 - Cuban Missile Crisis

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The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 served as a pivotal moment in Cold War history. Several events precipitated the crisis. First, the United States placed medium-range ballistic nuclear missiles at bases in Turkey, which threatened the Soviet Union. Second, communist revolutionary Fidel Castro overthrew the pro-U.S. government of Cuba in 1959. Third, the United States government backed a failed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) invasion of Cuba in April 1961 at the Bay of Pigs. After the debacle at the Bay of Pigs, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, frustrated at the inability of the Soviet Union to match the nuclear arsenal of the United States and upset by the presence of nuclear missiles in Turkey, decided to increase Soviet military support to Cuba to place pressure on the United States. In addition to bolstering the Castro regime, in August 1962 Khrushchev sought to equalize the strategic balance by building intermediate range and medium range ballistic missile sites in Cuba. With that country located only 90 miles from Florida, once the missile sites were operational they could strike almost any major city in the continental United States and Canada. When U.S. intelligence agencies became aware of the construction activity, confirmation was needed. As a result the Strategic Air Command (SAC) tasked two officers from the 4080th Strategic Wing, Majors Richard S. Heyser and Rudolf Anderson, Jr., to fly U-2 reconnaissance aircraft over Cuba to verify the presence of the missile sites. The two aircraft flew over Cuba on October 14 and 15, 1962, and photographs taken from the flights confirmed their construction. On a later mission over the island on October 27, 1962, Maj. Anderson was killed when his U-2 was shot down. In 1964, he posthumously received the Air Force Cross.

On October 21, 1962, the 363d Tactical Reconnaissance Wing deployed RF-101 and RB-66 aircraft to MacDill AFB, Florida, from Shaw AFB, South Carolina. On October 26, the 363d flew its first low-level reconnaissance missions. The wing gathered significant intelligence on the sites over the next three weeks and uncovered the location of IL-28 Soviet bombers and air-to-air and surface-to-air missile sites. During this time, SAC continued U-2 missions to gather more information, maintained nearly sixty nuclear-armed heavy bombers on airborne alert, and placed all of its available intercontinental ballistic missiles on alert to launch at any moment. The command also moved its medium and heavy bombers from the southeast United States to make room for Tactical Air Command (TAC) fighter aircraft, such as F-100s and F-105s. In addition, the Continental Air Defense Command increased the number of air defense sorties flown along the Gulf Coast. Finally, over a two-day period the USAF airlifted approximately 2,000 marines and 1,400 tons of equipment to Naval Air Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

As the United States prepared for a possible aerial attack against Cuba, and perhaps the Soviet Union, it also imposed a naval blockade on all military equipment shipped to Cuba. With tensions mounting, President John F. Kennedy, Khrushchev, and their diplomatic and political advisors maneuvered to resolve the crisis. Kennedy sought the removal of all missiles from Cuba. While he privately did not believe a nuclear strike against Cuba was likely because of Soviet retaliation, Kennedy did support a conventional air attack and invasion of the island nation should the Soviets fail to remove the missiles. While the world hovered on the brink of nuclear war for nearly two weeks, Khrushchev finally promised to remove the missiles if the United States would lift the blockade and pledge not to invade Cuba. He then raised the stakes by demanding the United States remove its nuclear-armed PGM-19 Jupiter missiles from Turkey. After much debate, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy met with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and promised to remove the missiles from Turkey. The Soviets accepted the offer and soon began shipping the missiles back to the Soviet Union, bringing the crisis to an end.

Historian Edward T. Russell described the U.S. Air Force response to the Cuban Missile Crisis as "outstanding." As he noted, within a week the USAF had quickly shifted from peacetime status to full combat alert. Strategic Air Command had placed its strategic bombers and missile silos on alert, dispersed other aircraft, and launched U-2 reconnaissance flights, while TAC presence in Florida had increased from 140 fighters to 511 fighters, 72 reconnaissance aircraft, and 40 tankers. Additionally, the Continental Air Defense Command placed an additional 520 aircraft on alert. The USAF response to the Cuban Missile Crisis employed the total force, and Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units made significant contributions. Although Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara acknowledged some lapses, such as the use of 400 obsolete aircraft to accomplish the airlift portion of the operation, and that air defenses in other parts of the country had to be stripped of aircraft to support the southeastern air defense, the USAF response was swift and allowed President Kennedy to withstand the Soviet challenge to the overall strategic balance at the height of the Cold War.

Capt Gregory Ball, USAFR, Ph.D.

For more information see:

"
Cuban Missile Crisis" by Edward T. Russell,  in Short of War: Major USAF Contingency Operations 1947-1997.

This study by Air Force Historical Liaison Office, was published shortly after the incident:  "
The Air Force Response to the Cuban Missile Crisis".

The article by John T. Correll: "Airpower and the Cuban Missile Crisis",  from Air Force Magazine, August 2005.

For additional information see the National Museum of the USAF.