The Cuban Missile Crisis is the closest we came to mutual nuclear Armageddon. But new documents have provided a glimpse at the Soviet troops sent halfway around the world with dozens of nuclear warheads in tow.
Not surprisingly, the Red Army’s mission during those stressful days in 1962 was pretty arduous. Bad intelligence, planning, awful tropical weather and drunkenness were just a few of the problems faced by the nuclear missileers. All of this—and more—were detailed in reports written by senior Soviet missile officers and obtained this month by the National Security Archive at George Washington University.
The reports are “understated but pointed condemnation of the Soviet General Staff’s planning of the Cuban operation,” the National Security Archive’s authors write.
One of these Soviet officers was Maj. Gen. Igor Statsenko, the commander of the 51st Missile Division and chief of Moscow’s Cuba element. Statsenko landed as part of an advance reconnaissance unit on July 12, and was tasked with reconnoitering, on foot, sites for the division’s R-12 and R-14 missiles and their accompanying nuclear warheads.
The R-14 missiles—which boast a much longer range—did not arrive in Cuba before the blockade cut off Soviet reinforcements.
The reconnaissance units did complete their mission on time, but at once, the division ran into trouble. There was a lack of Spanish language interpreters. Locations in central Cuba that were to base missile units had to be changed after the troops discovered “highly broken terrain, poor vegetation and a poorly developed road network,” Statsenko wrote in his report, dated in December 1962, two months after the missile crisis ended.
The roads weren't solid enough to support military trucks and excavating through rocky terrain was ruled out. Aquifers—the troops needed water—were too deep. “Counterrevolutionary gangs are active in the area,” he added.
Another problem was housing troops.
Cuban ground is heavily rocky, with a thin layer of red dirt on top of it, making it difficult to build dirt bunkers. As they landed in the country during the rainy season—on top of the Cuban humidity—building dugouts into the ground meant living in a swamp. Rain delayed construction at the missile sites. And to keep troops dry, the Soviets constructed pronounced tent cities highly visible for American U-2 reconnaissance flights.
The humidity even affected the nuclear warheads. “Humidity was always high, above 80 percent,” Statsenko wrote.
This had the effect of impairing “the physical tuning of the nuclear device, reducing the warranty period of its operation,” he added. The solution to this problem was surprisingly simple: air conditioners and ice used to store food and drinks were brought in to cool the warheads.
Then there was the booze. “The vast majority of the officers and sergeants and soldiers carried out the special government task with a high sense of responsibility and showed exceptional organization and discipline,” Statsenko wrote. But one colonel was sacked after he “engaged in drinking, cronyism and showed confusion and indecisiveness.”
Another regiment lost a lieutenant and a corporal—both killed during a crane accident. The regiment’s commander was replaced after troops under his command engaged in “14 unauthorized absences, cases of failure to follow orders and drunkenness.” Another regiment inadvertently killed a Cuban driver in a fiery collision with a military vehicle.
Despite this, the Soviets did accomplish their mission: deploy intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Cuba. They also learned some important lessons.
“The entire operation should have been preceded by at least a minimal introduction to and study of the economic potential of the state, the local physiographic conditions and military-political situation in the country by the people who were supposed to carry out this task,” Statsenko concluded.
We are lucky, though, that the Red Army didn’t come around to applying those lessons in the future.