Thursday, 17 March 2016

Kennedy's War
The Cuban Missile War 1962-65

Initial deployments of Soviet equipment and men were performed at night, but once the cat was out of the bag, they were active 24 hours per day.

On October 14 1962, a U2 Spy Plane, piloted by Major Richard Heyser, was on an over-flight of Cuba in response to CIA requests for photos of reported Soviet activity on the island. Amongst the 900 plus photos he took on that mission were a set of images that were interpreted to show SS-4 'Sandal' medium range ballistic missiles. It was the following day before the CIA's photographic interpretation centre made the identification and contacted the Department of Defence regarding the discovery. 

At eight o'clock on the morning of the 16th October, Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara briefed President Kennedy on the discovery. Between that morning and the 28th October the United States came very close to conducting a bombing campaign, followed by an invasion of Cuba. Potentially that could have resulted in war with the Soviet Union, as Soviet personnel would be involved. 

That war could also have resulted in Soviet retaliation, such as occupying West Berlin and closing off all access to it from West Germany. Alternatively a more measured response might have been chosen, such as an air strike on the U.S. missile bases in Turkey, which were a target of equal significance to the Soviets as the bases in Cuba were to the U.S. The worse case scenario and the one most presented by the media to the public, was that there was a danger of a nuclear war.

The eventual resolution of the crisis, which included an undisclosed agreement to remove missiles from Turkey, which was apparently scheduled in any case, is fairly well known. The film Thirteen Days (2000) tells a mostly accurate rendition of events, albeit that it over-emphasises the role of Special Assistant to the President Kenny O'Donnell. This is the official and generally accepted story of the Missile Crisis and has largely remained unquestioned. 

There is however another version of events, which would seem to be backed up by de-classified covert recordings of the meetings of the Executive Committee, or 'Excomm' as it was known, during the crisis. This alternate view of events and the motivation behind them, goes somewhat further back than October 1962. It also paints a far different picture of a president under pressure and not just from the presence of ballistic missiles 90 miles from the U.S. coast.

I have used this version of events as the basis of a 'what-if' scenario where 'wiser heads' do not prevail and President Kennedy does order OPLAN 316/62 - the operational plan prepared for the invasion of Cuba, to be enacted.

Politically Dangerous

While quite dramatic in and of itself, the illustration of numerous subs off the U.S. Coast might have diluted the effect .

President Kennedy had won the 1960 Election by a narrow margin. That he won at all was a testament to the man and his supporters, as it was a hard-fought campaign. In America at the turn of the decade, being a catholic, supporting civil rights, advocating a 'bigger government' than existed previously and being only 43 years old, did not help his image for a significant portion of the electorate.

He had also accused the Eisenhower regime of a number of failings with regard to its 'Cold War' foreign policy against international communism, not least that they could have prevented the communist takeover of Cuba. Kennedy had talked hard when it came to resisting communism and in his first test, the Bay of Pigs invasion, a plan that had been developed by the Eisenhower administration and dumped in his lap, he had been found wanting. That fiasco reflected badly on him personally and was an embarrassment for the U.S.

While the missiles themselves were a danger, they were positioned in highly visible 'soft launch sites' and where wholly above ground. They required three hours preparation for launch and could only be kept in readiness for a few days before needing to be completely overhauled. In short barring a Soviet first strike out of the blue, they could be destroyed at any time the Americans chose. There were submarine-launched missiles that could be deployed far closer to the Continental U.S. and although few in number in 1962, the Soviet inter-continental ballistic missile complement was growing.

The stationing of missiles on Cuba and the establishment of surface to air missile batteries to defend their launch sites, meant that there was a very significant Soviet military presence on Cuba however (far more significant than CIA estimates claimed in fact). This flew in the face of the Monroe Doctrine with regard to its sections on foreign interference in the region. It was this factor rather than the missiles themselves that was the issue for Kennedy.

The election campaign for the 1964 Election was about to begin. Kennedy had failed with the Bay of Pigs, he was channelling funds, material and even U.S. Air Force assets into South Vietnam. Laos was becoming a quagmire, and the end of the 'Berlin Crisis' had seen the Berlin Wall built right in front of the U.S. Army's tanks. Despite U.S. support for the newly independent Congo, things were spiralling out of control there and U.S. support for Israel was alienating Arab states in the Middle East. Correspondingly the U.S. defence budget had increased dramatically.

The presence of Soviet missiles in Cuba, despite being the Soviet tit for tat response for stationing missiles in Germany, Turkey and other locations that surrounded the U.S.S.R., would be quite disastrous for his forthcoming election campaign. Being perceived as 'soft on communism' was bad enough, allowing the missiles to stay would be perceived as rolling over completely. If Kennedy wanted to win in '64, he needed a foreign policy win and this seemed like the opportunity for one.

The Die is Cast

1962 was a boom year for Soviet tourism in Cuba, with some 76,000 'visitors'. The civilian clothing issued to troops earned them the nickname of 'checks'.  

In essence there were only two possible outcomes that might be acceptable to voters, either the Soviets withdrew their missiles, or the U.S. would remove them. The Democrats had an unenviable record of taking the U.S. into wars and achieving a satisfactory outcome without military action, especially given that a Soviet response was almost guaranteed. This response would likely be a similar strike on an equivalent asset, the Jupiter missile sites in Turkey for example, or could be a major show of strength, possibly the occupation of West Berlin, or worse case scenario, the invasion of Western Europe.

From the Soviet perspective the whole thing was a gamble and came from a belief that Kennedy would back down. The CIA and other intelligence agencies had created a belief in the beginning of a 'Missile Gap' with the Soviets ahead, but the Soviets knew the true picture. They had just 3300 nuclear weapons of various types, of which less than fifty were inter-continental ballistic missiles. The U.S. had over 26,000, with almost 200 ICBMS. The Soviets had better odds if a conflict remained conventional, but there was no certainty that it would.  

OPLAN 316-62

The majority of 'peaceniks' were ordinary citizens,
but American communists and Soviet 'sleeper' agents 
were also active in motivating the peace movement.

The U.S. had two operational plans for war with Cuba. The first was limited to air strikes and the second added an invasion by the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marines. With no guarantees that all of the missile sites had been identified and therefore a total knockout could also not be guaranteed, the latter option was chosen. The preparations for the largest invasion since the D-Day landings were immediately begun and the President informed the nation of events.

The U.S. assessment of what they would face was seriously underestimated however. While they had quite accurate intelligence on the Cuban Military, they laboured under the belief that ordinary Cubans wanted nothing more than to be freed from the communist yoke. While this may have been partly true, anti-American sentiment had reached an all-time high following the Bay of Pigs and the Castro Regime's approval rating had also never been higher. An invasion by the Yanquis would actually solidify support behind Castro, rather than weaken it. 

The strength of Soviet forces had also been underestimated by 75% and it had not been realised that the Motorised Rifle Regiments themselves were first-line troops from the Leningrad District. The most significant intelligence failure was that the deployment of anti-shipping cruise missile units had not been detected whatsoever. The Soviet air presence was the weakest element of their forces however and even when combined with the fledgling Cuban Air Force, would be no match for the air power gathered by the U.S.

Even presuming the Soviets did not actually use their cruise missiles against the invasion fleet, the weight of forces the U.S. could bring to bear was limited initially. The Army of 1962 did not have the transport ships of 1944. The Patton Tanks did not fit into their transports unless the commander's cupola was removed and so would need to be landed and have them re-fitted before they were ready for action. With the exception of the vehicles belonging to the US Marines, there would be no American tanks on Cuba until ten days after the invasion began.

While U.S. air power would compensate for this to an extent, both the Soviets and Cubans were masters of camouflage and had orders to disperse and operate as 'partisans' if the invasion could not be repulsed. With no outside help the Cubans had successfully prosecuted a guerrilla war during their revolution and here was no reason to suppose they could not fight one again against the Americans. As a whole the situation might have led to Vietnam being subsequently described as 'another Cuba'.

Wargaming The 'Missile War'

U.S. Marines being despatched as reinforcements for Guantanamo Bay, board their troop carrier 1962. 

The scenario offers both a conventional warfare scenario in its early part, using the full U.S. and Soviet Bloc inventory of the time and a guerilla warfare component in its later stages. The nature of the terrain over much of Cuba largely restricts engagements to company level and below. Much of the equipment used is represented at most popular scales, but suitable figures are a problem in 28mm unless you are willing to perform some major conversions of existing figures, or are willing to overlook some details.

In terms of rules Chain of Command (Too Fat Lardies) are my preference, but vehicle details and rule updates for a small amount of Post-WWII technology will be required. Force lists will naturally be required and I will be producing those in due course.


  1. An excellent post.

    Not sure if your aware of this book J..."Fires of October" by Blaine Pardo.

    Looks very good.

    ...and who makes 28mm figures?

    ...and what are the likely forces engaged, equipments...and perhaps versatility to use minis for this period in other theatres??

    ...a post to flesh those details out would be useful 😉


  2. Thanks and yes I have the Fires of October and can certainly recommend it as a far more realistic assessment of the U.S.'s capabilities to invade Cuba than the normal 'appears by magic' accounts out there.

    In the queue for future development are the respective unit organisations and equipment, which are actually readily available in various field manuals in any case.

    A post about what is available in 28mm would be a short one. Most of the vehicles are available, but in terms of figures there is nothing much.

    Brigade Games have some 'Federal Defence Force' troops in their Atomic Cafe range, which work for U.S. Army with Garands and a BAR, but there is little variety. Nothing out there with M14 and M60s and the Vietnam-era figures have the somewhat baggy jungle fatigues and a more 'relaxed' attitude to dress than would exist in 1962.

    The old Mongrel Range had 'Congo' mercenaries which would work for some Cuban regulars, but the Militia and Soviets have no easy proxies.

    In all it's a long-term project I want to chip away at over time, but until somebody out there brings out figures vaguely suitable, it's destined to never see actuality as a real project.

  3. I guess thats kind of a shame but it also shines a light on a 'hole' for prospective 28mm sculptors.

    What do you reckon would be the minimum figures to get a good platoon based system to work.

    Riflemen x 8 types
    LMG team
    Mortar team

    ..about 12 figures for each force type? Are there any substitutes for Soviets of this time? Are the US forces more Korean era than 'nam era in look for the invasion you think?

    ...the above each for the USA, Cuban and Russian forces?

    ..a usable wish list would be worth pencilling out.

    1. Well the Soviets had the WWII uniform with 'AK47' era pouches, as opposed to the '70s style uniform, but if you're not too picky they would pass muster.

      The U.S. 'look' was combat boots and OG fatigues that were somewhat closer fitting than the Vietnam fatigues... but passable. The first U.S. ground troops deployed to SVN in '65 would be identical to them.

      In '62 there was more of a variation in weapons though, as they were transitioning between types. They were a mix of troops with the usual range of WWII weapons (M3s had replaced Thompsons though), or the new style M14, M14A1, M79 GL and M60 GPMG, or a mix of the two; M14 rifles but M1919 Brownings as the Platoon MG for example.

      The few Cuban regulars had FNs and FN MAGs, WWII U.S. webbing with BAR pouches for the FNs and U.S. M1 or British 'airborne' helmets.

      Their militia were a real CF though, with WWII U.S. types, Czech rifles and SMGs, FNs and a variety of berets, hats and whatever.

      I'm currently beavering away on SCW atm, but I will be returning to this in due course...

  4. Good info J.

    SCW duty sounds good 👍👍