About those nukes in Cuba….

by Alex Wellerstein, published October 25th, 2012

The Cuban Missile Crisis turned 50 this week. If you’re interested in nuclear things you no doubt already know this, given that every organization with a plausible connection to it seems to have done something to commemorate it. It’s kind of amazing, but even after all this time, there are new things to learn — and things we still don’t know.

“November 9, 1962: Low-level photograph of 6 Frog (Luna) missile transporters under a tree at a military camp near Remedios [Cuba]. U.S. photo analysts first spotted these tactical nuclear-capable missiles on October 25, but only in 1992 did U.S. policymakers learn that nuclear warheads for the Lunas were already in Cuba in October 1962. Source: Dino A. Brugioni collection, The National Security Archive.”

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to be in the audience at a talk by Stan Norris and David Rosenberg at the Wilson Center. Stan is, you will recall, the author of the great biography of General Groves, and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ “Nuclear Notebook” series where he and Hans Kristensen give us the definitive estimates for how many nuclear weapons there are in the world at any given time. David has been a major military historian for at least 30 years or so, and has written a number of important articles with awesome titles: “The Origins of Overkill,” “A Smoking Radiating Ruin.”

The talk was on the “Nuclear Order of Battle,” a project Stan has been working on to find out what were the actual nuclear forces available to both the United States and the Soviet Union as the Cuban Missile Crisis was unfolding. (Stan and Hans have an article in the Bulletin which summarizes some of the initial findings, though Stan is working on a much longer piece as well.) David, for his part, talked about the nuclear war planning that was going on at the time. What was the context of the crisis, in terms of thinking about nuclear weapons in the United States? What was American nuclear strategy of the time? How did this contrast with the Soviet side of things?

Range of the missiles that the Soviets were installing in Cuba. A number of working MRBMs (Medium Range Ballistic Missiles) had already been installed.

All of this is a pretty sobering thing to contemplate, obviously. I mean, everybody knows that nuclear war in 1962 would have been, to put it mildly, bad. But thinking through how bad in very concrete terms makes it even more disturbing — it takes it from the realm of “generic existential threat” to images of destroyed American cities.

Both were excellent and said far more than I can summarize justly in such a short space, and the audience questions were great. The audience had a good dollop of DC nukerati in it — among those who asked questions were Bill Burr of the National Security ArchiveSvetlana Savranskaya, who just wrote a book about the Soviet side of the Crisis; Irving Lerch of the American Physical Society, who had been involved with some of the on-the-ground planning for invading Cuba back in the day; Chris Pocock, an historian of the U-2 spy plane; and Thomas Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council. It was hopping, and both Stan and David were pretty great. The whole thing was taped, and you can watch the video of it online.

The basics were such: At the time of the Crisis, the United States could out-nuke the Soviets by a fairly considerable margin. Depending on how you hash out megatonnage vs. delivery vs. success likelihood and whatnot, the US arguably had an advantage of 17-to-1 over the Soviets, though by my reckoning it was probably more like a 10-to-1 advantage in terms of strategic weapons. In one small but important example of this disparity, in 1962 the Soviet Union had only 42 long-range ICBMs ready to launch. The United States had 182, plus some 500 nukes nestled up along the Soviet border in Italy, Germany, Turkey, and other European sites. The Soviets had maybe 160 bomber-delivered weapons to launch, while the US had around 1,600, plus a technological advantage in bomber technology. Plus the US also had several thousands of other nukes stashed around the globe ready to go, as well.

But the Soviets still could have easily killed tens of millions in the United States and in Europe if it had come to it. 42 ICBMs is still a pretty big number — especially when 6 of them are wearing 3 megaton warheads, and the other 36 are ranging from 3 to 6 megatons. Even if the Soviets were being very conservative about those and launching three per target, that’s still 14 American cities you can scratch off the list, ignoring the fallout. Plus whatever else they threw at us. Which would have been completely devastating. In the face of this fact, our 1o-to-1 “superiority” looks pretty pointless.

As Oppenheimer put it in 1953: “Our twenty-thousandth bomb, useful as it may be in filling the vast munitions pipeline of a great war, will not in any deep strategic sense offset their two-thousandth.”

A SS-4 Medium Range Ballistic Missile, of the sort the Soviets were installing had actually installed! on Cuba in 1962.

But there’s more. For many years now we’ve known that in a certain sense, Kennedy’s attempt at nuclear “quarantine” failed in Cuba: the Soviets already had moved working nuclear weapons there. This is discussed a bit in Errol Morris’ Fog of War and I’ve always been a little surprised this hasn’t been more talked about. I’d always imagined, though, that the number of Soviet nukes was low. I always imagined four or five. I mean, if they only had 42 ICBMs in the Soviet Union itself, how many nukes could they have put on the island before we noticed? I mean, wasn’t the Cuban Missile Crisis supposed to be that great example of an Incredible Intelligence Coup in which our super-awesome spy planes tipped us off before things got too awful?

Well, according to Stan, the total number of Soviet nuclear warheads on Cuba was… wait for it158. One hundred and fifty eight nukes. On Cuba. During the Cuban Missile Crisis. Manned by scared Soviet troops and a whole lot of Cubans. Yeah. Let that one sink in. Now, to be fair, most of them were tactical nuclear warheads to be used against U.S. forces in case of invasion (which, by American estimates, would have cost 18,500 American casualties, even if nukes didn’t go flying), and “only” 95 to 100 of those were ready to be used. “Only.” But six to eight SS-4 medium-range ballistic missiles were also there, and also at “operational” status. Those SS-4s could have reached as far north as Washington, D.C., with explosive yields of a little over a megaton each.

Imagine that: the major cities of the South and the lower Eastern Seaboard subjected to at least 8 megatons of yield, with no possibility of defense, with fallout going wherever it may. And that’s just the “regional” problem — there’s still those other ICBMs that Soviets had. Oh, and here’s a fun thing: those Soviet nukes had no negative physical protection — no PALs. Moscow vigorously asserted its authority in terms of actual nuclear use in the region, but if it had come down to it, there would have been little they could have done to stop a local commander from using one. 

What’s shocking about this is that apparently the Americans had no clue. They knew there might be some tactical nukes in Cuba, but chose to ignore the fact. They didn’t know there were strategic weapons there and ready to go. My question to Stan and David was, why didn’t Khrushchev say, in one of his drunken telegraphs, “guys, you’re too late, you can’t do anything about it?” Their response (augmented as well by Svetlana and Bill Burr) was believable: Khrushchev was too afraid of nuclear war, and the Cuba missile base was really only a fraction of what it was meant to be at that point.

Classic Herblock — “Let’s Get a Lock For This Thing!”

The big point that both Stan and David made was that we really shouldn’t see the danger of the Crisis as being carefully delineated by those famous “13 days.” The period of danger stretched out well into November 1962, and those MRBMs weren’t removed until December 1962. Furthermore, Kennedy and Khrushchev both realized that they only had limited control when it came to preventing all-out nuclear war. The military engines were spinning up, and getting them back to a not-hair-trigger state was a non-trivial thing.

The overall conclusion from both was that the Cuban Missile Crisis was even more dangerous than most people realized at the time, and more dangerous than most people know now. Well, that’s a cheery thought, isn’t it?

11 Responses to “About those nukes in Cuba….”

  1. Icepick says:

    I’m curious, does anyone know what the targeting for those Soviet warheads? Presumably some would have been dedicated to DC, but would they have used the others for population centers or militarily important targets? For example, Orlando (a small city at the time) had a SAC base south of town. (It would later become Orlando International Airport.) Wiping out a SAC base within minutes of the start of hostilities might have been more important than hitting a population center, especially with the limited capabilities of the time. Florida was and is covered in military bases: how many of those would have been targeted instead of cities such as Dallas?

    • It’s a great question — the fact that we really don’t know is one of the things that came up a few times at the talk. In the US case, for example, the main nuclear strategy was based around pre-emption — taking out their nukes first. So missile bases and airfields go first. It could be dialed up to “destroy their urban/industrial areas” but that was the last of many possibilities. In the Soviet case, I don’t think we know. Exactly what they would have aimed at, and how close they were to doing any of those things (did their bomber pilots already have their plans worked out, were the planes on the runway?) is still unclear. My recollection is that David said that Soviet nuclear doctrine at the time favored first a pre-emptive strike against the United States — a big salvo — then a strike against Europe and an invasion of Europe. But that doesn’t really tell us too much about where those SS-4s would have been targeted, other than the obvious, like Washington.

      • Icepick says:

        Thank you for the reply.

        I suppose the Russian government hasn’t released any of those old Soviet records so as not to give anything away about their possible current nuclear doctrine. A pity!

  2. Patrick McCray says:

    Nice…I’ll cross reference this in my first blog post which mentions the crisis. Say hi to Tom Cochran for me when you see him. I know him from back in the day…

  3. Ellen Bradbury says:

    What about the missiles in Turkey? Were they really too old? So what we gave up was not very much? BUt looked good and how could the Soviets know?

    • Hi Ellen: Great question. My understanding is that it’s not so much that they were “too old” but that they were planning to be phased out anyway. So in a way, indeed, the U.S. got a really great deal out of it — no missiles in Cuba, in exchange for removing missiles they were already going to remove. And all we had to do for that deal was to almost have a nuclear war!

      • Bill says:

        On the Jupiters, they were seen as obsolete and dangerous (luse or lose 1st strike weapons) and there was a lot of talk about removing them, but JFK had not yet approved any plans,mainly for alliance reasons, e.g. the governments of Turkey and Italy had to be persuaded to accept removal. Phil Nash’s book “the Other Missiles of October” (UNC Press) is a terrific book on the Jupiter problem. Of course, once Kennedy had authorized the secret deal involving the Jupiters persuasion became a secondary concern.

  4. Patrick McCray says:


    Have you looked at Stern’s new book on the the CMC?


  5. […] Crisis was still on-going through early December 1962. The missiles were still there, there were still huge numbers of tactical nuclear weapons on the island, and the military forces of the USA and USSR were still wound up and ready to pounce — nuclear […]

  6. Yes, it’s astonishing. In “The Fog of War”, McNamara said that Castro during a 1992 meeting quoted a total number of 162 warheads, including 90 tactical ones.

  7. […] a discussion of Norris and Kristensen’s accounting of those nukes in Cuba and elsewhere, see my post here. […]