McNair Paper 41, Radical Responses to Radical Regimes: Evaluating Preemptive Counter-Proliferation, May 1995

Institute for National Strategic Studies


McNair Paper Number 41, Radical Responses to Radical Regimes: Evaluating Preemptive Counter-Proliferation, May 1995

The Missile Crisis: An Air Strike Deferred

In October 1962, U.S. intelligence collected evidence that the Soviet Union was clandestinely and rapidly constructing nuclear missile sites on the island of Cuba.

This was the first introduction of non-U.S. atomic arms into the Western Hemisphere, a different kind of nuclear proliferation, the horizontal transfer of pre-existing medium range missiles with nuclear warheads from Eurasia to Cuba where these missiles for the first time would be within range of all U.S. targets from the Atlantic coastline to the Mississippi River. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis is not representative of the kind of preemptive counterforce issues facing the United States and its allies from radical proliferant states today. It was a confrontation, rather, between two major nuclear powers and not a nuclear terrorist or radical state nuclear threat. The primary danger was not only that a few warheads might survive a U.S. strike on missiles in Cuba and a U.S. city might be destroyed in retaliation (Note 71), but rather that the Soviet Union might use its entire homeland retaliatory strike force against many U.S. cities and other targets.

Nevertheless, there are some lessons for those considering preemptive attacks on nuclear forces in the 1962 crisis. Soviet MRBMs in Cuba would have greatly augmented the limited firepower of Soviet ICBMs and strategic bombers in 1961. This move threatened to dramatically alter the prevailing military balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union.

In one swift geographical move, the Soviet Union would have achieved virtual strategic parity with the United States even though they did not then possess an equivalent intercontinental delivery capability.

Until that point, the United States enjoyed a substantial strategic nuclear advantage. With the introduction of Soviet missiles into Cuba, the entire United States east of the Mississippi River was within range of their medium range ballistic systems. Warning times would be cut to five minutes or so, compared to half an hour or longer if ballistic missiles were launched from the USSR. At the time the missile construction was discovered, it was perceived that the United States would become much more vulnerable within the space of just a few more days. (Note 72)

President John F. Kennedy and his crisis advisors considered a number of options to prevent this proliferation of enemy weapons in close proximity of the United States. The options considered by Kennedy's crisis group ranged on the escalation ladder from "doing nothing", to diplomatic protests, to offering to remove U.S. Jupiters from Turkey in exchange for removing Soviet missiles from Cuba, to blockading Cuba, to an air strike against the Soviet missiles in Cuba.

It is instructive that President Kennedy's initial impulse was to destroy the Soviet missiles with an air strike. He was dissuaded from this by fear of escalating the crisis into a central nuclear war, by the fact that a blockade would buy time and yet force the Soviets to react, and by the fact that an air strike could be used if the Soviet failed to back down. But, most importantly, he hesitated to use airpower because the U.S. Tactical Air Command promised that while an American airstike would certainly destroy 90% of Soviet missiles in Cuba, it could not guarantee him that such a strike would destroy all of them. (Note 73) Thus, the airstrike might trigger a Soviet nuclear counterattack by perhaps 10% of Cuban-based MRBMs and by the Strategic Rocket Forces based in the USSR.

Unfortunately, an enemy counterattack putting even one nuclear bomb on one large American city could cause the deaths of more Americans in one day than were killed in four years of fighting Germany and Japan in World War II. (Note 74) Preemptive counter-proliferation strikes against nuclear-armed states had better work completely or they could spell disaster for the initiator.

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