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Document created: 1 September 2007
Air & Space Power Journal - Fall 2007
Charles Tustin Kamps
During October 1962, the world was riveted by the events of the Cuban missile crisis, when the United States and Soviet Union stood on the brink of nuclear war. The crisis could have ended in Armageddon since US forces were preparing two operation plans (OPLAN) that would have pitted the superpowers against each other in direct combat. The United States averted disaster, however, when the Kennedy administration imposed a naval “quarantine” (blockade) on Cuba and negotiated a quid pro quo with the Soviets that removed their missiles from Cuba and ours from Turkey.
Why should we have any interest in plans we never executed 45 years ago? The answer is balance. For a country like ours, with global responsibilities, the next enemy may prove as deadly as the current one—or worse. A sense of balance and perspective to see the long view is just as necessary as correct analysis of today’s fight. In the Cuban missile crisis, Pres. John F. Kennedy had inherited a military optimized for the nuclear mission to the detriment of other capabilities. We found ourselves playing catch-up.
OPLAN 316 envisioned a full invasion of Cuba by Army and Marine units supported by the Navy after Air Force and naval air strikes. The ability to mount such an operation came at some cost. At the low end of the normal priority chain, Army units in the United States lacked everything from major end items to personnel. Similarly embarrassing, the Navy could not supply sufficient amphibious shipping to transport even a modest armored contingent from the Army.
Planners designed OPLAN 312, primarily an Air Force and a Navy carrier operation, with enough flexibility to do anything from engaging individual missile sites to providing air support for OPLAN 316’s ground forces. That, of course, was only part of the Air Force mission. In line with overall priorities, defense and counterstrike against the Soviet Union were paramount. While Air Defense Command (ADC) redeployed 161 nuclear-armed interceptors to 16 dispersal fields within nine hours, one-third of the total ADC force maintained 15-minute alert status. Strategic Air Command, at defense readiness condition two, had one-eighth of its 1,436 bombers on airborne alert while dispersing others and reducing ground-alert times. Some 145 intercontinental ballistic missiles stood on ready alert. Our nuclear force was poised to strike.
By 22 October, Tactical Air Command (TAC) had 511 fighters plus supporting tankers and reconnaissance aircraft deployed to face Cuba on one-hour alert. However, TAC and the Military Air Transport Service had problems. The concentration of aircraft in Florida strained command and support echelons; we faced critical undermanning in security, armaments, and communications; the absence of initial authorization for war-reserve stocks of conventional munitions forced TAC to scrounge; and the lack of airlift assets to support a major airborne drop necessitated the call-up of 24 Reserve squadrons.
Even worse, we exhibited the same naïveté of pre-Vietnam days by expecting fighters to eliminate SA-2 surface-to-air missile sites simply by flying low and employing napalm as well as strafing. The fact that we were off balance for operations against Cuba offers a lesson for the future.
To Learn More . . .
Brugioni, Dino A. Eyeball to Eyeball. Edited by Robert F. McCort. New York: Random House, 1991.
Gribkov, Gen Anatoli I., and Gen William Y. Smith. Operation ANADYR: U.S. and Soviet Generals Recount the Cuban Missile Crisis. Chicago: Edition Q, 1994.
(Additionally, one may access many declassified documents on numerous Internet sites, such as the Digital National Security Archive, http://nsarchive.chadwyck.com/home.do.)
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University
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