The Soviet Navy’s Caribbean Outpost

October 24, 2012 12:03 PM - Updated: February 5, 2013 9:07 PM

Naval History Magazine, October 2012

After ‘defeat’ in 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis forestalled a massive Soviet military buildup in the island nation, Moscow relied on its navy to re-establish its political-military presence there.

The Cuban Missile Crisis often is remembered in the context of U.S. naval forces conducting a quarantine to prevent Soviet strategic missiles from being transported to the island nation. A critical factor during the blockade was the presence in the area of several Soviet Foxtrot (Project 641)–class dieselelectric submarines.

Former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy later wrote of the concern that his brother President John F. Kennedy had for those submarines during the tense crisis: “Then came the disturbing Navy report that a Russian submarine had moved into position between the two ships. . . . I think these few minutes were the time of gravest concern for the President. . . . I heard [him] say: ‘Isn’t there some way we can avoid having our first exchange with a Russian submarine—almost anything but that?’” 1

RIA Novosti - After a long post-missile-crisis hiatus, the Soviet navy, in the form of a task force, visited Cuba during the summer of 1969. The strengthening of naval and military ties between Cuba and the Soviet Union no doubt pleased Prime Minister Fidel Castro, pictured with some of the task force’s officers and sailors.
RIA Novosti – After a long post-missile-crisis hiatus, the Soviet navy, in the form of a task force, visited Cuba during the summer of 1969. The strengthening of naval and military ties between Cuba and the Soviet Union no doubt pleased Prime Minister Fidel Castro, pictured with some of the task force’s officers and sailors.

Those few boats were to have been the precursor of a massive naval force that the Soviets planned to base in Cuba. Operation Anadyr—the Soviet codename for the movement of strategic missiles and protective air, ground, and naval forces almost 8,000 miles from the USSR to Cuba—was one of the most remarkable undertakings of the entire Cold War. Earlier, Great Britain, Japan, and the United States had on numerous occasions transported hundreds of thousands of troops and their weapons across oceans and seas, but they were traditional sea powers with large navies and merchant fleets.

The Soviet Union had neither a major surface fleet nor a large merchant marine in 1962. Indeed, its navy did not possess a single ceangoing amphibious or landing ship. Further, beyond military advisers, the USSR had never sent troops great distances by sea. Under these severe limitations, the Soviet Union had begun the massive movement of troops and weapons from its home ports to Cuba. While the Soviet leadership realized that the shipments could not be hidden from the prying eyes of U.S. and other NATO nations’ intelligence services, Kremlin officials believed that their precise contents could be kept secret. Indeed, even after the weapons and troops arrived in Cuba special efforts would be made to keep their numbers and identification secret from Cubans as well as Americans.

Anadyr was, in the Soviet tradition, a combined-arms operation with components of all services integrated into the command structure. Early planning called for a large naval contingent to participate, with surface ships and submarines to be based in Cuban ports. The submarines were to operate off the U.S. Atlantic coast, while surface warships and submarines were to prevent U.S. ships from approaching Cuba to carry out landings and be prepared to carry out a sea blockade of the U.S. base at Guantánamo Bay.

The naval component, under 52-year-old Vice Admiral Georgi S. Abashvili, deputy commander of the Baltic Fleet, would consist of:

  • Surface combatants
  • Submarines and support ships
  • A mine-torpedo aircraft regiment
  • A coastal defense missile regiment
  • Approximately 6,000 personnel ashore in Cuba and afloat.

Two Sverdlov -class gun cruisers, two guidedmissile destroyers, and two gun-armed destroyers were to make up the surface component. Although modern, graceful warships, the Sverdlovs had 5.9-inch main-gun batteries, making them inferior to the 8-inch-gun cruisers of the U.S. Navy. Neither the cruisers nor the destroyers had modern antiaircraft weapons, thus they could be expected to fall easy victim to U.S. carrier aircraft. (The two missile destroyers were armed with antiship missiles.) A naval tanker would accompany the six surface combatants.
A dozen Komar missile boats were being sent to Cuba beginning in August 1962, apparently for Cuban manning (with Soviet advisers). The Soviet force that would be based in-country would also include Komars. Significantly, the boats would each have two SS-N-2 Styx antiship missiles. Five years later, Styx missiles fired by Egyptian Komar crews from within a harbor sank the Israeli destroyer Eilat —the first use of surface-to-surface missiles in combat. With a range up to 25 miles, the Styx was a weapon against which U.S. warships had no effective defense in 1962. Depending on the tactical situation, they could be highly effective against U.S. transports and landing ships approaching for an invasion of Cuba.

The submarines would include seven Golf (Project 629)–class diesel-electric submarines (SSBs), each armed with three short-range ballistic missiles fitted with one-megaton nuclear warheads. There also would be four Foxtrot-class subs armed with torpedoes. Probably one torpedo in each submarine would have a nuclear warhead. The four Foxtrot subs—which would be in the Caribbean area during the missile crisis—departed Sayda Bay, near Murmansk, on 1 October and were to be based at the Cuban port of Mariel. Two submarine tenders would be deployed to Cuba to provide support for the 11 subs.
No Soviet nuclear-propelled submarines were being sent to Cuba in 1962, although the USSR had 22 nuclear boats in service at the time. Admiral Igor Kasatonov later wrote that Admiral S. G. Gorshkov, Soviet navy commander-inchief, and Admiral V. A. Kasatonov, the Northern Fleet commander, “were unanimous on the subject that it was impossible to send to Cuba our nuclear submarines because of their unreliable technical condition. Relatively long voyages of the Soviet nuclear submarines were only begun in 1962. [There] was no assurance in reliability of their nuclear plants.” 2

Interestingly, when the initial Operation Anadyr plans were being discussed, a proposal to transport nuclear warheads for land-based ballistic missiles to Cuba in submarines or military aircraft was rejected. Submarine transport would be too awkward, and air transport too vulnerable. Thus, the 158 nuclear warheads that reached Cuba were transported in the Soviet merchant ships Indigirka and Alexandrovsk.

The Soviet navy also was to provide a mine-torpedo aviation regiment of 33 Il-28 (Beagle) aircraft, to join a large contingent of Soviet air force planes. The navy bombers were to be provided with 150 RAT-52 antiship torpedoes and 150 air-dropped mines. The naval air unit was to carry out offshore patrols and attack U.S. ships in the event of an invasion of Cuba.
Finally, the navy planned to send a regiment of Sopka (SSC-2b Samlet) land-based antiship missiles for coastal defense. Four launchers (12 missiles) would be emplaced near Havana, two launchers (6 missiles) at Banes, and two launchers (6 missiles) on the southern coast, at Cienfuegos. The Samlets had a range of about 50 miles.

One other naval weapon was considered in early discussions of Anadyr. The navy at one point planned to send four nuclear mines to Cuba. These were to be planted offshore, to stop American submarines from attacking the Soviet ships in their anchorages. Significantly, the USSR was the only nation to develop nuclear mines during the Cold War. The mine proposal was not pursued.

The ambitious Soviet plans for Operation Anadyr began to go awry when CIA- and then Air Force–piloted U-2 spy planes detected signs that strategic (ballistic) missiles were eing emplaced in Cuba. The high-altitude flights were soon followed Navy and Marine Corps pilots in RF-8A Crusaders and Air Force pilots in RF-101 Voodoos flying treetop-level photo reconnaissance missions.
The USSR halted arms shipments to Cuba after President Kennedy revealed the Soviet buildup and duplicity on 22 October. No Soviet-flag merchant ships would run the subsequent U.S. blockade, and the planned deployment of ballistic-missile submarines and surface warships to Cuba was aborted. The only Soviet warships to reach the Caribbean area were the four Foxtrot submarines, and they did not interfere with the blockade.

Subsequently, the Soviet navy’s land-based missiles and Il-28 aircraft—none of which had been assembled—were removed from Cuba. But a significant naval presence did continue there. As early as 1962 the Soviets had established a massive, 28-square-mile signals intelligence (SIGINT) facility at Lourdes, near Havana. Manned by more than 2,000 military, naval, and civilian technicians, Lourdes became the largest and most important SIGINT station outside the Soviet Union; when the U.S. government publicly revealed its presence in March 1985, it was called the most sophisticated Soviet “spy base” outside the Eastern Bloc. The facility was credited with being able to monitor telephone conversations in the southeastern United States; space activities at Cape Canaveral, Florida; and transmissions by U.S. commercial and military satellites.

In addition to the Lourdes station, after removal of the strategic (ballistic) missiles and bombers, the Soviets kept a combat brigade of 2,800 troops in Cuba as well as several thousand military and civilian advisers and technicians. Fighter aircraft, antiaircraft guns and missiles, and the 12 Komar missile craft also remained.

The Kremlin leaders who replaced Nikita Khrushchev—instigator of the Cuban Missile Crisis—wanted to demonstrate their support for Cuba and impress the West with their growing military-political capabilities. Naval forces could do both jobs. In July 1969, as world attention was focused on American astronaut Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon, an eight-ship Soviet task force arrived in Cuba. The missile cruiser, destroyers, and auxiliaries visited local ports and entertained officials and public visitors. Also in the force were two Foxtrot submarines and a November (Project 627)-class nuclear-propelled attack sub (SSN). Although the November did not make a port visit, as did the two conventional submarines, she was the first Soviet “nuke” to enter the Caribbean.
A further Soviet-Cuban demonstration came on 18 April 1970, when two navy Tu-20 Bear-D reconnaissance/missiletargeting aircraft landed at Havana’s José Martí Airport. The event marked the first time the giant four-engine aircraft had landed outside the Soviet Bloc. According to a CIA appraisal of the remarkable reconnaissance aircraft:

The Bear D represents an efficient combination of performance capabilities . . . available sensors . . . and operational flexibility which is unique among Soviet reconnaissance platforms. The Bear D is a highly adaptable multimission aircraft configured to perform peacetime missions of ocean surveillance, intelligence collection, aid in search and rescue, and support the Soviet space program. 4

With a combat radius of more than 3,000 nautical miles plus an ability to loiter in a target area for three hours, Bear aircraft operating from Cuba could bring the entire Caribbean as well as most of the South Atlantic under various forms of Soviet surveillance.

Pairs of Bear-Ds would continue flying to Cuba on a periodic basis, the naval aircraft taking off from the Kola Peninsula on a direct flight, or stopping en route in Ghana (or, after 1977, Angola). They were later joined by pairs of Tu-142 Bear-F antisubmarine aircraft After arrival, the Bears usually conducted local training/surveillance missions for two to four weeks. And these planes often flew along the U.S. Atlantic coast en route to and from Cuba. A special facility for supporting eight of the -Ds and -Fs was established at a military facility, San Antonio de los Baños Airfield.

Soviet naval-ship visits to Cuba meanwhile continued. The second, in May 1970, included two Foxtrot subs and, again, a nuclear-propelled submarine—an Echo II (Project 675)–class cruise-missile sub (SSGN). Whereas nuclear torpedoes were carried in most if not all Soviet combat submarines, SSGNs had nuclear as well as conventional antiship missiles.

All three submarines and an accompanying sub tender put into the port of Cienfuegos. The arrival of a nuclear submarine with nuclear issiles in a Cuban port was a significant escalation of the Soviet naval presence. But only three months later, the third Soviet naval visit to Cuban waters occurred at Cienfuegos. It included a submarine tender, an oiler, and, significantly, a landing ship carrying two barges identified as support craft for nuclear-propelled submarines. The tender remained for two weeks and then sailed to the port of Mariel, 25 miles west of Havana. The barges stayed at Cienfuegos, where construction of shore facilities for servicing naval ships continued.

After several members of Congress began questioning the Nixon administration about the enhanced Soviet presence 90 miles south of the United States, the White House issued a “public warning” in late September. According to the statement, the U.S. government was watching the situation “very closely,” and it was being viewed with the “utmost seriousness.” There was no subsequent official U.S. reaction.

The next task force that visited Cuba, in February 1971, included a November-class SSN that was serviced at Cienfuegos by an accompanying tender. In May an Echo II SSGN was serviced by a submarine tender at the port of Nipe on the northeastern coast. A year later, a Golf II SSB—with three nuclear ballistic missiles—entered Nipe, accompanied by a destroyer and submarine tender. Thus, Soviet strategic missiles had returned to Cuba. Soviet SSB/ SSBNs had not previously called at any ports outside of the Soviet Union. Significantly, the missile submarine’s arrival took place as President Richard Nixon flew into Moscow for a state visit and the Vietnam conflict was in American newspaper headlines. Again, the escalation of Soviet activity in Cuba came as American attention was focused elsewhere.

The U.S. government voiced no protest against the Golf SSB visit, but a Department of Defense official stated: “This looks like steady escalation. All that’s left now is for them to bring in a nuclear sub with ballistic missiles and they’ll be crowding the so-called ‘understanding’ between us.” In an article about the buildup, U.S. Coast Guard Ensign Christopher Abel astutely observed, “From that point on, the story of the Soviet Navy in the Caribbean became a tale of consistent gains made in small, systematic steps with U.S. acquiescence.” 6

Additional Echo II SSGN and Golf SSB port visits followed, as did visits by diesel attack submarines and surface combatants. A 1984 Soviet deployment to the Caribbean included the helicopter carrier–missile cruiser Leningrad , at the time one of the two largest warships in the Soviet navy. She too visited Cuba. Soviet warship visits through the end of the Cold War averaged more than one per year with more ship visits to the Caribbean island than to any other country outside the Soviet Bloc. For most of this period, the task-force visits averaged about 45 days.

Beyond ship and aircraft operations, the Soviet regime supported Cuba with modern arms—advanced fighter aircraft, air-defense missiles, commandand-control equipment, tanks, and warships. Beginning in the late 1970s, the Cuban navy received

  • 3 Foxtrot-class submarines
  • 2 Koni-class light frigates
  • 11 Osa-class missile boats (each with four advanced Styx missiles)
  • 9 Turya-class hydrofoil torpedo boats
  • Landing and utility craft

In addition to military equipment, Cuba depended on the Soviet Union for military training, financial support, and, especially, petroleum. As the Soviet Union began to implode in 1990 and 1991, these various forms of assistance began to dry up, and ship and aircraft visits ceased. With fuel shipments cut back, Cuban military training and operations were drastically reduced, and the country’s overall economy began to suffer. But some Soviet military presence remained in Cuba. In 1990 the CIA stated:

The [Lourdes] facility provides Moscow a wide range of intelligence collection capabilities, most of which cannot be duplicated. The Soviets continue to upgrade their collection capabilities at this facility, indicating at the minimum that top military planners presently have no plans to reduce their commitment there. 7

Specific Havana-Moscow agreements have kept the Lourdes station operating for the benefit of Russian intelligence services. But most other Soviet activities in Cuba rapidly became a memory.

Then, in the first significant non-Western warship visit to the Caribbean since the December 1991 demise of the Soviet Union, a Russian navy squadron including the nuclear-propelled missile cruiser Petr Veliky , arrived for a formal visit to Venezuela on 25 November 2008. At the time, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was making a state visit to the South American country. The cruiser was the last of four Kirov -class battle cruisers; at 28,000 tons displacement, these are the world’s largest warships except for aircraft carriers. The Russian squadron conducted a combined exercise with the Venezuelan navy on 1–2 December, after which the large antisubmarine destroyer Admiral Chabanenko made brief port calls in Panama and Nicaragua before visiting Havana from 19–23 December.

As in the Soviet era, the destroyer, along with a fleet tug, was welcomed with much ceremony: A 21-gun salute was fired from the old Spanish fort of San Carlos de la Caba, and the national anthems of Cuba and Russia resounded across the bay. Vice Admiral Vladimir I. Koraliov, acting commander of the Russian Northern Fleet, was embarked in the Admiral Chabanenko .

These Caribbean ship visits took place during a period of high-level talks in Moscow and Havana, as Russian and Cuban leaders sought new agreements for economic and military support of the island nation. A “strategic triangle” is being formed, with Venezuela now providing oil to Cuba. While the tempo of Russian naval ship and air activities in the Caribbean has not reached the level of that of the Cold War, its resumption is significant. Admiral Eduard Baltin, a former commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, recently said that the Caribbean operations mean “Russia is returning to the state in its power and international relations which it, regrettably, lost at the end of the last century.”

1. Robert F. Kennedy, Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis (NewYork: W. W. Norton, 1969), 69–70. 
2. ADM Igor Kasatonov, Soviet Navy (Ret.), Fleet Goes Out to the Ocean: Story of Fleet Admiral V. A. Kasatonov (St. Petersburg: Astra-Luxe, 1995), 268. 
3. The Royal Navy initiated development of nuclear mines to be carried by X-craft midget submarines into Soviet ports (Operation Cudgel); however, the project was halted before the mines were produced. 
4. Central Intelligence Agency, The Significance of Soviet TU-95 Bear D Deployments in West Africa (April 1977), 4. 
5. Benjamin Weilles, “Soviet Submarine With Missiles Reported in Cuba,” The New York Times , 5 May 1972, 4. 
6. ENS Christopher A. Abel, USCG, “A Breach in the Ramparts,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (July 1980), 49. 
7. Central Intelligence Agency, Prospects for Soviet Military Assistance to Cuba , 7 November 1990, 3.

Norman Polmar

Mr. Polmar, a columnist for Proceedings and Naval History , is author of the two-volume Aircraft Carriers: A History of Carrier Aviation and Its Influence on World Events (2004, 2008).

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