Cuban Missile Crisis: Soviet Submarines Attack?

By LtCol Brent Stricker

“It would be well for your government to consider that having your ships and ours, your aircraft and ours, in such proximity is inherently DANGEROUS. Wars have begun that way, Mr. Ambassador.” –Jeffrey Pelt, The Hunt for the Red October

Introduction

The lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis remain relevant today when nuclear powers struggle in crisis and do their best to avoid escalating to conflict. As a prime example, the Russia-Ukraine War has similar parallels to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The United States objected to Soviet missiles in Cuba seeing them as a direct threat to the United States and the Western Hemisphere. Russian President Vladimir Putin provided NATO expansion and “military development of the territories of Ukraine” as a similar existential threat to Russia justifying the invasion of Ukraine. A review of the confrontation between the navies of the Soviet Union and the United States during the crisis may inform the Western powers supporting Ukraine in its current defense against Russia.

Soviet Submarines Bound for Cuba

In addition to its missiles and bombers, the Soviet Union intended to establish a naval base in Cuba. A submarine flotilla was dispatched before the crisis began. Ryurik A. Ketov, the commander of one of these submarines, wrote of his experiences during the crisis. The Soviet Navy made a critical error in sending Foxtrot class diesel submarines to Cuba as these boats were designed for northern latitudes and were required to run on the surface or snorkel to recharge their batteries. Oddly, the Soviet leadership in Moscow seemed unaware that diesel boats, and not nuclear powered submarines which could make the entire trip submerged, were being sent to Cuba. This would lead to confrontations with the U.S. Navy who attempted to force these boats to surface.

To make this confrontation more dangerous, the submarines were each armed with one nuclear tipped torpedo. The Americans were unaware of this, and mistakenly assumed as the Soviet submarines were identified as Foxtrots that they did not have nuclear weapons. The torpedoes also required the voyage be covert, with the boats expected to stay undetected.

The torpedoes were a last-minute addition to the voyage added a week before. The torpedoes were each guarded by a designated officer who slept by it. They were not fully combat ready. The designated officer would prepare the weapon for use and was the only one carrying the keys to load the torpedo. The boat captains were provided vague instructions for the use of the nuclear torpedoes.

As Captain Ryurik Ketov recalled:

“Vice-Admiral A.I. Rassokha He said, ‘Write down when you should use these. . . . In three cases. First, if you get a hole under the water. A hole in your hull. This is the first case. Second, a hole above the water. If you have to come to the surface, and they shoot at you, and you get a hole in your hull. And the third case – when Moscow orders you to use these weapons’. These were our instructions. And then he added, ‘I suggest to you, commanders, that you use the nuclear weapons first, and then you will figure out what to do after that.’”

The crisis began while the flotilla was underway. The Soviet crews were able to monitor U.S. radio broadcasts to keep current with the emerging events. This was how they first learned of Soviet missiles in Cuba and the quarantine to be imposed on Cuba. 

As the flotilla headed south toward the quarantine line, conditions aboard the boats began to deteriorate. The internal temperature of the boats rose. The Foxtrots were designed to operate in northern latitudes and began to experience difficulty as they approached the Caribbean. Captain Ketov noted, “there was an insufficient supply of fresh water for the crew, no air conditioning in the compartments – which would otherwise have facilitated the smooth operation of the boat’s machinery – and most importantly, no one had experience in servicing equipment under such high temperatures.” This became worse as the boats tried to avoid U.S. Navy anti-submarine (ASW) patrols forcing the boats to attempt to recharge using snorkels which were unable to vent the boats with fresh air.

The Kennedy administration was anxious to avoid a misunderstanding when confronting Soviet ships, particularly submarines. Defense Secretary McNamara had the U.S. Navy developing a system to signal the submarines. These signal instructions were provided to the Soviets in a Notice to Mariners (NOTMAR). The surface ships would drop practice depth charges (PDCs) above a submarine and transmit the signal to surface. Submarines were expected to surface with a bearing to the east. The NOTMAR stated the signaling devices were not harmful. The Soviet captains never received the NOTMAR.

The flotilla was soon closing with the U.S. Navy ASW forces. The U.S. Navy was broadcasting in the clear, and at first the Soviets were suspicious. Captain Ketov wrote, “We started to listen to US radio stations, and compared their announcements with US ASW communique´s, as well as with messages from home, we came to believe that these transmissions could be taken into account to determine where and when the ASW ships and planes would be located.” The U.S. Navy was able to locate and track three of the four submarines. When located, PDCs were dropped on the submarines which the Soviets perceived as attacks.

The Soviet crews found themselves in a physically stressful and dangerously perceived environment. They could not know if a war had begun, and the constant explosions and heat were taking their toll. Captain Ketov noted, “My men began fainting from heat stroke, and the increase in humidity started to affect the operating condition of the equipment. The average air temperature inside the submarine rose to 113 degrees Fahrenheit, and up to 144–149 degrees in the engine compartment.” They each had a nuclear torpedo, but no specific instructions on when or if they could use it.

This situation nearly came to a head during the efforts to force the B-59 under Captain Savitsky with flotilla commander Captain Arkhipov aboard. The U.S.S. Beale encountered the submarine at 4:49 p.m. on 29 October 1962 and spent the next four hours signaling her with PDCs and hand grenades. Captain Savitsky was heard to say, “‘Maybe the war has already started up there, while we are doing summersaults here’ Political Officer Valentin Grigorievich, screamed “We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not become the shame of the fleet.’” The nuclear torpedo was not assembled—otherwise flotilla commander Captain Arkhipov might not have been able to convince Savitsky to not fire on the Beale.

The B-59 was eventually forced to surface at 8:59 p.m. due to its low battery levels. The Soviet crew was greeted by a ship’s band playing jazz. This surreal situation might have fit into a scene from Dr. Strangelove.

The B-59 was the closest the crisis came to a nuclear exchange. While the Kennedy administration had attempted to mitigate this with the NOTMAR, the confused situation aboard the submarines and the perceived threat of armed conflict at any moment made war very risky. On the Soviet side, “at least some officers in the Soviet military command thought that it would have been better if the submarines used their weapons rather than allow the US forces to force them to the surface.” The Soviet captains insisted they were never forced by U.S. Navy ASW efforts to surface; their drained batteries required it.

Conclusion

Uncertainty and confusion amongst the Soviet Captains concerning the ASW activities by the U.S. Navy could have led to a nuclear confrontation. Despite the precautions of the NOTMAR to the Soviet Union, this message was never transmitted through bureaucratic channels to submarine commanders. Vague orders on the use of nuclear tipped torpedoes and the heat and confusion might have caused a local commander to launch these weapons, dragging two nuclear powers into an escalating exchange both desperately wanted to avoid.

This potentially escalatory exchange at a pivotal moment in the Cuban Missile Crisis offers a cautionary tale for the continuing conflict in Ukraine. The availability and usability of bureaucratic channels, for example, seems an important starting point not only to ensure messages are received but that communication can even take place. And while uncertainty and confusion were potentially unavoidable in the Cuban Missile Crisis’ near-nuclear exchange, the Kennedy administration’s anxiety to avoid a misunderstanding when confronting Soviet ships might still hold implications for Western powers in their support of Ukraine in the current conflict there.

LtCol Brent Stricker, U.S. Marine Corps, serves as a military professor of international law at the U.S. Naval War College. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy, the Naval War College, or the Department of Defense.

Featured Image: Soviet submarine B-59, forced to the surface by U.S. Naval forces in the Caribbean near Cuba. (Credit: U.S. National Archives)

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