Sixty-fifth Chapter in a Series Chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
Castro Announces “Fishing Port” Agreement
On September 25, 1962, Premier Fidel Castro announced that the Soviet Union and Cuba had agreed to build a fishing port in Cuba.
The news elicited angry denunciations from Congress. Defense Department and State Department officials told reporters that they were concerned that the scheme was intended to mask a Soviet naval base in Cuba.
State and Defense had nailed it: the “fishing port” was obviously Soviet maskirovka.
Cuba’s Geo-political significance
When one thinks how close Cuba is to Cape Canaveral (today’s “The John F. Kennedy Space Center”), the Panama Canal, and U.S. military bases in the southeastern United States; and if we factor in Cuba’s position relative to the Windward Channel and other passages through the Bahamas; the two approaches to the Gulf of Mexico (the Florida Straits and the Yucatan Channel); and the oil fields of Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela—the intelligence and military advantages to the Soviets of a “fishing port” in Cuba are obvious.
During the 1950s and 1960s large Soviet fishing fleets routinely trawled along the U.S. continental shelf as well as on the Grand Banks.
The USSR invariably sent a number of specialized trawlers to sea with their fishing fleets. While these vessels’ decks were bare of fishing gear, their superstructures bristled with antennae designed to vacuum up electronic signals from U.S. Navy and other military units. These were the infamous ELINT (electronic intelligence) trawlers so well known to the U.S. Navy’s patrol squadrons and destroyers.
Any “fishing port” in Cuba would become a home port for Soviet ELINT trawlers. From a Cuban port, right on America’s doorstep, ELINT trawlers would continue to eavesdrop for prolonged periods just outside American waters, as they were used to doing. But the commute home for maintenance and stores would be much shorter than the trip back to Murmansk.
This “fishing port” scheme was certainly a cover for a Soviet naval facility. The USSR had used the same ploy with its other client nations. Dino Brugioni writes,
“The Russians would first offer to make port improvements and would later grant naval aid in the form of PT boats [sic], patrol craft, submarines, and destroyers. In the late 1950s, the Soviets had provided the Egyptians with eight W-class submarines…”
The prospect of Soviet missile submarines, patrol boats, and ELINT trawlers operating out of a permanent base in Cuba was decidedly alarming to Washington, especially in light of growing suspicions that the Soviets were planning a strategic missile base there.
In the 63rd chapter in this series (http://avon.patch.com/blog_posts/nuclear-time-bomb-is-ticking-september-25-1962), we learned that a major naval task force that included seven Golf-class missile submarines was originally scheduled to deploy to Cuba in the fall of 1962. But on September 25th, Marshal Zakharov and General Fokin had recommended canceling this naval deployment because it would convince Americans that the Soviets were turning Cuba into an offensive military base.
Though we knew nothing about this deployment or its cancellation until the late 1990s, we can now conclude that the Soviet-Cuban “fishing port” was intended to receive these ships.
The thought of seven Golf-class ballistic missile submarines home-ported in Cuba is truly frightening, even 50 years later. The relatively short range of their missiles made Golf-class submarines ineffective against the United States from the Atlantic—antisubmarine (ASW) forces would detect them long before they got within range of the U.S. But base those missile subs in Cuba and—voila! The range problem disappears.
In other words, the logic that worked for Soviet medium and intermediate range missiles also worked for Soviet missile submarines.
Castro’s Faulty Timing
Castro’s could not have known that he was making his announcement on the same day the Kremlin effectively canceled the deployment of the ships the “fishing port” was supposed to receive.
Castro did, however, accomplish something important by jumping the gun. By raising the specter of a naval base that would never exist, he had managed to aggravate America’s already-intense concerns about the Soviet military threat in the Caribbean. Another Cold War irony!
And so much for the wily Soviets’ maskirovka.
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Sources and Notes
The major U.S. newspapers which picked up Castro’s announcement of the joint fishing port were the New York Times, p. 1; the Los Angeles Times, p. 1; the Boston Globe, p. 1; the Chicago Tribune, p. 5; and the Boston Globe, p. 6. The New York Times also ran a strongly critical editorial on the 26th.
Dino Brugioni describes these events on pp. 155-6 of his Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of The Cuban Missile Crisis (Robert F. McCort, ed.). New York: Random House, 1991.
Capt. Peter Huchthausen, USN-Ret, gives the range of the Golf-class R-13 missiles as 350 miles. See his October Fury. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 2002, p. 139. One assumes Huchthausen means nautical miles.
A personal note about those submarines bound for what Brugioni calls “the Egyptians” (Egypt was the United Arab Republic (UAR) in those years): In mid-January 1959, when I was on combat air crew in the U.S. Navy, my crew flew out of the Naval Air Station at Rota, Spain (northwest of Cadiz), around Cape St. Vincent, and up into the Bay of Biscay to relieve another P2V Neptune orbiting four surfaced Soviet submarines escorted by a Soviet minesweeper on their way to the UAR Naval Base at Alexandria. We flew around this little flotilla until we were relieved by another P2V about four hours later. This little flotilla was monitored during daylight hours by U.S. Navy units through the Strait of Gibraltar and all the way up the Med to UAR waters—probably to let both the Soviets and the UAR that attendance was being taken. If I remember correctly, these Soviet submarines were obsolete World War II diesel-electric boats.
On our North Atlantic patrols, we regularly ran across Soviet ELINT trawlers, which we would treat exactly like Soviet cargo vessels: we would fly our routine cloverleaf patterns around each trawler, shooting pictures the whole way. We gave the forest of ELINT antennae mounted on the wheelhouse special attention. They told Naval Intelligence and NSA analysts what kinds of signals the Soviets were looking for, as well as what kinds of signals they were capable of detecting.
When our pictures were developed, they invariably showed a Soviet crewman, often a woman, on the wing of the trawler’s bridge photographing us. Soviet naval intelligence could then match our squadron’s huge identifying letters on the vertical stabilizer (“LB” in our case) with the squadron’s name painted in much smaller but readable letters on the tail skeg (“VP-7,” in our case). They would then know from their trawler’s location whether Patrol Squadron Seven was operating out of its home base in Brunswick, Maine, or was deployed overseas at Rota, Spain; Keflavik, Iceland; Argentia, Newfoundland; Bermuda; or even Bodø, Norway.