I’ve read two mutually-exclusive assertions in articles about the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The first is that we were within a hair’s breadth of a full-scale military invasion of Cuba.
Essentially, this is based on the idea that the U.S. had available three responses to Soviet missiles in Cuba. The first was the blockade, redubbed a “quarantine” so as to make it not an act of war. The second was airstrikes against the missile launch sites to destroy them. The third option was an airborne and amphibious invasion of Cuba which would involve capture of the missile sites plus a regime change for Castro’s government. The non-response of taking no-action at all was ruled out.
The quarantine was put into place because it was a positive action, but the least-likely to lead to all-out war. Still, some advisors felt that the quarantine would be insufficient – that the Soviets were already well on their way to having first-launch capability from Cuba, even if no additional ships arrived from Russia. This faction demanded that, absent Soviet capitulation, immediate military action was required to be executed before the missiles could be rendered operational. Failure to act, and act immediately, would surely mean that the Soviets would initiate a first strike. Furthermore, in this analysis, air strikes were probably not a solution. No matter how thorough the bombing campaign, one could never know whether the missile threat was eliminated without also having boots on the ground at the actual missile sites to verify the missiles’ destruction. Thus the airstrike option would probably, inevitably, be followed by invasion.
Those backing a full-scale invasion likely did not see World War III as inevitable. Many simply did not believe that Russia would enter a global war over Cuba. Instead, the assumption was that the Soviets would leave Cuba to her own defense and retaliation would come elsewhere, perhaps via the closing of Berlin. Recovery from the situation could take place after the nuclear missiles in Cuba were no longer a threat. As proposed in Back Channel, there may have been others that figured the U.S. had such a military advantage that, supposing the Soviets actually decided to go to war over Cuba, this, too, would be a win for the U.S. Once the Soviets initiated World War III, we could bomb them back into the stone age and be rid of them.
So that’s one version that is suggested by a modern analysis.
As we know, the Russians did not challenge the quarantine and a 24-hour deadline, after which escalated military action was threatened. In the end, a negotiated solution was reached.
Other sources, however, suggest a second interpretation of the facts as they were.
In this analysis, an invasion of Cuba was never on the table. Not really. Instead, as the military ramped-up preparations, the problems with an invasion began to become clear. The ramp up was real – Marines were actually floating on transports ready to hit the beaches right up to, and beyond, when the Russians said they were withdrawing their missiles. But in this analysis, the sources say the infrastructure to support an invasion just wasn’t ready. For example, there was a shortage of the amphibious craft necessary to establish and maintain bridgeheads in Cuba. Similarly, the plan for “regime change” wasn’t mature enough to be implemented. The lack of an ability to replace Castro would have been a show-stopper when it came time to call Go/No-Go on an assault. We wanted to neutralize the threat from Cuba, not enter the quagmire of a new Cuban civil war.
Beyond that, we in the West can mix our interpretation of U.S. intentions with information recently extracted from formerly-secret Russian archives. Much more information about what the Soviets knew and did is available to us now. Certainly, we amateur historians know things that the politicians and planners didn’t know in the 1960s (or even in 1998*). We know that the Russians had considerably more troops in Cuba than the U.S. realized at the time, meaning the invasion would have been tougher for the U.S. than anyone anticipated. The U.S., while concerned about the strategic nuclear missiles, was also unaware of the extent to which the Soviets had also deployed tactical nuclear missiles. In fact, part of the defense plan against amphibious invasion was to use tactical nuclear weapons against the invaders as they came onto the Cuban beaches.
We also know that nuclear war was averted by the obstinance of a single man. A Russian submarine had been targeted by signalling depth charges (depth charges with the explosive power, roughly, of hand grenades) which did some minor damage. In 2002, the Russians revealed that their submarine was on the verge of launching a nuclear torpedo as a response to the perceived attack, but this particular submarine required concurrence of three officers (the captain, the political officer, and the detachment commander) instead of the usual two, because the commander happened to be on this submarine. While the captain and political officer were ready to launch, the deputy brigade commander demurred. In the end, no nuke was launched and the Russian sub surfaced and was able to flee the battle zone.
I was a little bit surprised not to find wargame simulations of the quarantine and the engagements that might well have broken out if the Soviet and American ships confronted each other directly. Perhaps there would have been no “fair” or interesting fights, at least at that time. What CMANO does provide is a scenario that simulates the finding and confronting of Russian missile sites, a confrontation that is imagined to take place well into the aftermath of the initial crisis. So I will use that one to represent the type of engagement that might have come out of problems with the quarantine.
Before I open up CMANO, however, I look at the full-scale invasion scenarios that are available in The Operational Art of War and in Steel Panthers. Together these two games supply bookends, exploring the opposite ends of the gaming scale for an invasion.
I’ve Got a Chance to Make It
One of the original scenarios shipping with The Operational Art of War is “Cuba 62,” a modelling of the U.S. invasion of the island. It is this one that is grounded most in “reality.” We are given approximations of the American invasion forces and the Cuba/Soviet conventional defenses and are set loose.
The American plan was to concentrate all forces on the beaches between Havana and Matanzas. Following bombardment and aerial bombing for preparation, airborne units would drop inland of the assault locations and then the Marines would come ashore across a stretch of (at least what once was) resort beaches. This would allow rapid seizure of the port in Matanzas and the seat of government in Havana. At that point, army units could arrive via ship and secure the rest of the island. In the above screenshot, I am attempting to follow that plan, at least insomuch as I comprehend it and can cause it to be implemented in The Operational Art of War.
Despite having owned the game for decades, I’m still not really sure exactly how amphibious operations work within the game’s rules. In this scenario it seems possible to simply disembark in a Cuban port, assuming it is unoccupied by enemy units. Assaulting a beach? I’m not sure that is actually possible. I ended up moving all my Marines in via Matanzas and then all my Army units via the same port. This is the only option that matches the plan I’ve just outlined.
As it turned out, concentrating everything at one point made for a slow-but-steady march towards victory. But it was a little too slow and steady. While I was gradually able to isolate and eliminate one commie strong point after another, progress wasn’t rapid enough to score a victory within the scenario’s parameters.
My first instinct, before looking through some details of the historic invasion plan, was to try to hit the island at multiple sites at once. I also assumed that the Guantanamo Bay force would be used to maximize initial success. The real plan, to contrast, called for a single point of invasion and had the Gitmo forces hold back until they could coordinate with the invasion’s ground forces. I think a multi-pronged invasion would be more successful within the TOAW construct, although I’ve yet to try it out. Even if it is, I don’t know what that says about it’s practical utility in the real world of 1962. One assumes the military planners knew things that a sandbox computer game wouldn’t.
“Cuba 62,” per my experience, is one of those scenarios where the U.S. has a decisive technological/organizational advantage and must use that to “beat the clock.” Back in 1962, Americans almost certainly assumed that such an advantage was theirs. The knowledge about Russian forces in Cuba far exceeding our estimates came later and one wonders how much that might have flummoxed the invasion plans (ignoring those tactical nukes, as we must). I didn’t try to see which “order of battle” this scenario uses for Russian units.
Another twist on this is that we now know that as Russia began moving towards a peaceful solution involving the removal of the missiles, Castro was pushing for open conflict. Have fended off the Bay of Pigs, he was happy to deal the U.S. another whooping. The Russians tried to explain to him that he would have very different results against the actual American Army and Marine Corps. So it is also possible that, while Soviet forces were present on the island, they might have refrained from direct involvement.
For some reference, the map is the same scale as for the Korean War map but with half-day turns (Korea was week-long turns). The scale does work as a game, but I’m not sure it really captures the feel of the fight as well as it could.
It’s Time for Me to Take It
Another version of the amphibious assault on Cuba is part of the vast user-made scenario library in Steel Panthers (WinSPMBT). The beach scenario is the first of four scenarios authored to explore a what-if invasion of Cuba. The full suite consists of the Marines on the beaches, two airborne landings, and one infantry fight. The scenario notes say the series was inspired by the Cuban Missile Crisis -related campaign “Red Thunder”, made for the flight simulator package Strike Fighters 2.
This is a big scenario. It is a big map, for Steel Panthers (see the size of the tactical map versus the mini-map in the lower right corner, above, which is only about a quarter of the entire map), and a large unit count. Note that the screenshot is only about a quarter of the US forces. There are two invasion forces, one to the west and one to the east of the town of Cardenas, and we are only seeing about half of the western wing here.
It also is taking me a few turns to remember all the quirks of Steel Panthers. Checking every unit for suppression is something I’d forgotten about (maybe willfully). The multi-turn process of using indirect artillery requires acclimatization as well.
The Steel Panthers take on this is much the same as Steel Panthers always is. Controlling the units down to the platoon level is generally fun. Steel Panthers is also big enough to capture the full scope of a tactical battle without necessarily scaling down the unit size and map scale. Even though battles often do just that. This being purely-hypothetical, there is no way to say whether it is “to scale” or abstracted. The scenario requires that Marines take a coastal town by landing on the beaches to either side. They then must rush to seize the town within about an hour and a half of landing. Is that a feasible plan? Maybe, if we are relying on shock and awe to achieve quick victory. It also might be better to establish organization upon landing, and then advance in an organized way. Take 5-6 hours instead of 1.
The downside to having the ability to play with every weapon in every unit is that you’ve got to cycle through every unit, every turn. That isn’t so fun. Beach landings can be especially tough because once you’ve emptied your transports, they are still there waiting to be “visited” every turn. For me, when I play Steel Panthers, I’ve found its more important to play the units in the order that the game has them in (next unit) than to try to use them by function or command organization. Otherwise, in a large scenario like this, it becomes too easy to lose track of which units have moved and which still have yet to be commanded.
I can only imagine that the Command Ops engine would be a wonderful treatment for this fight. In many ways, an invasion of Cuba looks similar to Crete (a major focus in the Conquest of the Aegean product.) Besides the fact that it would be an awful lot of work (a map of Cuba plus a 1962 Order of Battle!), the Cold War combatants circa 1962 may have advanced in technology enough to make a World War II game engine unsuitable. In playing the TOAW version I used, with as much frequency as I could, the helicopter insertion capability available in the scenario. As I’ve talked on about before, in TOAW a key gameplay element in the game is to occupy all six hexes surrounding an enemy position before attacking. Helicopter movement becomes a great way to get a just-strong-enough unit into that sixth hex to allow an enemy to be eliminated. I’d imagine that modeling helicopters, and getting it right, is something that the Command Ops engine is just not going to do without further development.
I Know What I Would See There
So lets switch over to Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations.
As I said, there aren’t any currently-available scenarios covering the crisis itself. What is available is a user-made scenario dealing with a similar crisis, something just under a year after the real events. The player commands a naval task along with air support and is tasked with determining what the Russians have lurking around the Caribbean as well as to check whether there really are missile launchers on Cuba.
This is a hypothetical, and one pretty far afield from the actual missile crisis. Set aside the fact that the Russians complied with the missile removal and then some**, if I had to speculate on the nature of a follow-on to the Cuban Missile Crisis, I would expect it to be fast and furious. If the U.S. became aware of Russian non-compliance, they probably wouldn’t have poked around with a few air and sea assets. Given that Russian non-compliance came with an threat of immediate nuclear war, I’d expect a second Cuban Missile Crisis to escalate far faster than the first.
Of course, another way to interpret this scenario is that what the Cubans have there are those Russian missiles that, back in the real world, had been removed even though we didn’t know about them. If one assumes that they might have been left in place, one could imagine that, a year on, we slowly develop suspicions about them and once again commence the process of identification. Then, as before, we might try to deal with them through diplomatic channels, considering military action only as a last resort. No matter what, I have to think that once a Cuban/Soviet aircraft let off a missile aimed one of ours, we’d no longer be limiting our response to four ships and a dozen or so aircraft. But this is the scenario I’ve got and I’m going to play it.
In many ways, the scenario is really a Vietnam situation on a “hypothetical” map. The mix of aircraft is that of the early escalation of the Vietnam War. You have your Douglas F3D flying with an electronics warfare package. They support Vought F-8 Crusaders, the bulk armed for combat but others stripped down to be used for photo-recon. We expect to face a enemy force of MiG 15s, 16s, and 17s. The naval support is sparse, particularly given the availability of assets this close the continental United States. Much like Vietnam and Korea before, the United States assumes complete superiority in sea assets.
The instructions, as is common for CMANO scenarios, have us trying to locate the hostile materiel located somewhere in Cuban waters. I am told I should locate the missile launchers and then “wait for further instructions***.” In the meantime, the MiGs decide I’m becoming annoying and try shooting down some of my aircraft. Already, this war is going far further than the original Cuban Missile Crisis ever did.
After some back-and-forth shooting, in which I had the upper hand, the sun set on the Caribbean and decided I’d try to wait it out until the next morning to resume the search in the light of day. My fears that this would be another scenario where I simply would be unable to complete the objective were unfounded. Once night fell, two unknown ships began approaching my task force from out of the blackness. The fact that they were emanating weapon targeting radar pretty much let me know they were bad guys, but being the good guy here, I couldn’t really go after them until I had a positive identification. Or until they began shooting at me, which they did.
A few minutes later I identified the ships as Russian, a frigate and a light cruiser. Yikes. I had terrible flashbacks to the Waller Takes Charge scenario where I ended up being thrashed by the superior Soviet gunnery. It also means I’m in a shooting war, not just with Cuba, but also with the Russians. You’d think the President would release more air and naval assets, wouldn’t you?
Anyhow, there is a point where you are toe-to-toe with your enemy and you’ve just got to duke it out, because turning tail and running won’t leave you any better off. In this case, numbers prevailed over size. I won’t go into all the details, because the core of this scenario is discovering what’s out there, but I did manage to pull off the “Major Victory” as defined by the scenario author.
As far as these scenarios go, this one was pretty enjoyable. I have to say it was on the easy side, given my win. In the end, I lost a few planes and took a lot of damage to my ships (3 out of 4 were dead in the water by the end, although all could be repaired), but I gave quite a bit more than I got. Of course, now we’re in a hot war with the Cubans AND the Russians, and Cuba has nuclear missile launchers ready to go. I guess its time to roll out that invasion scenario from the top of the article.
All of these “might have been” scenarios, while maybe not that much of a possibility, are still grounded in the real world. In my next article, I’ll take a look into the realm of pure fantasy regarding the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
*The passing reference to 1998 refers to the initial release date of The Operational Art of War and the initial version of this scenario.
**There were missiles in Russia of which the United States was unaware. The Soviets could plausibly have kept them there and, if caught, simply said that they weren’t part of the original deal and pushed for more concessions from the U.S. Further, evidence suggests the Russians were driving for an avoidance of escalation by threatening to abandon Cuba, all outside of U.S. diplomatic pressure.
***For what its worth, no “further instructions” were forthcoming. I took the scenario description at face value and did not take any action against the Soviet missile sites. I don’t know if the intent was execute an airstrike.