It took over forty years before we finally learned from the Russians who authorized the shoot down of Major Anderson’s U-2 and why … answers that revealed the best kept secret of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The “who” was a lower ranking general in charge of Soviet air defenses who gave the order after failing to reach the Soviet commander in Cuba. The “why” is frightening even after all these years. By direction the general had brought the entire air defense radar network into full combat mode the night before and he was able to follow the track of the U-2 in real time. He watched as it entered Cuban airspace and flew across the island to the Guantanamo Naval Base environs before turning back toward the northeast coast. He knew Anderson had overflown a Soviet FKR-1 cruise missile battery that had moved overnight to an open firing position 15 miles from the huge American naval base. The general correctly believed that the Americans were unaware of the deployment of cruise missiles to Cuba and realized that Anderson’s film would uncover this crucial defensive capability. The FRK-1 was capable of delivering a Hiroshima bomb-sized nuclear warhead over 100 miles that could decimate the naval base and destroy an unsuspecting invasion force.
Raul Castro, Fidel’s minister of defense, had personally involved himself with planning for the secret support base for the cruise missile unit in the mountains and in selecting the firing position. There is little doubt that he and his brother Fidel would have pushed the Soviets to launch them in the event of an invasion or even an air attack which they had convinced the Soviet commander was going to happen within 24 hours! In fact, the night before Fidel Castro had sent Khrushchev an impassioned plea to defend Cuba at all costs and even consider a pre-emptive nuclear attack. The Castro brothers, today still “Red but not Dead”, made no secret they were willing to be martyrs if not heroes even if it meant subjecting their people to a nuclear holocaust!
(The Cubans argued to keep the cruise missiles after the ballistic missiles were removed as they had not been discovered but Khrushchev realized that would be foolhardy and not trusting Castro took them out too!)
The order to shoot down the U-2 was given to a Soviet SA-2 SAM unit near Banes on the northeast coast, as Anderson’s flight path would bring him well inside its missile kill envelope. The engagement went down in accordance with Soviet doctrine after the U-2 was first acquired by the Banes Spoon Rest long range target acquisition radar. That radar along with others in the extensive SAM network had come online around midnight. As the U-2 neared the missile engagement envelope it was handed off to a Fruit Set target tracking and missile control radar team who launched two missiles that would explode in close proximity to the aircraft bringing it down with a flood of shrapnel. Khrushchev would learn about the shoot down from a Pentagon report around 6 PM and was furious as he knew that JFK would have no choice but to oblige his military leaders with some form of retaliation. He erroneously believed Castro must have had a say in the decision to shoot down the U-2.
Even a cursory read of the Soviet side of the story raises questions about the effectiveness of U.S. signals intelligence (SIGINT)under the cognizance of NSA during this critical juncture of the crisis. NSA’s official post-mortem on the role the agency played clearly recognized the failure of SIGINT to provide timely warning of the deployment of strategic missiles to Cuba. It properly credits SIGINT with a key role in tracking the Soviet military and cargo ships in support of the naval quarantine. Monitoring the buildup and operation of Soviet air defense networks by the agency and its military sub-entities from fixed and mobile listening posts was equally stellar. The deployment of the USS Oxford, an NSA controlled ship off the coast of Cuba well before the crisis period proved to be one of the most valued collectors of both COMINT and ELINT.
That said, the national command authority was ill-served by the NSA headquarters as it failed to provide timely analysis, assessment, and dissemination of crucial signal intercept data relating to the Soviet air defense posture before and during the shoot down of Major Anderson’s U-2. It had tragic and could have had grave national consequences.
Over the past 15 years there has been a host of previously classified documents released to the public by government agencies including NSA. They have supported exhaustive scholarly research making the crisis one of the most written about events in history. Unfortunately, despite the historical importance of the U-2 shoot down, there is a paucity of first level information released by NSA that bears on the matter including an after action report.
What has been verified from interviews with participants is that the USS Oxford intercepted both radar and communications nodes of the Soviet air defense network coming online and remaining operational shortly after midnight on the night of 26-27 October. This correlates with the Russian accounts of a major change in the operational posture of the Soviet air defenses in Cuba which were emplaced to protect the strategic nuclear missile sites. Widely reported is a previously secret message released by NSA that was transmitted with operational immediate precedence under a date time group of 270643Z (2:43 AM EST). The subject of the message was “Spoon Rest Radar Activity” and it reported intercepts of these target acquisition radars associated with three different SAM sites in western Cuba at 12:38 AM EST. Significantly, the radars had remained on the air for over two hours at the time the message was transmitted. The message text was not redacted but neither the originator or the addressees were listed as it was posted to a distribution list. That all-important information is the subject of a FOIA request that the author was advised it may take two years to receive an answer even though the basic message was released years ago!
Without knowledge of the addressees, it can’t be ascertained if the message was originated by the USS Oxford or by DIRNSA based on intercept reports from the ship. Typically, raw intercept data was transmitted over dedicated circuits from the listening posts. Regardless, the command center established by DIRNSA for the crisis would have had this actionable intelligence hours before Major Anderson took off on his fateful mission. An oral history by a former NSA command center watch stander (off duty that night) confirms that the watch team routinely communicated by secure phone with counterparts at the DIA and CIA and likely in the aftermath of the shoot down with the JCS Joint Reconnaissance Center. The author can find no record of any relevant inter-agency exchanges during the night in question and neither CIA or DIA situation reports from later that morning mentioned the intercepts or changes in the air defense posture.
NSA’s daily intelligence summary or pertinent spot reports have not been released, but it seems unlikely the message in question and related traffic would have been discounted by watch standers. In fact, the significance of the radar intercepts was well known by Washington principals as well as NSA analysts as the first report of a Spoon Rest radar being tested at one of new Cuban SAM sites was included in JFK’s intelligence checklist on 19 September. Given the vulnerability of the U-2 to a SA-2 SAM this report had to weigh on the minds of the President and his advisors considering whether to order more overflights of Cuba. Just a week before the U-2 incident the USS Oxford was ordered into port so an admiral could personally review the tapes of another Spoon Rest intercept before it was sent off to NSA for further analysis. Further, the simultaneous intercepts of Russian speaking controllers on the air defense networks with new call signs likely resulted in heavy traffic between NSA and its network of listening posts Black Saturday morning.
Clearly the body of evidence available shows that NSA had actionable intelligence that could have and should have been verified and relayed to decision makers from the President on down in time to have Major Anderson’s mission canceled, especially given his primary targets were SAM sites! In the end, Major Anderson had a second chance to survive that day but it too was denied him and his own Strategic Air Command should shoulder that blame!
The vulnerability of the U-2 aircraft to Soviet SA-2 SAMs was brought home two years before when CIA’s Gary Powers was shot down over Russia. That ended overflights of the Soviet Union and forced the CIA to employ Taiwanese pilots as surrogates to conduct reconnaissance over China once it too had the SA-2s. The CIA then initiated a crash development program for a cockpit warning device to give U-2 pilots a heads-up they were being tracked by a SAM radar in time for them to take evasive action. The urgency for this capability was made clear on September 9th when a Taiwanese U-2 was shot down by a Chinese SA-2 just as the risks of conducting overflights of Cuba was being debated in Washington. Sadly, the missile warning receiver called System 12 by the CIA had completed development and was awaiting availability of an aircraft for a final test flight just days before Anderson’s mission. But, there was yet another readily available means to provide Major Anderson that life-saving warning.
In response to the urgent need to pin down the Electronic Order of Battle in Cuba daily ELINT collection missions were flown by SAC RB-47H and tactical reconnaissance aircraft around the periphery of Cuba. These aerial platforms had the advantage of better line-of-sight coverage and direction finding capabilities than the USS Oxford. Monitoring the operational status of radars at the newly constructed SA-2 SAM sites was priority one. SAC’s RB-47H missions were under Operation Common Cause but after going days without intercepting any air defense radars the aircrews had dubbed them “Lost Cause”. That changed dramatically on Black Saturday morning as the network of Soviet SAM radars came alive.
|Russian SPOON REST Radar
Like Major Anderson, the crew of the first SAC RB-47H headed to the Florida Straits from Forbes AFB in Kansas that morning had no heads up about the change in the air defense radar posture overnight. Their RB-47H arrived on station about an hour before Anderson’s U-2 entered Cuban air space and immediately the three Electronic Warfare Officers found their displays cluttered with radar returns. A couple of hours later things turned ominous as the Spoon Rest target acquisition radar emanating from the suspected SAM site at Banes was joined by a Fruit Set target tracking radar. Hearing the unmistakable rattlesnake-like buzz of the Fruit Set radar in his headset one of the EWOs called out “Big Cigar” over the intercom and that code word was immediately relayed to the SAC reconnaissance center via their HF Single Side Band radio.
Tragically, Major Anderson did not receive that warning, in fact the RB-47H crew had no idea his U-2 was the target being tracked by the Fruit Set radar. Here the term “Common Cause” should have had real meaning especially between two of SAC’s own aircraft operating under the control of the same reconnaissance center. Instead, Major Anderson was left with no vestige of a safety net that could have been easily extended to him over the airwaves. Both aircraft had compatible radios with an emergency guard channel that wouldn’t have required Major Anderson to even be on the same frequency to hear a code word warning transmitted in the blind by the RB-47H. The author can personally attest to that very procedure routinely being employed successfully just over two years later in Vietnam to warn countless numbers of tactical reconnaissance and attack aircrews being threatened by the same Soviet SA-2 SAMs.
Finally, the transfer of control of U-2 operations over Cuba from the CIA to SAC by JFK to give the pilots international protections afforded the military indirectly resulted in the loss of warnings from NSA’s listening posts. In the wake of the U-2 shoot down, DIRNSA claimed SAC didn’t keep them informed about U-2 schedules as did the CIA and consequently the agency could not provide warnings of reactions by the Soviet air defenses. Until the U-2 was shot down this issue was not raised to the attention of the JCS or SECDEF. The lack of this second means to provide a timely threat warning to Major Anderson lies at the feet of NSA and SAC.
In summary it appears Major Anderson was allowed to fly into a man-made “perfect storm” as the opening event of Black Saturday and no one had his back. Many will dismiss the detailing of the failure of intelligence in his case to the fog of war and point to the lessons learned as the main take-away. They can take comfort from knowing that the U-2 missions were suspended for a few days while warning procedures were put in place and prioritized tasking of intelligence and operations support assets implemented. Consequently, one reported mission was aborted due to a precautionary warning but luckily there were no more attempts to shoot down a U-2 as they covered the crating and return of the missiles.
There were many including some of Major Anderson’s fellow Cuban Missile Crisis veteran pilots that opposed his posthumous award of the Air Force Cross when all the others received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Those who knew him well say he would have agreed. In retrospect that is the least he is owed by his service and country. Rest in peace major!
During the Cuban Missile Crisis the author observed military convoys heading to south Florida ports while a senior at the University of Florida awaiting graduation and commissioning in the Marine Corps. Three years later he was a Naval Flight Officer in Vietnam flying electronic warfare missions against Soviet supplied SA-2 SAMs threatening Air Force and Navy air operations against North Vietnam. In 1970 after a tour in the PACOM Joint Reconnaissance Center he was undergoing transition training in the EA-6A Electric Intruder when his aircraft was jumped by Cuban air force MiG-21s in international airspace off Havana. His pilot was able to take evasive maneuvers based on a timely threat warning that Major Anderson was not afforded. Colonel Whitten retired in 1988 after a career in electronic warfare operations and systems acquisition. He has published two military history books, the last in 2012 titled Countdown to 13 Days and Beyond – U.S. Marine Aerial Reconnaissance Against Castro’s Cuba 1960-1990.
H. Wayne Whitten