Declassified SAC History Recounts Nuclear and Intelligence Operations during Cuban Missile Crisis
Comments by William Burr
U.S. Strategic Air Command, History and Research Division, Strategic Air Command Operations during the Cuban Crisis of 1962, 1963, Top Secret, Excised Copy
One of the sources used in Michael Dobbs’ new book on the Cuban Missile Crisis, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War (New York: Knopf, 2008), is this declassified history of Strategic Air Command (SAC) operations during the crisis. It took over 13 years for the Air Force to respond to the National Security Archive’s FOIA request for this document; even then, the Air Force took another five years to complete its response, early in 2008, to the Archive’s appeal. This document gives a full and fine-grained account of SAC’s complex role in the crisis, beginning with intelligence operations. SAC’s 4080th Wing flew over 90 U-2 missions over Cuba during October 1962, including the well-known photographic intelligence flights, but also more secretive electronic intelligence (ELINT) missions flown on behalf of the National Security Agency. Some details of the ELINT operations remain classified, but SAC U-2s began flying near Cuba months before the October crisis. This history includes a brief account of the shoot-down by Soviet surface-to-air missiles of the U-2 flown by Major Rudolf Anderson on October 27 1962. As the SAC historians noted, U.S. radars did not detect this incident in real time because height-finding radars “were being used for more ‘specialized work’” for the National Security Agency (See pages 15-16). Although the U-2 flight that strayed into Soviet territory had significant implications for the crisis, this history does not cover that episode. Besides the U-2 flights this history shows how SAC aircraft helped support the blockade of Cuba by searching for Soviet ships in the Atlantic.
Besides detailing intelligence operations, this history provides useful information on one of the most dramatic and dangerous features of the missile crisis: SAC’s intensified readiness posture. Within hours of President Kennedy’s October 22 speech, SAC forces were on a DEFCON (Defense condition) 2 posture, the highest level of US force readiness short of a decision to go to war. By October 24, 1962, SAC had 1,436 bombers, 145 missiles, and about 2,900 nuclear weapons ready for striking Soviet targets (Pages 96-97). While most of the bombers were on ground alert, 65 nuclear-armed bombers were in the air at any given moment. At the time of the missile crisis, the ICBM force mainly comprised liquid-fueled Atlas and Titan missiles. The solid-fueled Minutemen ICBMs were in the earliest stages of deployment, and only a handful was available; contractors had to remain at the Minuteman sites to prevent any degradation of the alert. SAC bombers and missiles remained on a high state of alert until November 24, weeks after the resolution of the crisis.