The Joint Chiefs of Staff met with President Kennedy in the Oval Office on November 16, 1962, to update him on the military situation in Cuba.
The discussion highlighted just how tenuous the situation still was. It was nearly three weeks since Khrushchev had caved. And while the diplomats had changed gears, the military had not. The nuclear strike forces of the Strategic Air Command were still on DEFCON 2, the highest level before actual nuclear war.
In this segment of the meeting, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and commander of the Strategic Air Command, General Curtis LeMay, outlined the military situation in Cuba and wondered aloud what Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev might have been up to.
The nuclear-capable ground forces he referred to were the four rifle regiments with short-range, nuclear-capable tactical rockets. Known in the West as FROGs (Free Range Over Ground) and to the Soviets as Luna, they were no threat to the United States itself, but they could be a very real problem for an invading force. When the FROGs were first detected, from a surveillance flight on October 25, the commander of U.S. forces in the region asked for permission to arm his own forces with tactical nuclear weapons in case they were confronted with a nuclear battlefield. The request was denied. Twelve tactical nuclear warheads for the FROGs arrived in Cuba on October 23.1
In referring to a nuclear-capable air defense system, LeMay was probably referring to two parts. One of the sophisticated SA-2 surface-to-air missile system. It was one of those missiles that had shot down the U-2 plane on October 27 (and Francis Gary Powers two years before that). Some variations of the Soviet SA-2 surface-to-air missile systems, the type that were deployed in Cuba as part of Soviet Operation Anadyr, were also capable of firing either conventional or nuclear warheads. But there is no available evidence that the Soviets sent nuclear warheads for the SA-2 missiles. The second part might well have been the MiG-21 fighters.
For air combat, Soviet commanders sent 100 MiG fighters to Cuba. Of these, 42 were advanced MiG-21 (Fishbed) aircraft, a supersonic fighter that could be used for both interception and ground attack. The MiG-21 had a combat radius of more than 550 kilometers and was typically armed with a variety of cannons, infrared air-to-air missiles, and air-to-surface rockets.
U.S. intelligence analysts concluded that the MiG-21s in Cuba probably were capable of carrying nuclear weapons but that arming them with nuclear bombs would severely limit their effective range (to around 320 kilometers) and hinder their navigation systems. As Kennedy’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, put it, such tradeoffs meant that nuclear weapons on the MiG-21s were “not a likely configuration.” Although that didn’t stop them from becoming a political issue.
Kennedy was certainly speaking to a particular audience, reassuring the military brass that a military option was still on the table if it came to it.
LeMay’s job, of course, was to make military options available to the president. And that was something he was good at–some would say, too good. In this excerpt, LeMay is simply presenting the air strike options. But never shy, LeMay tended to cross the line into advocacy of military action, something that bothered Kennedy. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, LeMay had told Kennedy that the course the President had settled on–a naval blockade of Cuba–was a bad idea and was “almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich.” And at another point of this November 16 meeting, he advocated “solving” the problem, by which he meant implementing CINCLANT OPLAN 312-62, the air attack plan for Cuba.2
Source: Tape 60, John F. Kennedy Library, President’s Office Files, Presidential Recordings Collection. Transcript by David Coleman.