Cuban Missile Crisis: Nuclear Order of Battle

At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis blockade, unknown to the United States, the Soviet Union already had short-range nuclear weapons on the island, such as this FKR-1 cruise missile, that would most likely have been used against a U.S. invasion.


By Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris

Fifty years ago the world held its breath for a few weeks as the United States and the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of nuclear war in response to the Soviet deployment of medium-range nuclear missiles in Cuba.

The United States imposed a military blockade around Cuba to keep more Soviet weapons out and prepared to invade the island if necessary. As nuclear-armed warships sparred to enforce and challenge the blockade, a few good men made momentous efforts and decisions that prevented use of nuclear weapons and eventually defused the crisis.

What the Kennedy administration did not know, however, was that the Soviet Union had 158 nuclear warheads of five types already in Cuba by the time of the blockade. This included nearly 100 warheads for short-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. If the invasion had been launched, as the military recommended but the White House fortunately decided against, it would most likely have triggered Soviet use of those short-range nuclear weapons against the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo and at amphibious forces storming the Cuban beaches. That, in turn, would have triggered wider use of nuclear forces.

In our latest Nuclear Notebook – The Cuban Missile Crisis: a nuclear order of battle, October and November 1962 – we outline the nuclear order of battle that the United States and the Soviet Union had at their disposal. At the peak of the crisis, the United States had some 3,500 nuclear weapons ready to use on command, while the Soviet Union had perhaps 300-500.

The Cuban Missile Crisis order of battle of useable weapons represented only a small portion of the total inventories of nuclear warheads the United States and Russia possessed at the time. Illustrating its enormous numerical nuclear superiority, the U.S. nuclear stockpile in 1962 included more than 25,500 warheads (mostly for battlefield weapons). The Soviet Union had about 3,350.

For all the lessons the Cuban Missile Crisis taught the world about nuclear dangers, it also left some enduring legacies and challenges that are still confronting the world today. Among other things, the crisis fueled a build-up of quick-reaction nuclear weapons that could more effectively hold a risk the other side’s nuclear forces in a wider range of different strike scenarios.

Today, 50 years later and more than 20 years after the Cold War ended, the United States and Russia still have more than 10,000 nuclear weapons combined. Of those, an estimated 1,800 nuclear warheads are on alert on top of long-range ballistic missiles, ready to be launched on short notice to inflict unimaginable devastation on each other. The best way to honor the Cuban Missile Crisis would be to finally end that legacy and take nuclear weapons off alert.

Nuclear Notebook: The Cuban Missile Crisis: A nuclear order of battle, October and November 1962

6 thoughts on “Cuban Missile Crisis: Nuclear Order of Battle

  1. Very interesting, thank you. What you do not say is that the Soviet commanders in Cuba were under orders not to use their nuclear weapons, even in the event of a US invasion, except on orders from Moscow. Of course there is no certainty that they would not have done so. There was no PAL.
    You show the huge disparity in nuclear strength between the two sides. Surely one lesson is that when push comes to shove an advantage in this area is meaningless. Both sides were equally terrified of nuclear war and both made concessions.

  2. SSBNs provide the highest level of alert for nukes. If you dealert, it makes most sense to start from SSBNs. But if SSBNs carry only nukes that are not ready to launch, what is the point of carrying them on strategic patrol? You may well decommission the SSBNs. Once you decommission them, it will be really hard to reassemble the capabilities. The bottom line is that you cannot dealert the nukes without foundamentally changing United States and Russia in how they deal with their adversaries and competitors. Dealert can only happen if they chose to become Canada.

    Reply: Actually, the highest level of nuclear alert (in terms of reaction time) is in the ICBMs, 98% of which can launch in a few minutes after receiving the launch order. An SSBN on alert requires 12-15 minutes after receiving the launch order to launch its first missile, after which the remaining 23 missiles (in the case of U.S. SSBNs) will have to be launched one by one with several minute between each. It sounds like you assume that SSBNs are on alert as soon as they are at sea, but that is not the case. For the U.S. SSBN fleet, normally 4-5 of the 8-10 that are at sea at any given time are on what’s known as “hard alert” in the right position and range to hold their targets at risk. Those that are not on alert are doing exercises and cruising between homeport and designated patrol area. They can be brought to alert status with a few days if necessary. So SSBNs can be deployed without being on alert. An actual de-alerting initiative would require technical conditions, for example keeping the guidance system separate each missile under normal circumstances. For de-alerting to be effective and attractive as an arms control initiative, verification would of course be necessary. HK

  3. You take nukes off alert, we’ll be at each other throats once again.
    What nukes did and do is make sure there’d never be a Hitler again.

  4. This is a way late comment as I just caught the blog entry. Talking about the nuclear deterrance patrols of the United States SSBN’s, I seem to recall that the US had a nuclear warhead issue in the 60s and for quite awhile subs were at sea and on patrol with either no warheads sitting on the missiles or warheads on the missiles but non functional so if fired they wouldn’t have actually detonated when it arrived at target. Not many people knew about this as it was highly classified and compartmentalized for obvious reasons. As I recall they were pulled out of the subs on a rotating basis, hauled off somewhere (Pantex?) to be worked on, then brought back. The process took time and everybody was pretty much used to seeing various trucks coming and going, not to mention people working on a sub when it came back from patrol. The issue was corrected.

    It is my understanding that this has happened a time or two since that time in the 60s. I was told by some folks who were on the Minuteman side of things that they had some similar warhead issues. Not even the crews were told they were sitting on empty missiles.

    Obviously the US doesn’t want to transmit those kind of facts to the then Soviet Union. Kind of like saying the vicious looking and sounding guard dog in the yard really has no teeth.

  5. I was flown into GTMO by jet October 22, 1962. I was with USMC “Bravo” Battery 105mm howitzers from 11th Marines, California. We supported 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. We were dug in at Windmill Beach behind Main Side. After the Crises late November we boarded the USS Iwo Jima via the Panama Canal back to San Diego. Like Admiral Hyman George Rickover the Father of the Nuclear Navy said after nuclear war: “A more deserving species will inherit the earth – the cockroach.”

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