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The Decline of the Cuban Armed Forces

Dr. Sanjay Badri-Maharaj was a Visiting Fellow at IDSA. He is an independent defence analyst and attorney-at-law based in Trinidad and Tobago. He holds a PhD on India's nuclear weapons programme and an MA from the Department of War Studies, Kings College London. He has served as a consultant to the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of National Security. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 18, 2017

    Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cuban armed forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias - FAR) were easily the most powerful in Latin America. Numbering over 200,000 active personnel, the FAR possessed several hundred advanced combat aircraft (MiG-21s, MiG-23-MF/-ML/-BN) and MiG-29s, along with a modern and well-equipped air defence network. The army possessed large quantities of artillery and over a thousand T-55 and T-62 main battle-tanks (MBTs), while the navy fielded three submarines, three frigates, 13 missile boats and 48 patrol craft.

    Some 25 years after the demise of its ally, benefactor and largest market for its principal export (sugar), the FAR is but a shadow of its former self with equipment either unserviceable or in storage and personnel strength slashed to some 65,000. From a force potentially capable of fighting determinedly against an American invasion, the FAR has now become a force of limited conventional military capability, more useful for internal security operations than for prosecuting any military conflict.

    None of this should be unexpected as the FAR was always an unsustainably large force which, while seeing extensive combat in Angola, Mozambique and Ethiopia, was largely an instrument of Soviet foreign policy. With the risk of an American invasion neutralized by friendship with the Soviet Union, the FAR was expanded to the point of extreme excess – being incapable of defending against a US invasion unaided yet vastly superior to any of its neighbours. Once support from the Soviet Union ended, the decline of the FAR was inevitable. All three formations – the army, the air force and the navy – achieved great strength in both equipment and personnel by the late 1980s but their fall was rapid.

    The Revolutionary Army (Ejercito Rebelde - ER) had modest beginnings. With a 1959 strength of 25,000 (supported by a Revolutionary Militia of 250,000), the ER initially used an eclectic mix of European and American equipment supplied to the Batista regime, including Sherman and Stuart tanks along with M116 75mm pack howitzers and Schneider 75mm field and mountain guns. Infantry units were almost entirely equipped with American small arms with support weapons, such as mortars and machine guns coming from Europe as well as the United States. There was no immediate shift to the Soviet bloc as the first arms orders placed by the Castro regime were for 24,000 FN-FAL rifles, 15 British Comet tanks and Oto Melara Model 56 105mm howitzers.

    This changed in 1960 when the first influx of Czechoslovak and Soviet arms began entering service. The expansion of the ER was rapid and by 1975, it reached its peak strength of 200,000 divided into three regional armies with three armoured and 15 infantry divisions. Though the ER fell to some 130,000 by the mid-to-late 1980s, it now possessed some 800 T-54/-55 and 380 T-62 tanks plus well over 500 armoured personnel carriers of the BTR and BMP families with 1400 pieces of artillery. Over 30,000 Cuban troops played a pivotal role in Angola supporting the MPLA against UNITA and the apartheid regime of South Africa.

    The Cuban Air Force – now termed the Revolutionary Air and Air Defense Force (Defensa Anti-Aérea Y FuerzaAéreaRevolucionaria - DAAFAR) experienced even more spectacular growth. Even at the time of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, the air force was still equipped with ageing relics from the Batista era with T-33 trainers being the most advanced equipment and eight Sea Fury piston engine fighters and a similar number of B-26 bombers forming the bulk of the combat force.

    The expansion of the DAAFAR was dramatic and by the mid-to-late 1980s, it had taken delivery of no fewer than 118 MiG-21s and 89 MiG-23s of all variants augmented by eight MiG-29s and a large force of light transport aircraft, Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters – easily the most powerful air force in the region. Though possessed of no bombers, the threat of DAAFAR MiG-23BNs was deemed serious enough for the United States to sanction the supply of 24 F-16As to Venezuela to protect their oil-fields. DAAFAR was also responsible for operating the most extensive surface-to-air missile (SAM) network in Latin America with SA-2, SA-3 and SA-6 medium range SAMs being augmented by mobile SA-13 and SA-8 systems and well over 1000 towed and self-propelled anti-aircraft guns. The DAAFAR also saw extensive service in Africa with operations in Angola, Ethiopia and Mozambique.

    In contrast to the ER and DAAFAR, the Cuban Navy (Marina de Guerra Revolucionaria - MGR) was far less favoured. The Batista-era Navy of three Tacoma class frigates, two PCE class corvettes, four SC-class submarine chasers and three torpedo boats was replaced by a coastal defence force centered around 18 OSA class missile boats and an assortment of torpedo craft and submarine chasers augmented by a fleet of 40 Zhuk class patrol boats. To these were added a limited blue-water capability in the form of three Foxtrot class submarines and three Koni class light frigates. Compared to the ER and DAAFAR, the MGR trailed behind the capabilities of larger Latin American navies, though it was by far the most powerful naval force in the Caribbean.

    Since then, the decline of the FAR’s capabilities has been dramatic. Budgetary allocations inevitably fell as the Cuban economy underwent a period of extreme adjustment in the 1990s. No major new equipment has been inducted into any branch of the FAR and manpower has been slashed. The ER now comprises some 45,000 personnel including 39,000 conscripts and active reservists doing 45 day of service annually. However, compared to the DAAFAR and MGR, the ER has been able to keep much of its equipment to a reasonable degree of serviceability – partly by relegating a large portion of it to storage. Only 50 MBT’s are operational at any given time, augmented by wheeled AFVs.

    It has also shown a remarkable degree of innovation in adapting weapons systems to platforms, typified by the fitting of T-55 and BMP-1 turrets to BTR-60 chassis, fitting 122mm D-30 Howitzers to BMP-1 chassis and to trucks and adapting RBU-6000 rockets to being fired from a truck flatbed. This ingenuity, however, is no substitute for more modern equipment although the ER remains formidable by regional standards. It has been suggested that the ER is no longer capable of mounting operations above battalion level. However, this may be an underestimation of the ER’s institutional experience and while division level operations are unlikely, brigade-sized operations are probably feasible.

    The DAAFAR has been reduced to approximately 30 combat aircraft – four MiG-29s, six MiG-21s and nearly 20 MiG-23s being operational at any given time. These are augmented by about five operational L-39 trainers which can be armed for light strike and air defence duties. Aircraft are rarely seen with ordnance though in 1996, MiG-29s used R-60 air-to-air missiles to destroy Cessna light aircraft belonging to the Florida-based, Cuban-exile run organization ‘Brothers to the Rescue’. It is believed that flying hours are restricted although it is clear that some degree of competence is retained by a nucleus of pilots. Cuba retains its SAM network although it is unclear if an overhaul of the missiles has been undertaken. The DAAFAR’s helicopter and transport fleets have been reduced massively with only 24 helicopters and two transport aircraft being operational at any given time. It should be noted that a large number of combat aircraft are in storage and some may be capable of being restored to service.

    The decline of the MGR mirrors that of the DAAFAR. The Koni class light frigates were scrapped with two being sunk as reefs to serve as dive attraction for tourists. The submarines were decommissioned as were most of the patrol, missile and torpedo boats. A single Pauk-class corvette remains in service alongside eight minesweepers and six OSA class missile boats which have had their missiles removed and used on land-based launchers. About a dozen Zhuk class vessels remain operational along with two larger Stenka class patrol vessels.

    Cuban ingenuity came to the fore in the MGR’s efforts to restore a veneer of ocean-going capability when two 1970s vintage trawlers were converted into patrol vessels with helicopter platforms. Equipped with P-15 missile launchers from the OSA class vessels and an assortment of gun turrets scavenged from decommissioned ships and even land-based platforms (the main guns being a ZSU-57-2 turret with twin manually operated 57mm guns), these two vessels form the Rio Damuji class and lack any form of modern sensors for either surveillance or fire-control. Nonetheless, the two ships of this class provide the MGR with a useful off-shore patrol force, capable of intimidating Caribbean neighbours while being of negligible combat potential.

    The FAR, like Cuba itself, was overly dependent on Soviet support and lacked the means to finance either its maintenance or modernization requirements. While Cuba no longer faces an existential threat from the United States, it still retains combat capabilities far in excess of any of its Caribbean neighbours. It is of interest that while the FAR has been depleted in terms of capability and personnel, Cuba’s National Revolutionary Police Force (Policía Nacional Revolucionaria - PNR), Territorial Troops Militia (Milicias de Tropas Territoriales - MTT), and the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (Comités de Defensa de la Revolución - CDR) remain powerful and adequately funded, serving as instruments of state control and power. It would appear that the Cuban government is content to preserve modest military capabilities while ensuring that its internal security apparatus is intact.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.