So, this is a question I wanted to ask in relation to the blog post I made introducing the Cuban Missile War series of blog posts, which is the result of the Cold War escalating into World War III during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Here is the link, though to summarise, the point of divergence is that the Soviet Foxtrot-class submarine known as the B-59 fires a nuclear torpedo at the USS Randolph and its 11 destroyer escorts, after Vasily Arkhipov agrees to launch the torpedo. The B-59, the USS Randolph, and its escorts are all sunk by a 10 kt nuclear blast. More information is in the blog post itself.

So, if you read the blog post, then skip here.

You skipped? Good. It is the 27th of October of 1962 at around 17:16 hours Romeo/6:17 PM EDT. The first wave of American air strikes against Cuba is about to begin, as a total of 399 F-100 Super Sabres, F-104 Starfighters, and F-105 Thunderchiefs begin to take off from their aircraft carriers and air bases respectively. Then, they begin to head towards the missile sites, which are defended by:

  • 144 SAM launchers, with 576 total SAMs ready to fire.
  • 102 total MiG-17s, MiG-19s and MiG-21s ready to shoot the Americans out of the sky.

The objective is as follows: take out the missile sites and soften up defenses for the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions to land near Havana and for the US Marines in Guantanamo Bay to expand their perimeter. The F-104s are to provide air cover, while the F-100s and F-105s begin their strikes on ground targets. Unknown to the American forces that land in Cuba later on, the Soviets have 100 tactical nukes waiting to be unleashed on them, which are distributed as follows:

  • 80 14 kt cruise missiles
  • 6 12 kt nukes from IL-28 bombers
  • 12 Luna missiles, each carrying 2 kt nuclear warheads from six FROG-3/5 launchers

If they land, the Americans have those tactical nukes waiting to vaporize them.

Now, my question is: before the Americans land (only to be vapourised), would any of the missile sites (which are a total of 20 to 40 launchers located in the San Cristobal, and Sagua La Grande Medium Range Ballistic Missile (MRBM) sites, and the Guanajay Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) site respectively) have any launchers left to be useful in a Soviet nuclear strike against the mainland US?

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    $\begingroup$ I think your blog link may be broken. That being said, much of the real question will be the Soviet response to a substantial chunk of the US airforce striking at Cuba. How long will they let the missiles just sit on the ground? $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Dec 8 '17 at 18:02
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    $\begingroup$ @CortAmmon I fixed the link. There was a dot at the end for some reason. $\endgroup$ – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Dec 8 '17 at 18:06
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    $\begingroup$ By the way, that's a HELL of a buildup. There's more to this alternate history than meets the eye. Consider this declassified document from the CIA in 1982 suggesting they had 30 SA-2 launchers from when they were dug in in the 1960's. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Dec 8 '17 at 18:12
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    $\begingroup$ Does this detail even matter in your story when you are already claiming that there is tactical nukes waiting? If the Americans didn't know about the tactical nukes, why would you assume they even knew where every missile site is. If the Americans are going to attack, they would make sure every site they know about is rendered completely inoperable because the consequences of not doing so would be catastrophic so the only way one would be working would be either the Americans fail in their initial attack or their intel was wrong/incomplete. $\endgroup$ – A. C. A. C. Dec 8 '17 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Future Historian, even worse (from the American viewpoint), the local Soviet commanders had release authority on the warheads. They could have fired them on their own initiative at any time without needing further instructions or command from Moscow. $\endgroup$ – Keith Morrison Dec 8 '17 at 20:31

Keep in mind that the early 1960s were before the widespread use of smart bombs. Then look at probabilities.

  • For the sake of the argument, say each Soviet warhead is attacked by two US aircraft. (That's roughly half the American planes on "Scud Hunt" missions ...) Each aircraft has a 90% chance to kill the target. With two separate attacks, each warhead has an 1% chance to survive.
  • Now take 100 warheads, each with that 1% survival rate. The odds are roughly two in three (0.99^100) that at least one warhead survives.

That 90% kill rate is pretty optimistic for 1960s technology, even with perfect intel on the target locations. And there won't be perfect information. Most likely some kitchen trailers will be attacked as "high value targets" and some warheads (and their delivery systems) will remain unattacked.

  • $\begingroup$ Well, 100 tactical warheads and 40 IRBM/MRBMs, the former of which the Americans were not aware of. $\endgroup$ – Future Historian Dec 9 '17 at 13:14
  • $\begingroup$ @FutureHistorian, so getting all of them will be quite impossible. The Coalition couldn't stop Saddam from launching SCUDs, and that was in easier terrain with a much more advanced air force. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Dec 9 '17 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ @FutureHistorian, with these numbers it is highly unlikely that the Americans would get all of them. You could describe an air raid on a battery which ends with most of the missiles destroyed, most of the launchers damaged, most of the crews dead, and still there is a wounded major who rallies the survivors: "We still have a launcher, we still have a missile, we have our orders, so let's load the missile and fire." $\endgroup$ – o.m. Dec 9 '17 at 15:36
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    $\begingroup$ @FutureHistorian, impossible to say, too much random chance. A bunch of photo interpreters eat something funny in the mess, they are not up to par, half a battery is not even attacked. A fuel truck is halted right between two launchers, the fuel truck is hit, both launchers are gone. An attack squadron encounters some MiGs, the fighter-bombers jettison their bombs to go air-to-air, a command center survives. A general orders a missile battery to move just hours before the attack, and it survives. Or it gets caught on the road and destroyed. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Dec 9 '17 at 18:29
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    $\begingroup$ @FutureHistorian, it would be quite improbable that all survive, and equally improbable that all are destroyed. So you can have fun writing the little random stuff. "The pilot who saved Miami." (Went kamikaze into a missile because he was out of ammo.) "The political officer who went missing, along with his part of the code." (A starfighter crashed into the hotel where he met his mistress.) $\endgroup$ – o.m. Dec 9 '17 at 18:53

EDIT (to account for new information):

My understanding of the question is: given the forces listed above, plus 187 American reinforcement aircraft in Day 2, and assuming that leaving the ballistic missile sites alone for several days is an option, is it possible for any of the ballistic missile sites to survive a sustained air assault?


Here is a simulation. Feel free to make a copy and experiment.

In summary, the surface to air missiles would do terrific damage on the American aircraft. It would be reasonable for the Cuban surface to air missile sites to be the sole focus of the first day of combat. It would be a bloodbath, and almost all of the American aircraft would be shot down. All of the surface to air launchers, however, would be destroyed.

Reinforcements, in the form of 187 additional American aircraft would arrive at the end of Day 1. This would give the Americans an almost 2-to-1 numerical advantage over the Cubans.

I looked at several websites that said Cuban aircraft were superior air-to-air fighters than their American counterparts. To get to surviving nuclear missile sites, you must assume this to be true.

The next requires a misstep in the American commander's assignment of aircraft missions - continuing to focus on surface to air missile site hunting in Day 2, completely understandable since they shot down nearly four hundred American planes the day before. However, this ground focus allows Cuban aircraft to continue shooting down American planes - cutting down the American numerical advantage.

On Day 3, the American commander changes focus to the Cuban aircraft. The battle will continue for two days, where the superior Cuban air fighters and shorter sortie times allow the Cubans to turn the tide, shooting down the last American aircraft on Day 5.

In this instance, all 40 ballistic missile sites would remain. If the American commander devotes some small percentage (less than 20%) of the force to taking out the ballistic missile sites first, the number could be reduced.

  • $\begingroup$ That makes sense. And this is just the first day, correct? Because I forgot to mention in the blog post: the air campaign lasts for eight days minimum before the Americans land. $\endgroup$ – Future Historian Dec 10 '17 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ I might have missed it in the blog, but I would imagine the ballistic missile counter attack would begin as soon as the air strikes began. You can use this to determine time to eradication with some probability. But you'd have to take into account attrition among the aircraft, because they are a fixed resource. Let me see if I can set up a public sheet. What is the outcome you are trying to achieve? $\endgroup$ – James McLellan Dec 10 '17 at 13:17
  • $\begingroup$ Some launchers are still operational over by the end of the eight day air campaign (though the plan could make it last to a total of 18 days, with the remaining time being to provide air support to ground units), followed by US forces landing in Cuba, which get vapourised by tactical nukes after intense fighting. However, I should point out that I want this to be realistic, so...... $\endgroup$ – Future Historian Dec 10 '17 at 16:35
  • $\begingroup$ Here is what (I hope) is a public Google sheet. You'll want to adjust the mission distribution by day. docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/… $\endgroup$ – James McLellan Dec 10 '17 at 19:19
  • $\begingroup$ What I found to be a problem was the SAM launchers. You could exhaust your entire supply in Day 1, allowing the friendly forces to concentrate on targets other than the launchers in later $\endgroup$ – James McLellan Dec 10 '17 at 19:33

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