Once again an anniversary has come and gone and what little I saw written contained few of the historical insights gained in the last couple of decades – much like what happens on the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs each year.
One of the subjects brought up in the typical anniversary copy is the Thor missiles in Turkey – generally referred to as outdated and bargained away as a sop to Khrushchev to allow him to save face while removing missiles from Cuba. The real story, and the role of those missiles in causing the Soviet gambit in the first place, is far more complex. I certainly don’t have room to describe that all here – besides its all in Surprise Attack, buy the book, read it, trust me you’ll like it…grin.
The thing is that by 1961 the Soviets had suffered several really bad problems with their nuclear armament programs and there was truly massive long range missile gap – but it was on the Soviet side rather than the American side as feared only a year earlier. Still, the Soviets had a wealth of IRBM’s in place which could have decimated Western Europe and by itself that might have been sufficient leverage to call it a strategic draw.
Only in recent years have we come to realize the game changer was the perception that the US had achieved “decapitation” ability. In strategic terms decapitation means the ability to take out your enemy’s leadership, its command and control ability in a manner that would preempt any effective retaliation. And while the Jupiter IRBM’s in Turkey were rapidly being surpassed by newer missiles, they had indeed put the Soviets at risk of a missile strike with flight paths of only minutes – in short, exposing them to decapitation.
The only answer to that was either a forwarded deployed submarine fleet – or the Soviet nuclear subs were all in port with huge reactor design issues – or putting IRBM’s with the same decapitation capability close to the U.S., say in Cuba.
In reviewing the JFK missile crisis tapes and notes it somewhat surprising that even after the discovery of the Soviet missiles in Cuba, neither JFK or McNamara really seemed to grasp the reasoning behind the extremely risky Soviet move. As days passed senior military advisers attempted to get across the fact that there was a strategic difference between nuclear missiles in Russian and nuclear missiles in Cuba. To this day it’s unclear that issue was fully appreciated, but the promise of removing the Jupiters was much more substantive than is generally discussed even now.
Decapitation is a concept which comes up repeatedly in Surprise Attack – in fact you might be surprised to learn that the Russian Federation has recently begun a major restructuring of its armed forces – ostensibly due to fears of a decapitation strike by American’s planned hyper-sonic strike missiles, to be deployed under the Global Strike concept.