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Potential Russian Launch Base in Cuba

by Ward Carroll on September 30, 2008

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Even as a Russian naval task force enters the Caribbean for joint exercises with Venezuelan forces, and a pair of Russian Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bombers fly from a base in the Kola Peninsula to Venezuela, the Russian government is discussing the possibility of a satellite launch facility in Cuba.

Revelation of the interest in Cuba came from Anatoly Perminov, the head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, in a September statement. This may be the latest move by Russian prime minister (and former president) Vladimir Putin to reestablish Russia as a key “player” on the world political-military scene.

The Russian interest in the Caribbean-South America region is reflected in the high-level Russian delegation visiting the area, led by Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin. Perminov is part of the Sechin delegation.

(Sechin had visited Cuba on 30–31 July of this year for talks with Raul Castro and, possibly, the ailing Fidel Castro.Putin followed up Sechin’s visit with a 5 August announcement that Russia should “restore [its] position in Cuba and other countries.”)

The Soviet Union-Russia was the principal political and economic supporter of Cuba from the early 1960s through the demise of the USSR in December 1991. Indeed, Soviet attempts to establish Cuba as a strategic missile and military base led to the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 when the United States and Soviet union came closer to a nuclear exchange than at any other time during the 45-year Cold War. After the demise of the USSR support for Cuba ended, causing considerable economic hardship in Cuba.

A major satellite launch facility in Cuba would permit placing satellites in certain orbits that cannot be done from Russian launch sites: Easterly launches close to the equator are the most efficient because of the earth’s rotation, maximizing the payload that a launch vehicle can boost into orbit. Such a launch facility and its support infrastructure would be a major source of employment and foreign investment for the Cuban economy.

From the Russian perspective, beyond the political impact of having a major technical facility less than 100 miles from the U.S. coast, it easily enables the reestablishment of a major intelligence collection capability in Cuba. (From the mid-1960s until 2002 the Soviet military intelligence agency — the GRU — operated a massive collection facility at Lourdes, Cuba. At its peak operation it was manned by more than 2,000 technicians, both military and civilian.)

Russia’s interest in the Western Hemisphere far exceeds Cuba and Venezuela, as the Moscow regime seeks to sell arms to other South American countries, gain access to South American resources (which is now subject to major Chinese efforts), and to develop improved commercial ties to an area that many feel has long been ignored by the United States.

While some Americans will see a satellite launch facility in Cuba as a “cover” for the possible use of such launch stands for military missiles, that concern is a non-starter. U.S. satellite surveillance and the presence of numerous American technicians and businessmen in Cuba, as well as visiting educational groups, would make such a clandestine effort impossible.

Further, because of the non-military nature of such a facility — which would take several years to establish — the U.S. government would be hard pressed to claim that it violated the 1962 agreements between Moscow and Washington that prohibited strategic weapons — missiles and bombers — from being installed in Cuba.

As the Russian government reacts to American anger over Russian intervention in Georgia, the continuing expansion of NATO, and U.S. plans to install ballistic missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, a non-military satellite launch installation in Cuba could be considered a valid action by the Moscow regime. Of more concern to American leaders should be the arms sales to Venezuela, especially the expected sale of up to five advanced diesel-electric submarines of the Project 877EKM or Varshavyanka series, known in the West as the improved Kilo class.

These submarines and other arms sales — and joint Russian-indigenous weapon programs — will enhance Russia’s influence and access to resources in South America. And that situation could greatly harm U.S. interests.

Norman Polmar

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