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Caribbean Islands

The Soviet Presence

United States hegemony in the Caribbean in the twentieth century had remained until the Cuban revolution in 1959, an event that made the Soviet Union recognize the vulnerability of America's "backyard." By 1962 the Soviet Union had established a military outpost in Cuba and later that year began to emplace strategic missiles on the island. Although forced to withdraw the missiles as a result of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, the Soviets retained a combat brigade there. The Soviet Union also began to devise a more sophisticated strategy designed to exploit the new opportunities opened up by the Cuban revolution, but without risking another direct military confrontation with the United States. The main objectives of the new Soviet strategy in the Caribbean region, as assessed by American analysts, were to erode American influence further, expand Soviet influence and power, establish Soviet proxies, expand Soviet military and intelligence facilities and capabilities, make the United States withdraw from other parts of the world in an effort to consolidate defense of its vulnerable southern flank, and complicate American defense planning by increasing the sea-denial capabilities of the Soviet Union and its proxies.

In the early 1960s, the Soviet Union reportedly also began preparing for future naval activity in the Caribbean region by using its oceanographic research fleet to survey the area around Cuba and the Mona, Windward, and Anegada passages. The resulting data facilitated the Soviet attempt to develop surface and underwater weapons, surveillance systems, antisubmarine warfare, mine warfare, and amphibious landing data. Meanwhile, Soviet merchant vessels opened the Caribbean to Soviet maritime power. Seventy-eight Soviet merchant vessels were reported sighted in 1963; by 1968 the number had increased to 247 ships.

Prior to Castro's seizure of power, Soviet naval warships rarely visited the Western Hemisphere. They first entered the Caribbean region in July 1969 but caused little concern in the United States because world attention at the time was focused on the Apollo 11 moon landing. The Soviet military presence in the Western Hemisphere became more pronounced during the 1970s. The completion of the Soviet submarine base at Cienfuegos on Cuba's southern coast in 1970 (under the guise of a sugar terminal) allowed nuclear-powered and conventionally powered Golf-class submarines of the Soviet Union and later Cuba to begin operating in Caribbean waters. In the spring of 1970, the Caribbean played an important role in the Soviet Union's first global naval exercise, Okean-70. In addition, the first Soviet Tu-95 Bear D reconnaissance and antisubmarine aircraft landed in Cuba that April. Since 1975 these aircraft have operated out of the San Antonio de los Banos airfield and, beginning in September 1982, along the eastern coast of the United States and in the Caribbean. In 1983 Tu-142 Bear F aircraft began using the same airfield, marking another gradual improvement in Soviet antisubmarine warfare capability in the region. During the 1969-86 period, twenty-six Soviet task forces were deployed to the Caribbean, and almost all of them visited Cuban ports, usually Havana and Cienfuegos. The early deployments included port visits to Jamaica and Barbados.

According to the United States Department of Defense, the Soviet naval deployments are used to show the flag in the Caribbean and occasionally in the Gulf of Mexico and to exercise with Cuban navy and air force units. The Soviets have deployed a wide range of ships and submarines, including guided missile cruisers, guided missile frigates, destroyers, and nuclear-powered cruise missile and attack submarines.

The Soviet Union traditionally has viewed the Caribbean as America's "strategic rear," according to American academic and military specialists on Soviet naval strategy. Cuba has served Soviet interests not only by promoting activities inimical to American and Commonwealth Caribbean interests, such as narcotics smuggling, regional subversion, support for radical regimes, and military intervention in Africa, but also by developing into a potential military threat in the event of war. Soviet strategy in the Caribbean region has called for gaining control, directly or indirectly, over the four major choke points in the region's sealanes , as well as developing the capability to interdict the major maritime routes transiting the area.

The German U-boat threat in the Caribbean during World War II clearly demonstrated the vulnerability of the Caribbean sea-lanes to interdiction and of the refineries to attack. The Nazi submarines wreaked havoc on shipping even though they were few in number, never totaling more than a dozen, and operated in the area without benefit of friendly regional ports or air cover. Moreover, during the war the United States could avail itself fully of Cuba as a naval base and source of supply. By contrast, in the event of a general war in the late 1980s, Soviet and Cuban submarines operating from Cuba would have advantages that the Germans lacked. The Soviet nuclear submarine base in Cienfuegos would make the island a potential base for submarine warfare in the Caribbean. Furthermore, since the 1970s the Soviets have tracked the movement of United States warships from the Soviet signals intelligence collection facility in Lourdes, Cuba. Given these advantages, American naval analysts believe that, in the event of a major war Soviet and Cuban submarines might succeed in cutting off the four main choke points in the Caribbean, interdicting American shipping heading eastward from the Persian Gulf to the western coast of the United States, and attacking the United States mainland.

The Soviet choke-point strategy may help to explain why the Soviets apparently coveted Grenada, a small island with no significant resources. In 1983, when Maurice Bishop was still in power in Grenada, United States government military strategists feared that use of the island in conjunction with bases in Cuba and Nicaragua would enable the Soviet Union to project tactical power over the entire Caribbean Basin. According to this scenario, in the event of a major war Soviet-controlled air and naval forces operating from all three of these countries would have an ideal capability for sabotaging the United States-NATO "swing strategy" through harassment of the NATO supply lines. According to American naval analysts, Soviet strategy projected that Cuba- and Nicaraguabased Soviet forces would engage in persistent harassment and seadenial operations in an effort to close the four major choke points in the Caribbean sea-lanes.

Data as of November 1987

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