Cuba’s Possession of U.S. Missile Threatens To Disrupt U.S.-Cuba Normalization

On January 7, 2016, it became publicly known through a Wall Street Journal article that since sometime in 2014 Cuba has had possession of an inert U.S. missile that was erroneously shipped to Cuba from Europe.[1] This post will discuss what is now known about this missile in Cuba and the reactions to this news.

Diversion of U.S. Missile to Cuba

Hellfire missile
Hellfire missile

The object is a dummy U.S. Hellfire missile without any explosives that is a laser-guided, air-to-surface weapon that weighs about 100 pounds and that can be deployed from an attack helicopter or an unmanned drone.

Its manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, in early 2014, with U.S. State Department authorization, shipped the missile from Orlando, Florida to Spain for a NATO training exercise for later return to the U.S. After the completion of the training exercise, it was packaged in Rota, Spain and sent on another freight-forwarder’s truck to Madrid, where it was sent by plane to Frankfurt, Germany. There it was supposed to have been shipped to Lockheed in Florida. Instead for unknown reasons it was shipped from Frankfurt to Paris on an Air France flight, and from Paris to Havana on another Air France flight. Upon its arrival in Cuba, a Cuban official noticed the labeling on the crate and seized it.

Around June 2014 Lockheed, after realizing the missile was missing and likely was in Cuba, notified the U.S. State Department. Thereafter the U.S. has been pressing the Cuban government for information about the missile and for Cuba to return it to the U.S., but Cuba has not responded.

During the summer of 2014, of course, the U.S. and Cuba were engaged in the final steps leading up to the December 17, 2014, announcement that the two countries were embarked upon normalization of relations. Since then, they have been taking various steps toward normalization.

The reason for the shipment to Cuba is unknown. Was it a stupid mistake by a freight forwarder or several of such companies? That I find difficult to believe. That seems to leave it being an intentional criminal or espionage act.

The U.S. is concerned that Cuba has or could give access to the missile to learn about its technology to Russia, China or North Korea. But an article by someone who apparently is technically sophisticated in such matters discounts such dire consequences because “there’s good reason to suspect that China and other large cyber powers might already have blueprints and more, thanks to the still-vague scope of several highly successful military cyber attacks;” because “the US sells thousands upon thousands of working Hellfires to ‘close military ‘allies’ like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey;” and because “the fall of Iraq’s Mosul to forces from ISIS . . . led to about $700 million worth of working Hellfire missiles falling into the hands of terrorists.”[2]

 Criticism of the Obama Administration[3]

Unsurprisingly this news has prompted severe criticism of the Administration.

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), a Republican presidential candidate, voiced his criticism in a letter to Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson. Rubio opened with the seemingly incontrovertible statement, “Preventing the proliferation of sensitive U.S. technology is one of the most important duties carried out by the State Department.” Because Jacobson has been so deeply involved with normalization negotiations with Cuba, she was asked these questions:

  • “When was the State Department informed that a U.S. Hellfire missile had been sent to Cuba?
  • When were you personally first informed of this matter and by whom?
  • What has been done to obtain the missile’s return by the Cuban government?
  • What specific entity of the Cuban government is currently in possession of the missile?
  • Please provide a list of the specific occasions on which you or other U.S. Government officials have raised this issue with the Castro regime.
  • Why was the return of the missile not obtained as a result of the negotiations that led to President Obama’s December 17, 2014 announced change in U.S. policy toward Cuba?
  • Why was the return of the missile not a condition of removal of Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list?
  • Why was the return of the missile not a condition of establishment of embassies in Havana and Washington?
  • What members of Congress did you inform of this issue during your briefings and testimony regarding U.S. policy toward Cuba over the last 18 months?
  • Does the State Department know if the Cuban government shared the missile or its design with any foreign governments?”

The Rubio letter concluded, “Sensitive U.S. technology falling into the hands of such a regime [as Cuba’s] has significant implications for U.S. national security.  The fact that the administration, including you, have apparently tried to withhold this information from the congressional debate and public discussion over U.S.-Cuba policy is disgraceful.”

Also on Friday, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush tweeted: “Whether it’s Iran holding U.S. citizens hostage or Cuba holding a U.S. missile hostage, Obama always caves. I won’t.’’

Four other lawmakers critical of the Obama position toward Cuba also criticized the handling of the missile case. In a joint statement, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), Mario Diaz Balart (R., Fla.), Carlos Curbelo (R., Fla.) and Albio Sires (D., N.J.) said:

  • “Regardless of how Cuba came into possession of a U.S. Hellfire missile – which must be investigated – it is unconscionable that the Obama administration knew the Castros were in possession of this sensitive U.S. military technology since June 2014 and still moved forward with its policy to open up travel, trade, investment and diplomatic relations with the regime.”
  • “The fact that the Castro regime was able to acquire a U.S. Hellfire missile could be indicative of the lengths it is willing to go to undermine our national security and harm our interests. Congress must provide oversight to determine how the U.S. export control system failed to prevent this gross violation from occurring, and if Cuba’s espionage apparatus played a role in this Hellfire acquisition.”
  • “The Cuban regime rebuffed the President’s efforts to secure the return of the Hellfire missile even as the negotiations were ongoing, and yet the regime still got everything it could have wanted. It is no wonder that the Castro brothers feel ever more emboldened to continue on with the repression of the Cuban people, with intimidation and unlawful arrests at an alarmingly high rate.”
  • “This is a very serious breach and we are deeply concerned that the Castros have already shared the sensitive technology with the likes of Russia, North Korea or China. . . . We urge the Administration to start holding the Cuban regime accountable for its continued transgressions not only against its own people, but its continued disregard for international norms.”

Senator Ron Johnson (Rep., WI), the Chair of the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, sent a letter to the heads of the Pentagon and the State Department, asking for an explanation “why the U.S. military would forgo complete control, care, and custody of such cargo when transporting it abroad.’’ Mr. Johnson also asked the administration for details of any other lost shipments of sensitive technology over the past five years.

Administration’s Response to Criticism[4]

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on January 8 that the administration takes the issue very seriously. “The Department of Defense and the State Department are, again, I think for obvious reasons, quite interested in getting to the bottom of exactly what happened.’’

The same day the U.S. State Department spokesman, John Kirby, said, “I am restricted under federal law and regulations from commenting on specific defense trade licensing cases and compliance matters. What I can say is that under the Arms Export Control Act the State Department licenses both permanent and temporary exports by U.S. companies of regulated defense articles. U.S. companies are responsible for documenting their proposed shipping logistics in the application of their export license as well as reporting any shipping deviations to the department as appropriate.”

Conclusion

Although I have been, and still am, a strong advocate for U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, I am very troubled by the news of this missile ending up in Cuban hands and of its diversion in mid-2014 apparently not affecting U.S. negotiation of normalization. Final assessment has to await Assistant Secretary Jacobson’s responses to Senator Rubio’s questions and other news about this situation. I pray that it does not disrupt or sabotage further progress towards normalization.

=========================================

[1] Barrett & Lubold, Missing U.S. Missile Shows Up in Cuba, W.S.J. (Jan. 7, 2016); Reuters, Inert U.S. Hellfire Missile Wrongly Shipped to Cuba in 2014:WSJ, N.Y. Times (Jan. 7, 2016); Assoc. Press, Dummy Hellfire Missile Mistakenly Shipped to Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 8, 2016); Ayuso, The mystery of the US missile ended in Cuba, El Pais (Jan. 9, 2016).

[2] Templeton, It probably won’t matter Cuba got a dummy Hellfire missile—and that’s terrifying, ExtremeTech (Jan. 9, 2016).

[3] Barrett & Lubold, Republicans Criticize Obama Administration Over Missile Sent to Cuba, W.S.J. (Jan. 8, 2015); Missile that turned up in Cuba ignites backlash, Miami Herald (Jan. 8, 2016); Rubio, Rubio Demands Answers From Administration On U.S. Missile in Cuba’s Possession (Jan. 8, 2016); Ros-Lehtinen, Ros-Lehtinen, Diaz-Balart, Curbelo and Sires Make Joint Statement Regarding Unaccounted U.S. Hellfire Missile Acquired by the Castro Regime (Jan. 8, 2016)

[4] U.S. Dep’t of State, Daily Press Briefing (Jan. 8, 2016).

 

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

3 thoughts on “Cuba’s Possession of U.S. Missile Threatens To Disrupt U.S.-Cuba Normalization”

  1. Comment: Cuba-North Korea Ties Are Risk to Hellfire Technology

    Mary Anastasia O’Grady, the Wall Street Journal’s columnist, consistently and vehemently has opposed the U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation, and her latest column about the U.S. Hellfire missile in Cuba’s possession does the same.

    However, she does raise the important and troubling issue of Cuba’s ties with North Korea and the risk that Cuba will share (or already has shared?) the Hellfire’s technology with the North Koreans. She says that since the December 2014 announcement of the start of that normalization, “Cuba has repeatedly pledged its loyalty to North Korea.” More specifically, she says:

    • “In March 2015, according to Cuba’s state-run news agency, North Korea’s foreign minister visited Havana and reminded Cubans that the two peoples ‘share a history of struggle together in the same trench against U.S. imperialism, which continues exerting economic pressure on our countries to this day.’ The news agency also reported that the minister brought a ‘message from Jong-Un in order to expand and strengthen’ the excellent relations between the two countries.”Mary
    • “In June 2015 Raúl Castro hosted Kang Sok Su, the secretary of international relations for the North Korean Workers’ Party.”
    • “In September Mr. Kim received Cuban Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel in Pyongyang. Cuba’s state-owned newspaper Granma reported that Mr. Kim sent ‘an affectionate greeting’ to the Castro boys during the visit. It also said that Messrs. Díaz-Canel and Kim discussed the two countries’ close relations and mutual cooperation.”

    I pray that Cuba has not provided North Korea (or others) with the Hellfire’s technology.

    On the other hand, Cuba, at the U.S.’ invitation, will be attending the Caribbean Nations Security Conference later this month in Jamaica. This gathering focuses on co-operation against drug trafficking and other crime.
    =======================================================

    O’Grady, North Korea’s Friends, W.S.J. (Jan. 10, 2016), http://www.wsj.com/articles/north-koreas-cuban-friends-1452461775;

    Assoc. Press, Cuba to Attend Security Conference with US for First Time, N.Y. Times (Jan. 12, 2016), http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2016/01/12/us/ap-cb-caribbean-cuba-us-relations-.html

  2. Comment: A Skeptical View of the Significance of Cuba’s Obtaining a Hellfire Missile

    Couterpunch has published a very detailed article about Cuba’s acquisition and apparent current possession of one U.S. Hellfire missile. The author is David Urra, a graduate of the Caspian S.M. Kirov Superior Naval Academy in Baku, Azerbaijani.

    Urru asserts that this Hellfire missile is obsolete, that its laser-targeting system does not work well when smoke or dust is present, that the aircraft launching the missile must keep the target in sight and that the Russians already have superior weapons similar to the Hellfire. He, therefore, speculates that the Wall Street Journal article disclosing Cuba’s acquisition of the missile was intended to disrupt U.S.-Cuba normalization.

    Urra, Hellfire Missile Shipped to Cuba Targets U.S./Cuban Relations, counterpunch (Jan. 12, 2016), http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/01/12/hellfire-missile-shipped-to-cuba-targets-u-s-cuban-relations/

  3. Comment: Further Details on White House Comments About Hellfire Missile in Cuba

    On January 8, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the following on this subject:

    “I cannot comment on specific defense trade licensing cases and compliance matters. Under the Arms Export Control Act, the Department of State licenses both permanent and temporary exports by U.S. companies of regulated defense articles. And U.S. companies are responsible for documenting their proposed shipping logistics in their export license application as well as reporting any shipping deviations to the department as appropriate. So obviously this is something that both the Department of Defense and the State Department are quite keenly aware of. . . . {T]his is an issue that the administration takes very, very seriously, I think for quite obvious reasons. . . . [B]oth the Department of Defense and State Department are . . . quite interested in getting to the bottom of what exactly happened.”
    =======================================
    White House, Daily Press Briefing (Jan. 8, 2015), https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/01/08/press-briefing-press-secretary-josh-earnest-01082016.

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