Cuba Returns Hellfire Missile to U.S.

As reported in an earlier post, in June 2014, an U.S. Hellfire inert missile arrived in Cuba by an erroneous or criminal diversion from Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, France. The missile 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. This diversion came to the public’s attention via a January 7, 2016, report in the Wall Street Journal.

A month later, on February 13, 2016, the missile was returned to the U.S. The same day an U.S. State Department spokesman said that the missile “has been returned with the cooperation of the Cuban government” and that the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries had allowed the U.S. to engage with Cuba on “issues of mutual interest.”  Further details were not available, said the spokesman, due to restrictions under U.S. law and regulations.[1]

The same day the Cuban government confirmed the return of the missile. It said that its customs inspectors had discovered the missile while conducting a routine inspection of cargo on a flight that had arrived from Paris in June 2014 due to “error or mishandling” by persons in France. “For Cuban authorities, the arrival in the country of a U.S.-made military equipment that hadn’t been declared as such on the cargo manifest was worrying.”

Thereafter, according to the Cuban government, the missile was “duly conserved and taken care of.” Once the U.S. government officially had informed the Cuban government that the missile had ben shipped to Cuba by mistake and that the U.S. wanted the missile returned, Cuban commenced proceedings to return the missile.

Although the return is good news for the U.S., there are still serious unanswered questions:

  • What caused the diversion of the missile from France to Cuba? Error by airline or freight forwarders’ employees? Or intentional criminal act by unknown persons? Or act of espionage by unknown country or agency?
  • Why did it take roughly 20 months for Cuba to return the missile?
  • What happened with the missile during those 20 months?
  • What did Cuba mean when it said that the missile had been “duly conserved and taken care of”?
  • When and how did the U.S. advise the Cuban government that the missile had been shipped to Cuba by mistake and request its return to the U.S.?
  • What was said and by whom in the discussions or negotiations for the return of the missile?

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

[1] Assoc. Press, Cuba Returns Inert Hellfire Missile to U.S., N.Y. Times (Feb. 13, 2016); Reuters, U.S. Recovers Hellfire Air-to-Ground Missile from Cuba, N.Y. Times (Feb. 13, 2016); Statement of the MInistry of Foreign Affairs of Cuba (Feb. 13, 2016). 

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).