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Hellfire Missile Shipped to Cuba Targets U.S./Cuban Relations

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On Thursday, January 7, 2016, the date known in Latin culture as the one when the three Kings of the traditional Christian nativity story drop in on children, bearing gifts, the Wall Street Journal published the news that a very special gift had been dropped in Cuba: a made-in-the-USA air-to-ground Hellfire missile. Presumably, the offering would have delighted Cuba’s president, as he might finally having a look inside yet another one of the instruments that the U.S. had prepared for doing away with Cuba’s Castros.

But what really lies beneath this extraordinary journalistic scoop brought to light by Devlin Barrett and Gordon Lubold more than 19 months after it actually took place?

After closely reading the article and the comments it has engendered, including those from well-known politicians like John McCain, a number of questions surface that must be evaluated as part of any meaningful analysis.

First, why is this story coming to light only now, when the events are said to have taken place two years ago, in the first half of 2014?

Why does the story, filled with quotes from unnamed officials and “people familiar with the case” have so many contradictions and lack of detail?

How can the “sensitive” military hardware by an irresponsible network of private shippers be explained?

Is the Hellfire such an important piece of military technology that it would sink the U.S. armed forces if it fell into enemy hands? Would Russia, Iran, North Korea or China have any interest in such technology?

Would the Cubans achieve any concrete benefit from turning over such an “advanced” instrument to any of the countries or powers fighting against U.S. troops the world over?

Finally, could the publication of this article, suggesting on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that Cuba might have directed an intelligence operation to steal such prized military technology, possibly be related to this very delicate moment in U.S./ Cuban relations?

In order to offer a proper analysis, a number of sources must be consulted in order to corroborate facts, and this is what this article will attempt to address.

For starters, let’s examine the contradictory evidence presented by the unnamed sources.

According to Lockheed Martin, the Hellfire’s manufacturer, a missile with an inert (dummy) warhead was sent to Spain, to be used in NATO exercises. No mention is made of how the missile was to be used in these maneuvers.

According to missile experts, there are three possible uses for such missiles in practice maneuvers: 1. To be used in exercises where they are manually placed in their delivery devices (helicopters, planes, or drones) to practice combat readiness. 2. To be launched against fictitious targets, in which case, active warheads are generally employed, in order to evaluate their battlefield effectiveness. 3. To be used as targets themselves, standing in for airborne objects in anti-aircraft target practice and radio-electronic interference exercises, simulating real conditions as closely as possible.

If we take the WSJ journalists at their word, the missile was to have returned to the U.S. from Germany after it was used, which eliminates alternatives 2 and 3, because in either of those cases the missile would have been destroyed during practice.

Considering that option number 1 is the only possible variant, a reasonable doubt suddenly stands out: Does it make any practical sense to send missiles to Spain from Orlando, Florida for the sole purpose of allowing soldiers to physically handle them between the warehouses and the aircraft, and vice versa? Wouldn’t it make more sense to use the missiles already onsite in Germany and Spain, where the U.S. has a huge force which ought to have plenty of missiles on hand for practice? There it would be simply a matter of removing the explosive charge and replacing it with an inert one, which could be sent from the U.S. if necessary. Is it possible that the U.S. does not have enough storage space to keep these missiles at its multiple bases in Rota, Spain, or Germany, and as a result is forced to send them all the way back to the U.S.?

Basic reasoning shows that the story regarding the objective behind the missile’s transfer is hardly credible.

Another element that sheds light on the affair has to do with the strange network of private and state-affiliated companies that handle this kind of cargo. From what we can observe, apparently missiles, and presumably other kinds of weapons as well, are being transported by a non-military network where the possibility of loss or mis-shipment would be entirely natural.

According to data included by the WSJ journalists themselves, “Each year, there are about 1,500 disclosures of potential violations to the Arms Export Control Act,” some of which certainly must include missiles. According to an unnamed State Department official, the frequency of mis-shipments is due to “the amount and volume of the defense trade.”

On this point, inevitable questions arise. How is it possible that the United States, which exports billions of dollars worth of weapons annualy, could have such a vulnerable distribution system, risking not only its technology but the possibility that these weapons could fall into enemy hands? Considering the enormous U.S. military budget and the countless means available to the country’s armed forces, why is this kind of transportation not exclusively handled by the military, to guard against such an occurrence? Is it possible that these shipments are not accurately labeled, complete with Packing Lists, to avoid the possibility of deviation from their intended route, ending up wherever?

The takeaway impression is that such an irresponsible “distribution system” is designed to be used in the supply of U.S. troops and their allies throught the world, including undeclared ones.

But even if that were so, how could properly identified cargo have passed through so many hands without anyone catching the error? The story is that after having been “used” in Spain, the missile should have been sent to Germany in order to travel back to the U.S. In practice, according to the WSJ, the missile went instead to France in order to wind up in Cuba.

And if this is so, then there must have been multiple errors. First in Spain, where it was sent to France instead of Germany. Second in France where no-one realized that Paris was not its destination. But finally in France again, where the cargo which was not carrying the correct documentation, was sent to another destination not on the consignment list.

Apparently the only people who made no error here were the Cubans, who immediately identified the errant cargo and confiscated it. Is it possible that Cuba’s cargo control is more efficient than that of Spain or France?

Although the article does not offer specific dates, the missile is said to have gone “missing” between January and June of 2014. Can it be true that even now the investigation still has not concluded, with the story now being presented to us as though it has just taken place? We’re talking about a lost missile, not canned peaches, passing through countries that are U.S. allies.

But the most interesting part are the speculations that Barrett and Lubold subtly slip into the story.

The article does not begin by outlining the facts, but by speculating that the arrival of the Hellfire missile in Cuba might have been the work of a Cuban intelligence operation.

After clarifying that the missile did not have an explosive charge – possibly to avoid the scandal that would be unleashed if U.S. authorities were seen to be sending explosive cargo around the world in the cargo bays of civilian aircraft – it is suggested that the Hellfire contains sensitive technology that Cuba might turn over to countries in conflict with the U.S.: Russia, China, Iran or North Korea.

This is where the article’s true intentions are revealed.

To begin with, we must point out something which the reporters surely know but did not include in their article. The Hellfire is already obsolete. Current reports from the U.S. military press mention that in August of 2015, the decision was made to develop Joint Air-to-Ground Missiles (JAGM) in order to retire not only the already obsolete Hellfire II, but also the TOW (BGM-71) and Maverick (AGM-65) missiles.

The problem is that the Hellfire has a laser targeting system that is highly vulnerable when smoke or dust are present, something quite common on the battlefield. In addition, the aircraft carrying the missile must keep the objective in sight, as opposed to launching and swiftly leaving the area.

The new JAGM has a dual targeting system which adds highly precise “fire-and-forget” millimeter wave radar (MWM) to a semi-active laser guidance system, making it more effective under real combat conditions. It also will allow for carriers to launch the missile and leave the objective behind, taking the necessary precautions to avoid being intercepted.

At this point, one must ask the question: why would Russia and China or other countries have any interest in a technology that has already been surpassed by better technology and that they would not face in any potential operating theater?

The Russians already have the Vijr-1 in their arsenal, far superior to the Hellfires, as well as the X-29 missile group, similar to the Hellfires and widely used in Afghanistan and Syria.

A brief comparison of the characteristics of the two:

Screen shot 2016-01-11 at 2.14.20 PM

As can be observed, there are evident differences between the Vijr-1, in active use, and the Hellfire II. If we add that the effectiveness co-efficients of the already proven Vijr-1 are around .08 and those of the Hellfire do not exceed .04, then we can conclude that the Russians will not learn anything from any sensors or technology provided by the Cubans, were they to re-gift them the Hellfire received from the United States. So any Cuban ideas about negotiating a juicy contract through the sale of Hellfire technology will have to be abandoned.

Meanwhile, the delivery of this technology to countries like Iran or North Korea would do nothing at all to improve on the means already in their posession, while exacting a very high political cost on the Cubans. It would be senseless to think that after 55 years of difficult struggle against the world’s largest superpower ever, Cuban leaders would toss overboard the possibility of an end to the embargo that weighs so heavily on their shoulders, in order to deliver an obsolete missile to some unknown country facing off against the Americans.

Readers may be unaware that this is not the first incident of this sort, where a U.S. weapon has fallen into Cuban hands for one reason or another. The U-2 downed by Soviet forces during the Missile Crisis was taken to the Soviet Union where it underwent reverse engineering. In the 1980’s, there was an MK-43 torpedo that was dropped on the Cuban coastline just off Holguin, with technology that was little known in the socialist camp at the time. This was also sent to the Soviets for analysis.

But now the situation is completely different. The military and political ties in place between Cuba and those countries during those years no longer exist.

What is indeed very interesting is the irresponsible logistics network that the U.S. is using to distribute its military hardware, made up of civilian airlines, private freight forwarders, and a very loose system of control that takes months to detect the loss of something as sensitive as weapons.

Could it have been designed this way intentionally, in order to justify the huge quantities of weapons that terrorist groups worldwide are receiving?

In a report recently published by Sky News, accompanied by a video from the Islamic State, engineers working for this terrorist organization are shown working with a ground-to-air missile capable of downing civilian aircraft and drones. The video shows equipment with high technology, which immediately generates the obvious question: how are they acquiring it if U.S. authorities claim to be controlling these weapons so tightly?

According to the report, the IS could make use of a massive supply of missiles considered obsolete by the West, launching them against civilian airliners.

Could it be that the Cuban Hellfire was on the list of weapons that have miraculously ended up in terrorist hands, and a French dispatcher took advantage of the chance to ship this one to yet another “terrorist” country, following the pattern set by the U.S.?

It’s difficult to say who is behind the WSJ article, so conveniently published just at the moment when Cuban – U.S. relations are being relaunched, with no shortage of difficulties. It would not be the first time that the interests which control the U.S. mass media would have launched this kind of disinformation campaign.

It’s possible that nothing at all will occur with the Cuban Hellfire, but many readers will still be left with the impression that Cuba is hostile to the United States, when the opposite has been resoundingly demonstrated. President Obama’s efforts to move forward in reestablishing relations with Cuba could be torpedoed as a result.

Not only is there no way the Cubans can take advantage of this “miraculous” technology offered by the U.S., but it is also not in their interest. They already have the necessary means for their defense, and waging war on the U.S. is not among the country’s priorities.

Who is really behind the Cuban Hellfire? Soon we’ll know. Early reactions indicate that this conveniently timed revelation is related to the current state of relations between Cuba and the United States. The Cuban Hellfire is aimed squarely at this target, and at damaging the efforts that the presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro have decided to undertake to improve relations. Apparently there are some people who still do not understand that come what may, this process is irreversible.

David Urra is a graduate of the Caspian S.M. Kirov Superior Naval Academy in Baku. He can be reached at davidurra@yahoo.com.

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