President John F. Kennedy was alerted to the secretly-installed Soviet medium-range ballistic missile threat on Oct. 16, the first day of the so-called “Thirteen Days” of the Cuban Missile Crisis. His response was not swift — days of consultation with his military and civilian advisers wore on — and, culminated in his Oct. 22 public announcement of a naval blockade of Cuba and demand for the removal of all offensive weapons. JFK, sobered by his top military brass’ assessment that a quick surgical airstrike to take out all the MiGs and missiles was not possible, struggled to find a diplomatic resolution to the crisis but kept his military options on the table.
Inexplicably, the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) reacted slowly to earlier U-2 high-altitude photos and Coffee’s low-level photographs clearly showing the build-up of coastal defenses including FKR-2 cruise missiles and medium-range Ilyushin Il-28 bombers, both with ranges capable of carrying nuclear bombs to the U.S. Fleet and Guantanamo Naval Base. In fact, as early as September, the Kremlin high command alerted its commander in Cuba they were shipping six nuclear bombs for the Il-28s and 12 “special” [two kiloton nuclear] warheads for the Lunas, which had a range of 25 miles. And more grimly, the Soviet Minister of Defense Rodion Malinovsky and Matvei Zakharov, chief of the general staff, gave local commanders authority “to make your own decision, and to use the nuclear means of the Luna, Il-28, or FKR-2 as instruments of local warfare for the destruction of the invaders of the Cuban territory and to defend the Republic of Cuba.”
Declassified documents now reveal that on Oct. 26 the JCS was focused on the airstrike and invasion plans, with major emphasis on taking out the ballistic missiles aimed at the United States, the Il-28s, MiGs, and the surface-to-air missiles surrounding the island. In a classic military failure of underestimating one’s enemy, the Pentagon was not deterred by the Defense Intelligence Agency’s warning that “. . . there is evidence of possible Soviet ground forces with modern [tactical nuclear weapons] equipment.” The JCS continued to recommend an invasion to the president.
Perhaps the earliest intelligence report to reach Kennedy reporting the presence of the Lunas was in a Oct. 27 CIA report — almost an afterthought it appears— warning: “Photography of Mission 5012 (Coffee and Riley’s photo mission) of 25 October confirmed the presence of a FROG (Free Rocket Over Ground---the US designation for the Luna) launcher in a vehicle park near Remedios.” Never a strong advocate for an invasion, Kennedy was running out of time and support for a nonmilitary resolution to the standoff.
Fortunately, the crisis was resolved on Oct. 28 when Chairman Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the offensive weapons, with Kennedy’s promise not to invade Cuba and to remove the blockade. Decades later, McNamara revealed that at the “height of the crisis, Soviet forces in Cuba possessed a total of 162 nuclear warheads, including at least 90 tactical warheads.” He also concluded that the Soviets and Cubans would have chosen to “use them rather than lose them.” A reader of this history is left to ponder if the first Luna fired against an American invasion force would also have been the first shot of World War III.
Kenneth V. Jack was a U.S. Navy electronic photo technician for VFP-62 when the squadron flew the first low-level reconnaissance missions over the Soviet nuclear missiles hidden in Cuba. His book Blue Moon over Cuba: Aerial Reconnaissance during the Cuban Missile Crisis  was published in August.