The armored forces of Cuba

(To Andrea Gaspardo)
03/09/21

When it comes to tanks and other types of armored vehicles, it is almost automatic to think of their use on the battlefields of Europe (especially Eastern Europe), the Middle East and North Africa by European countries, the Soviet Union, Israel, Iran, Turkey, Arab countries or the United States of America. Yet, few know that one of the largest users of armored vehicles of the twentieth century was actually a Latin American country, famous for its very particular history: the Republic of Cuba. Not only that, although from 1991 to today Cuba has greatly reduced its size of its once mammoth Armed Forces, it still possesses the sixth largest armored force in the world in terms of numbers. Therefore, for fans of the sector as well as for lovers of the Caribbean and Latin America, the study of this particular "exotic" subject can be full of interesting discoveries.

The first contingent of armored vehicles destined for the Armed Forces of the Republic of Cuba literally "landed" on the Caribbean island in 1942 as part of the so-called "Lend-Lease Program", which immediately after the events of Pearl Harbor had been extended to all allied and friendly countries of the United States of America. The vehicles in question were 8 light tanks Marmon Herrington CTMS-1TB1 (next photo) who soon earned the nickname from the Cubans of “Three-Man Dutch”. This nickname derives, on the one hand, from the fact that the crew of the wagons consisted of three men, and on the other, that these vehicles belonged to the variant sent to South-East Asia in support of the Dutch forces engaged against the Japanese, therefore they were optimized to operate in tropical climates.

This first "patrol" was soon reinforced, in the course of 1942-43 by the arrival of 24 light tanks M3A1 General Stuart, as a reward from the US for Cuba's declaration of war against the Axis powers. Being the most powerful armored tools supplied to the small island nation, the M3 Stuarts were concentrated in the "Columbia Regiment", the elite unit of the Cuban Armed Forces stationed in Havana.

Despite the enthusiasm for these acquisitions, the Cuban armored vehicles saw no use during the Second World War, apart from intense training and patrolling of the coasts, and the United States itself did not provide any other means until 1957. when the regime of Rubén Fulgencio Batista y Zaldívar (the strong man of the island from 1940 to 1944 and again from 1952 to 1958) did not receive 7 medium tanks M4A3 (76) W HVSS General Sherman. The latter belonged to one of the most powerful versions of the legendary Sherman, the one with a "long" 76 mm gun, and quickly became the flagship of the Armed Forces of the regime.

At the same time, Cuba also obtained its first armored cars, 20 to be precise M8 Greyhound. As far as the arrival of the Sherman had been an undoubted leap forward for the Cubans, they were also the last tanks of American origin that Cuba received. Since the failed "Assault on the Moncada" on July 26, 1953 by Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz and his armed supporters, the island was filled with discontent and revolutionary ferments that exploded in the so-called "Cuban Revolution".

The savage repression carried out by Batista's forces (which claimed over 20.000 lives) alienated any sympathy from the US public towards the island authorities and convinced the Administration of President Dwight David "Ike" Eisenhower to cut off any support, including military supplies, to the Cuban government.

Desperate, Batista began to replenish his arsenals by buying armaments from all countries willing to sell them to him (including the Soviet Union!) And it was thus that the United Kingdom was approached for the supply of 15 "cruiser chariots" A34 Comet who arrived at their destination during 1958, in time to participate in the most important pitched battles of the "Cuban Revolution". At the same time, Cuba also strengthened the fleet of armored cars by purchasing 28 from Nicaragua T-17E1 Staghound already in service with the Israel Defense Forces.

During the conflict, therefore, the Cuban Armed Forces deployed a total of 54 tanks and 48 armored cars, for a total of 102 armored vehicles, which saw intense use on all fronts, especially around the Sierra Maestra and the Escambray mountains, in the province of the East, in the offensive of May 1958 and in the battle of Guise. Although the armor and firepower of these vehicles often proved decisive in the course of individual fights, they were still available in insufficient numbers to turn the tide of the conflict.

At the end of 1958 the revolutionary forces unleashed the general offensive and, during the "Battle of Santa Clara", the resistance of the Cuban Armed Forces was annihilated, despite the fact that for the occasion they had concentrated 10 of their precious tanks in a single battlefield (photo).

On January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro, flanked by Ernesto "Che" Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos Gorriarán entered Havana driving an M4 Sherman captured during the last few fights, marking the final triumph of the Revolutionary War.

Over the years of the conflict, 9 tanks had been destroyed (3 Marmon Herrington CTMS-1TB1 and 6 M3A1 General Stuart) and the other 45 were incorporated into the nascent "Revolutionary Armed Forces" (FAR), while the losses suffered by the armored car fleet are not clear.

In the period following the end of the Revolution, the surviving Cuban tanks returned to their previous training tasks, and were also used extensively by the propaganda of the new Castro regime on numerous occasions, especially in parades organized to mark particular anniversaries. One of these was on July 26, 1959, when all the tanks were concentrated in the Managua military range and demonstrated their ballistic capabilities by sinking a ship positioned in the surrounding waters. Fidel Castro, present at the event, enthusiastic about the show, decided to opt for an "unscheduled" boarding one Sherman and challenging "comrade" Nestor Lopez (future division commander and veteran of Cuban military interventions in Syria and Angola) also aboard one Sherman to a singular "competition", shooting at the palm trees located along the perimeter of the polygon. After a series of shots with which Castro and Lopez's chariots destroyed several "targets", Castro put an end to the "show" by saying: “Now enough, let's finish it on par. We are also violating the constitution, since the palm is our national tree! ".

The FAR also embarked on a limited upgrade program of the older Marmon Herrington by replacing the original 37mm guns with fast-firing 20mm Bofors QFs. In any case, given the cooling of international relations and the concrete threat of invasion by the United States, the Castro government soon approved a massive program of expansion and rearmament of the armed forces, addressing the Soviet Union and the countries of the Pact of Warsaw, thus opening a new chapter in the history of the Cuban armored forces.

After a series of meetings between the top leaders of the two countries, in June 1960 the Soviet Union agreed to transfer "the outpost of the revolution in Latin America" ​​a large quantity of weapons including a large quantity of armored vehicles to the in order to facilitate the rapid transition of the FAR into the mechanized era. In particular, the Cubans received with this first supply:

  • 100 armored troop transport vehicles BTR-40;
  • 100 tank destroyer vehicles SU-100;
  • 41 heavy tanks Iosif stalin IS-2 (photo);
  • 150 medium tanks T-34 / 85.

The arrival of this large amount of means led to the withdrawal of the aforementioned American and British means of production which were relegated to training and second line functions while the new assets of Soviet origin merged into a newborn armored division headquartered in Managua.

When, in April 1961, the United States launched the invasion of the Bay of Pigs using the so-called "2506 Assault Brigade" as a ram's head, made up of anti-Castro Cuban exiles financed, trained and equipped by the CIA and the US Armed Forces, the availability of Soviet vehicles, in particular the T-34/85 tanks proved to be one of the decisive factors in guaranteeing Castro and the FAR success in the three-day relentless struggle that took place around the beach of the Playa Girón.

On the anti-Castro front, the United States had provided the men with Brigade 2506 also an armored component consisting of 5 tanks M41 Walker Bulldog. Although they were classified as "light tanks" and weighed less than 25 tons, the M41s were in any case equipped with a fearsome 76mm gun that greatly compensated for their relative lack of weight with more than respectable firepower. On the government front, as soon as the hostile forces were disembarked, Castro managed to mobilize his forces in a surprisingly rapid way by conveying a large number of men and vehicles belonging to both the FAR and the National Revolutionary Militia (MNR) to the war area. The old armored vehicles of the pre-revolutionary era were also mobilized for the occasion, but apart from a single tank Sherman who was actually sent to the front, the others carried out only rearguard duties.

The contribution of the Soviet means was quite different. While the SU-100 tank destroyers and the IS-2 heavy tanks were used in fire support operations for the infantry, being at a certain distance from the clashes and not suffering any losses, the T-34/85 (photo) instead gave the direct assault on enemy lines.

In total the FAR employed no less than 125 T-34/85 in the battle of Playa Girón and, despite the fact that the time elapsed between the arrival of the tanks and the invasion attempt was not sufficient to complete the training of the tankers Cubans, nevertheless their use proved decisive.

However, we must not think that the victory obtained by the government forces was child's play since, according to the sources consulted, the FAR lost a number between 5 and 20 T-34/85 due to the air attacks, the fire of the artillery, bazookas, recoilless guns and the action of their enemies' M41 tanks.

After the events of Playa Girón and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Castro regime became one of the major beneficiaries of both economic and military aid from the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries. In this context, Havana began to receive an impressive amount of armaments which, in a short time, transformed the FAR into a modern and fearsome team.

It is practically impossible to know with certainty how many means Cuba received from the USSR and its allies also because very often these means were soon sold by Cuba to other Third World countries on the basis of the principle of "mutual aid" in force between the countries of the "Socialist camp". To give an idea, it would be enough to mention the fact that, in the period between 1975 and 1981, the South African Defense Forces (SADF) destroyed as many as 4473 armored vehicles on the war front in Angola (1855 tanks and another 2618 armored vehicles). Soviet-made. It was later confirmed that much of this amount was not supplied directly by Moscow but sold by the Cubans. And this is just a small example given that, in the course of the 32 years between the end of the Cuban Revolution (1959) and the end of the Cold War (1991), Cuba was directly or indirectly involved in a myriad of conflicts in America. Latin, in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

At the height of the Cold War, this process of both quantitative and qualitative growth had transformed the FAR into the third largest armed forces of the entire American continent (after the United States and Brazil) and the second largest in power and operational capacity (after the United States United). Even the Cuban armored forces actively participated in the season of Military Internationalism of the Caribbean country and were able to stand out above all in Angola and Ethiopia. In the latter country, the Cuban tankers played a decisive role in tipping the balance of victory in favor of Ethiopia against Somalia during the "Ogaden War" of 1977-78.

In Angola the Cuban armored forces contributed to the creation of their Angolan counterparts and inflicted some crushing defeats on the FNLA and UNITA forces but, in 1988, in the course of the decisive battle of Cuito Cuanavale, the Cuban armored forces and the MPLA they clashed with their South African counterparts, met with crushing defeat. In fact, for that occasion the Cuban generals Arnaldo Tomás Ochoa Sánchez and Leopoldo Cintra Frías had carefully arranged the chariots T-55 e T-62 of their forces behind sand embankments to increase their protection, the power of APFSDS shells from 105mm tank guns Olifant of South Africans it turned out to be able to pierce the sand embankments as if they were butter and hit the enemy wagons that were transformed into authentic funeral pyres for their crews.

At the end of the battle, the Cubans and Angolans had lost hundreds of armored vehicles while the South Africans suffered the loss of only 3 Olifant, all because of mine. Indeed, it was the tactics employed by the South Africans in that battle (and those employed by the Israelis in Lebanon in 1982) that inspired the operational concepts that enabled the Americans and the Coalition forces to achieve the stunning success of Desert Storm in 1991.

The end of the Cold War also meant for Cuba the total end of the economic and military assistance from the "Brother Socialist Countries" and this had profound consequences on the FAR. On the one hand, economic hardship led both the political and military leadership to approve a plan to reduce the workforce. On the other hand, given the impossibility of carrying out regular modernization plans as it had been during the golden years of the "internationalist bonanza", it was decided to approve a coherent plan to create an indigenous defense industry that would guarantee the country to keep their military vehicles efficient and supply new products for the export market, a source of valuable currency for the island's economy.

It is not easy to actually assess how many armored vehicles are currently in service with the Cuban armed forces and most of the publications that can be consulted usually report data relating to "active service" vehicles without, however, counting those "in reserve" and "in stock" which in any case can be brought back into service within a reasonable time in the event of an international crisis or if the scenario of a second American invasion materializes. After this premise, we can estimate that the FAR currently have about 2600 tanks available between:

  • 650 T-34/85;
  • 50 IS-2;
  • 100 PT-76;
  • 1.300 T-54/55;
  • 500 T-62.

It is also necessary to mention, for the record, the persistent but never really confirmed news of the acquisition by Cuba of about fifty wagons. T-72 supplied in the late 80s by Poland or directly by the Soviet Union after these vehicles were even used in leasing by Cubans during the Angolan conflict. If this news were true it could be speculated that they could be T-72Ms or T-72M1s, both versions produced and widely "proliferated" in the world by the Warsaw Pact countries. In any case, to date no certain proofs of this inference have emerged and the author of this analysis in years of research has managed to find only one photo, but of dubious origin, depicting a self-styled "Cuban T-72".

Nowadays, T-34 / 85s and IS-2s serve primarily in support and second line duties, although Cuba's defense industries have turned numerous redundant vehicles into self-propelled artillery vehicles, on the false line of what has happened in recent decades in countries such as Egypt or Syria.

I PT-76 (photo), purchased in the PT-76B version, they serve only with the navy infantry.

The T-54/55 is instead the largest tank and has been widely distributed to all departments of the motorized rifle divisions, organized according to the Soviet system. The models in service are the T-54, the T-55, the T-55A, the T-55M and the T-55AM, the last two are the most advanced and modernized ones with increased protection, improved firing conduct systems and the possibility of firing counter-tank missiles such as the 9K116-1 Bastion.

The 500 and more T-62s represent the best in service with the Cuban armored forces and are intended for elite armored regiments. Cuba is known for having three variants of the T-62 in service: the T-62 Obr. 1967, the T-62 Obr. 1972 and the T-62M. The latter is perhaps the version of T-62 subjected to the most extensive modernization process, starting from the Soviet experience in the War in Afghanistan. Among the many improvements deserving to be mentioned: the "Volna" firing conduct system, new protections on the sides of the hull, an internal lining designed to guarantee use in nuclear environments, the possibility of launching the 9M117 counter-tank missile Bastion and a new additional BDD type armor applied to the front and side parts of the turret, which acquired the name of "Ilych's mustache" due to the vague aesthetic resemblance to the mustache of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov known as Lenin, first leader of the Soviet Union, and that it should have brought the armor protection capability of the T-62 on an equal footing with those of the T-64A and T-72 Ural.

But the most interesting development to which the Cuban defense industries have subjected their fleet of tanks has been that related to the transformation of a large number of surplus T-54 / 55s into mobile vehicles for the S-75 missiles. Dvina (SA-2 Guideline) and S-125 Neva / Pechora (SA-3 Goa), to make them fully mobile systems, thus increasing their survivability and operational value in modern war scenarios.

To reinforce the fleet of wagons, there is also that of armored vehicles which has over 2000 active specimens of the following models:

  • 50 BRDM-1;
  • 150 BRDM-2;
  • 100 BTR-40;
  • 150 BTR-152;
  • 200 BTR-50;
  • over 1000 BTR-60;
  • an unspecified number of BTR-70;
  • an unspecified number of BMD-1;
  • 400 BMP-1;
  • an unspecified number of David IMV Iguana of entirely indigenous production.

It should be noted that here too, as in the case of tanks, beyond the numbers of armored vehicles officially in service, there are many others that are kept in reserve or warehouse or have been transformed into some of the myriad of support vehicles. and self-propelled that the Cuban defense industries have created over the years. This is especially true for the BTR-60s acquired at the time in truly impressive numbers, both in the basic version and in the BTR-60PB version.

Finally, in the anti-tank sector, alongside 100 venerable SU-100s, Cuba has the anti-tank variants of the BRDM-1 and BRDM-2, respectively known as 2P32 Phalanga and 9P133 Malyutka, and the BTR-40 Jabali, an anti-tank vehicle created by the Cuban defense industries through the transformation of the BTR-40.

At the end of this long overview, we can therefore say that, although the end of the Cold War coincided with a dramatic downsizing of its military instrument, Cuba has nevertheless been able to maintain the vestiges of the Third World power that was and which, albeit relatively dated and in need of investments, the armored forces of the FAR remain today, even if only for the numerical consistency, a credible instrument of deterrence for the defense of the territorial integrity of the Caribbean state.

Photo: Russian Fed MoD / web / US DoD