For thirteen days in October 1962 the world waited ─
seemingly on the brink of nuclear war ─ and hoped for a peaceful resolution to
the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Day 0: October 15,
The images on this draft briefing board provided National
Photographic Interpretation Center imagery analysts the first indication that
the USSR was placing offensive weapons – intermediate- and medium-range
ballistic missiles – in Cuba. In an already tense national policy environment
that pitted Communist ideals against Democracy, this revelation would change
the course of the negotiations between USSR leader Nikita Khrushchev and U.S.
President John F. Kennedy.
This imagery was key to understanding that the Soviet
intentions in Cuba were more threatening than previously assessed. Until these
images, captured by Air Force U-2 high altitude and U.S. Navy low altitude
photo reconnaissance aircraft, only defensive weapons – surface-to-air
missiles – had been detected by U.S. intelligence, which seemed to support
statements made by Khrushchev.
A team of imagery analysts under the leadership of National
Photographic Interpretation Center founding director Arthur P. Lundahl pored
over these images, quickly realizing the gravity of their discovery and the
risk they posed to upsetting the balance of power between the U.S. and the
Soviet Union. Analysts Dino Brugioni, James Holmes, Vincent DiRenzo ‘Dick’
Reninger and Joseph Sullivan worked to prepare Lundahl to brief then-President
John F. Kennedy the next day, leading to the crisis., The discovery of true
Soviet intentions began what some historians have called the 13 most dangerous
days in world history, what came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The discovery was also a critical milestone in the evolution of geospatial
intelligence and its vital role in shaping foreign policy decision
NPIC is one NGA’s predecessor organizations. Like NPIC did
in 1962, NGA still provides intelligence that provides ground truth that helps
shape national policy.
Day 1: October 16,
NPIC analysts used their expertise in nuclear missiles and
launch platforms to determine the radius of the threat posed by the missiles in
Cuba. This map depicts the reach of the Soviet’s medium-range ballistic
missiles newly installed in Cuba and the threat presented to the U.S. and the
Western Hemisphere during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The range of the newly
discovered missiles and the risk they posed to U.S. national security became a
primary concern of the Kennedy administration.
NGA analysts and the geospatial intelligence products they
produce continue to define for national leaders the threats posed by potential
adversaries. GEOINT provides context for understanding the world.
Day 2: October 17,
Analysts sought to identify likely storage sites for Soviet
nuclear warheads within Cuba, as depicted in the image. The storage site was in
close proximity to a missile launch site that was under construction when the
image was taken.
Day 3: October 18,
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Soviets sent combat
aircraft to Cuba. This image of a fighter taking off from a Cuban airfield
confirmed for NPIC interpreters the presence of Soviet “Fishbed” fighter
aircraft in Cuba.
Day 4: October 19,
Imagery provided by NPIC photo interpreters also helped U.S.
national decision makers understand the scope of the troop presence near
missile positions. This helped develop a broader understanding of Soviet
reinforcements in Cuba, and how quickly the missiles could be readied for use.
Day 5: October 20,
Mariel, on the northwestern coast of Cuba, served as a major
port of entry for Soviet goods and as a Cuban naval base. NPIC analysts
monitored imagery of the port to gauge whether additional Soviet materials were
brought in to add to the already growing threat. The Soviets attempted to send
four “Foxtrot” diesel submarines to Cuba during the crisis. Intelligence
gathering provided by NPIC and other agencies resulted in the U.S. Navy
successfully forcing three subs to the surface before turning them around, with
the fourth turning back in mid-journey, still submerged.
Day 6: October 21, 1962
Kennedy decided on the quarantine strategy on Oct. 21. Then
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. George Anderson used aircraft carriers,
including USS Essex, to enforce the quarantine to deter further Soviet
deliveries of men and military supplies to Cuba.
Day 7: October 22,
NPIC analysts continued to provide overwhelming evidence of
the extent of the nuclear missile launchers throughout Cuba as the crisis
Day 8: October 23,
Cuba Soviets set up defensive positions to protect the
medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missile sites. These defensive
surface-to-air missiles were ready to keep U.S. aircraft out of the area and
reduce the threat they posed to the ballistic missile sites.
Day 9: October 24,
A Navy helicopter hovers over Russian Submarine. As part of
their strategy to deter U.S. attempts to interdict Russian merchant vessel
shipments to Cuba, the Soviets attempted to send four submarines from their
Northern Fleet to Cuba during the crisis. The submarines were known as
“Foxtrots” by the U.S. and NATO.
Day 10: October 25,
NPIC imagery consistently demonstrated for President Kennedy
the extensive progress made by the Soviets since Oct. 17. This image shows all
the elements necessary to launch a missile with a 1,100 nautical mile range.
Analysts could tell by the tracks in the ground leading to one of the missile
shelter tents that a weapon in a high state of readiness was present. The image
also demonstrated the Soviets extensive use of canvas to camouflage its weapons
components and, therefore, its intentions.
Day 11: October 26,
As the negotiations between Kennedy and Khrushchev wore on,
Soviets continued their effort to build their military force within Cuba. This
image shows Soviet technicians assembling their Ilyushin-28 bombers, which had
been shipped in parts to Cuba.
Day 12: October 27,
On day 12 of the crisis, freighter ships delivered oxidizer
and rocket fuel to Cuba.
Sole casualty of the
Major Rudolf Anderson was killed-in-action on Oct. 27, 1962
when his U-2 reconnaissance aircraft was struck over Cuba during a photo
reconnaissance mission by a SA-2 missile. Anderson was the sole casualty of the
Cuban Missile Crisis, and the first recipient of the Air Force Cross. A
South Carolina native from the textile region, he was graduated from Clemson in
1948, and was in Clemson’s first Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps
class. He served in the Korean Conflict where his operational combat
career began in 1953 flying RF-86 SABRE reconnaissance missions. For service in
Korea, he was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFCs). He first
qualified with the U-2 in
Anderson was a member of the 4028th Strategic Reconnaissance
Weather Squadron, 4080th Strategic Wing, of the Strategic Air Command, based at
Laughlin AFB, Texas. His Air Force Cross citation follows:
"The President of the United States of America,
authorized by Title 10, Section 8742, United States Code, takes pride in
presenting the Air Force Cross (Posthumously) to Major Rudolf Anderson, Jr.,
United States Air Force, for extraordinary heroism in connection with military
operations against an armed enemy while serving as Pilot of a U-2 airplane with
the 4080th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, Strategic Air Command (SAC), from 15
October 1962 to 27 October 1962. During this period of great national crisis,
Major Anderson, flying an unescorted, unarmed aircraft, lost his life while
participating in one of several aerial reconnaissance missions over Cuba. While
executing these aerial missions, Major Anderson made photographs which provided
the United States government with conclusive evidence of the introduction of
long-range offensive missiles into Cuba and which materially assisted our
leaders in charting the nation's military and diplomatic course. Through his
extraordinary heroism, superb airmanship, and aggressiveness in the face of the
enemy, Major Anderson reflected the highest credit upon himself and the United
States Air Force."
Day 13: October 28,
October 28, 1962 marked the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
After successful brinkmanship and diplomacy by the Kennedy administration
de-escalated the nuclear crisis, NPIC photo interpreters provided key support
to confirm through imagery analysis that Khrushchev’s Soviet nuclear forces
were, in fact, being withdrawn from Cuba. This photo from one week after
negotiations ended shows a fleet of Soviet ships returning missiles and
launchers to the USSR.
Throughout the crisis, NPIC provided timely, vital
intelligence that shaped Kennedy’s understanding of the threat, and armed him
with crucial details that formed the basis for the sound judgment and decision
making Kennedy and his administration exhibited in tense negotiations with
Khrushchev. The same professional analysis that averted nuclear war in 1962
informs the President and other policymakers is still produced at NGA today.
Then and today
Former National Photographic Imagery Center analyst Dino
Brugioni recently discusses aerial images he and a team of analysts used to
prepare briefing boards for NPIC Director Arthur Lundahl that were used to
brief President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Brugioni
visited the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in September for a taped
interview on his recollections of the crisis on the occasion of the 50th
anniversary of the event. Brugioni is also pictured as an analyst shortly after
the crisis in his office at the National Photographic Imagery Center in
Thanks from JFK
Following the crisis, Kennedy commended NPIC Director Arthur
Lundahl in a personally-signed letter that acknowledged NPIC's explicit wish to
keep their contributions to resolving the crisis anonymous. The letter thanked
Lundahl and his team for their tireless efforts during the crisis, and
acknowledged the quality of the imagery analysis he considered so vital to his
A close-knit team of four National Photographic Imagery
Center photo interpreters produced detailed legwork that formed the basis for
the daily assessments of the imagery captured by U.S. photo reconnaissance
aircraft over Cuba. Their analysis tipped President Kennedy to true Soviet
intentions and informed his decision making throughout the crisis. Depicted
from left to right are imagery analysts Dick Reninger, Joe Sullivan, Jim Holmes
and Vincent DiRenzo.
Humor in the face of
The National Photographic Imagery Center photo interpreters
had been charged by Kennedy to find a better way of describing the threat in
terms of how many missiles could be quickly fired from Cuba at any given point
in time. In preparing briefing boards of imagery for Kennedy throughout the
crisis, analyst Dino Brugioni took the occasional opportunity to work humor in
the somber imagery analysis routine. After a low level photo
reconnaissance mission inadvertently captured a photo of a 2-stall field
latrine in Cuba that depicted one unoccupied stall and one clearly occupied by
an unidentified Cuban soldier, Brugioni including the latrine photo on a
briefing board for the President. The image clearly distinguished in the
President's mind the difference between "occupied" and
"unoccupied", a metaphor that translated to his understanding of the
state of readiness of the Cuban missile sites themselves, prompting Kennedy to
laugh and quip, "Why didn’t I have this primer earlier."
Technology played a
Manufactured in 1957 by David Mann, Incorporated, the Type
621 Mann Comparator played a key role in the crisis. A machine that
enabled imagery analysts to derive very precise measurements from objects or
features revealed on photographic imagery, the device enabled NPIC analysts to
accurately measure the length of the tubes they discovered wile analyzing U-2
spy plane imagery and determine that they were in fact missiles. The
findings were irrefutable evidence that proved for Kennedy that the Soviets
were installing medium range, nuclear-capable missiles in Cuba that were aimed
at the U.S. According to the University of Virginia, the comparator was
capable of an accuracy of 1 micrometer while analyzing photographs of 6-10 foot
resolution. This measurement was done by moving the photographic plate
beneath a microscope along accurately scraped ways. By reading the dial on the
X and Y direction screws, one could measure very accurately the relative
positions of objects on the plates.