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Cuban Missile Crisis    
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, 1962

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 making. 

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, 1962

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, 1962

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, 1962

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, 1962

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, 1962


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, 1962

NPIC analysts continued to provide overwhelming evidence of the extent of the nuclear missile launchers throughout Cuba as the crisis continued.

Day 8: October 23, 1962

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, 1962

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, 1962

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, 1962

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, 1962

On day 12 of the crisis, freighter ships delivered oxidizer and rocket fuel to Cuba.

Sole casualty of the crisis

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 1957.         

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, 1962

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 Washington, DC.

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 decision making.

The Team

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 fear

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 role

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.



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