The most intense period of the Cold War came during the Cuban Missile Crisis on Oct. 27, 1962, but it could have been much worse had it escalated into a shooting war. Here is how it may have gone down.
After months of building tensions, the discovery of ballistic missile sites on Cuba on Oct. 14 forced a confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
On Oct. 27, multiple events nearly triggered a war. Perhaps the most dangerous moment was when the Soviet B-59 submarine deployed to Cuba was “signaled” by the USS Beale and USS Cony through the use of sonar, practice depth charges, and hand grenades. The Soviet submarine was carrying a 15-ton nuclear torpedo but was ordered to use it only if American forces blew a hole in the hull or orders came down from Moscow.
Despite the orders limiting use of the torpedo, submarine commander Capt. Vitali Savistky was urged by his political officer to fire. It was only through the urging of Capt. Vasili Arkhipov that it wasn’t fired. If it had, the Cuban Missile Crisis could have easily erupted into all-out nuclear war.
The most obvious target for the torpedo would have been the aircraft carrier USS Randolph that was part of the force shadowing the B-59. With a 15-kiloton warhead, the torpedo would have sank the Randolph and likely other nearby ships.
For comparison, an 8-kiloton explosion looks like this:
Just the loss of the Randolph would have meant over 3,000 sailors and Marines were dead. The fact that the B-59 would have also been destroyed would be little solace and America would be forced to respond. Since a U-2 had already been shot down and the pilot killed over Cuba, the most likely retaliation route for the Americans would have been the bombing of Soviet missile sites in Cuba.
The Air Force had a plan for this, but it expected hundreds of sorties would be needed to wipe out 90 percent of the missiles. With only a few sorties available before a Soviet response, at least one-third of the 24 sites and 36 medium-range ballistic missiles would survive.
To prevent those missiles from being used, America could have ordered an amphibious invasion, an airborne assault, and an overland push from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
This would’ve likely triggered a massacre of American troops.
The U.S. plans for an invasion of Cuba projected 18,500 casualties in the first 10 days of fighting to take the island. But they estimated Soviet forces on the island at 10,000 to 12,000 with no tactical nuclear weapons.
In reality, the Soviets had 40,000 troops and 92 tactical nukes. 12 Luna missiles carried 2-kiloton warheads to a maximum range of 17 nautical miles. 80 Sopka-variant cruise missiles with a range of 40 nautical miles carried 12-kiloton warheads.
With tactical nuclear weapons on the island, America would have actually lost nearly all of the 180,000 troops in the invasion as well as all the Marines still on Guantanamo Bay. Luckily, the family members had already been evacuated.
At this point, both sides would be forced into full nuclear war. Russia would have to attempt a pre-emptive strike to limit the number of nukes coming at them. America would try to limit the Soviet attack as well as punish Russia for its losses in Cuba.
More: This is what the Air Force thought nuclear war would look like in 1960
The surviving missile launchers in Cuba would be the first to fire. Air Force strikes that made it through during the attempted invasion and bombing would have wiped out at least 16 launchers and 24 missiles. But the surviving eight launchers would begin preparations to fire as soon as the first sites were struck.
They would get off their first wave of missiles with a 1-megaton warhead on each. Two would be sent to Washington D.C. and the other six to major U.S. bases and cities in the American Southeast. The launchers, and nearly all of Cuba, would be wiped out before the remaining four missiles could be prepared for launch.
This is because the Strategic Air Command bombers around the U.S. and NATO countries would take off and begin striking targets in Russia and Warsaw Pact countries. The force consisted of 1,306 bombers with 2,962 nuclear bombs.
Brand new Minuteman-I missiles as well as older Atlas missiles would fly from U.S. silos while Thor and Jupiter missiles would take off from Italy, Britain, and Turkey. These 308 ballistic missiles were capable of delivering 761 megatons of devastation to targets across the Soviet Union.
Seven American nuclear missile submarines, dispatched to staging points in the oceans since Oct. 22, carried 112 Polaris A-1 and A-2 submarine launched ballistic missiles. Each missile carried a 1-megaton nuclear warhead.
Facing off against this force was the relatively modest Soviet arsenal: 36 intercontinental ballistic missiles carried a combined yield of 108-204 megatons. Only 138 bombers were available. A mere 30 submarines carried about 84 missiles with a combined yield of less than 100 megatons.
The exchange would go wildly in America’s favor, but vast swaths of Europe, China, and North America would lay in ruins alongside the deceased Soviet Union. The American military would count losses in the hundreds of thousands in a single day of fighting.
Fortunately, none of this ended up happening. Through secret back-channel negotiations, U.S. President Kennedy and Soviet Secretary Nikita Kruschev worked out a deal that removed Russian missiles from Cuba, as long as the U.S. removed its missiles from Turkey and Italy.