Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cuban armed forces (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias – FAR) were easily the most powerful in Latin America. Numbering over 200,000 active personnel, the FAR possessed several hundred advanced combat aircraft (MiG-21s, MiG-23-MF/-ML/-BN) and MiG-29s, along with a modern and well-equipped air defence network. The army possessed large quantities of artillery and over a thousand T-55 and T-62 main battle-tanks (MBTs), while the navy fielded three submarines, three frigates, 13 missile boats and 48 patrol craft.

Some 25 years after the demise of its ally, benefactor and largest market for its principal export (sugar), the FAR is but a shadow of its former self with equipment either unserviceable or in storage and personnel strength slashed to some 65,000. From a force potentially capable of fighting determinedly against an American invasion, the FAR has now become a force of limited conventional military capability, more useful for internal security operations than for prosecuting any military conflict.

The Revolutionary Army (Ejercito Rebelde – ER) had modest beginnings.This changed in 1960 when the first influx of Czechoslovak and Soviet arms began entering service. The expansion of the ER was rapid and by 1975, it reached its peak strength of 200,000 divided into three regional armies with three armoured and 15 infantry divisions.

The Cuban Air Force – now termed the Revolutionary Air and Air Defense Force (Defensa Antiaérea Y Fuerza Aérea Revolucionaria – DAAFAR) experienced even more spectacular growth.The expansion of the DAAFAR was dramatic and by the mid-to-late 1980s, it had taken delivery of no fewer than 118 MiG-21s and 89 MiG-23s of all variants augmented by eight MiG-29s and a large force of light transport aircraft, Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters – easily the most powerful air force in the region. DAAFAR was also responsible for operating the most extensive surface-to-air missile (SAM) network in Latin America with SA-2, SA-3 and SA-6 medium range SAMs being augmented by mobile SA-13 and SA-8 systems and well over 1000 towed and self-propelled anti-aircraft guns. The DAAFAR also saw extensive service in Africa with operations in Angola, Ethiopia and Mozambique.

In contrast to the ER and DAAFAR, the Cuban Navy (Marina de Guerra Revolucionaria – MGR) was far less favoured. The Batista-era Navy of three Tacoma class frigates, two PCE class corvettes, four SC-class submarine chasers and three torpedo boats was replaced by a coastal defence force centered around 18 OSA class missile boats and an assortment of torpedo craft and submarine chasers augmented by a fleet of 40 Zhuk class patrol boats. To these were added a limited blue-water capability in the form of three Foxtrot class submarines and three Koni class light frigates. 

Since then, the decline of the FAR’s capabilities has been dramatic. Budgetary allocations inevitably fell as the Cuban economy underwent a period of extreme adjustment in the 1990s. No major new equipment has been inducted into any branch of the FAR and manpower has been slashed. The ER now comprises some 45,000 personnel including 39,000 conscripts and active reservists doing 45 day of service annually. However, compared to the DAAFAR and MGR, the ER has been able to keep much of its equipment to a reasonable degree of serviceability – partly by relegating a large portion of it to storage. Only 50 MBT’s are operational at any given time, augmented by wheeled AFVs.

It has also shown a remarkable degree of innovation in adapting weapons systems to platforms, typified by the fitting of T-55 and BMP-1 turrets to BTR-60 chassis, fitting 122mm D-30 Howitzers to BMP-1 chassis and to trucks and adapting RBU-6000 rockets to being fired from a truck flatbed. 

The DAAFAR has been reduced to approximately 30 combat aircraft – four MiG-29s, six MiG-21s and nearly 20 MiG-23s being operational at any given time. uba retains its SAM network although it is unclear if an overhaul of the missiles has been undertaken. The DAAFAR’s helicopter and transport fleets have been reduced massively with only 24 helicopters and two transport aircraft being operational at any given time.

The decline of the MGR mirrors that of the DAAFAR. The Koni class light frigates were scrapped with two being sunk as reefs to serve as dive attraction for tourists. The submarines were decommissioned as were most of the patrol, missile and torpedo boats. A single Pauk-class corvette remains in service alongside eight minesweepers and six OSA class missile boats which have had their missiles removed and used on land-based launchers. About a dozen Zhuk class vessels remain operational along with two larger Stenka class patrol vessels.

Cuban ingenuity came to the fore in the MGR’s efforts to restore a veneer of ocean-going capability when two 1970s vintage trawlers were converted into patrol vessels with helicopter platforms. Equipped with P-15 missile launchers from the OSA class vessels and an assortment of gun turrets scavenged from decommissioned ships and even land-based platforms (the main guns being a ZSU-57-2 turret with twin manually operated 57mm guns), these two vessels form the Rio Damuji class and lack any form of modern sensors for either surveillance or fire-control.

The FAR is therefore, a shadow of its former self. It is capable of limited territorial defence but can no longer adequately protect either its airspace or coastline.

Photo credits: Cuban Media – Cuban BTR with turret T-55.

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