Once upon a time, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias (FAR), the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba, was the single most powerful military force in Latin America and one of the most technically advanced forces in the Third World. Equipped with Soviet-provided military hardware and following Soviet military doctrines, the FAR transformed itself from a mainly defense apparatus into an expeditionary type-force of 200,000 men strong. This transformation, which started in the early 1960s and was the direct product of massive Soviet military subsidies, was complete by the mid 1970s, when Cuba sent an Expeditionary Force to the African country of Angola. There, the FAR cut its teeth in a ferocious combat with Angola’s irregular forces and with South Africa’s Defense Forces. The combat experience gained on the African continent, the sheer number of troops available for combat, and the influx of new Soviet-supplied hardware in the early 1980s enabled the FAR to field a formidable deployable force. A force capable of dominating any Caribbean base force except the United States. By the 1980s the Cold War was entering a new phase. Changes were coming and new players were entering the arena, a newly inaugurated President at the White House, a newly selected Premier at the Soviet Kremlin, and the forces of free market trade and international exchanges were reshaping the political and military landscape. Then, in 1989, almost overnight, the Soviet satellite bloc began to crumble. With the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, the Soviet Union cut nearly all military assistance to Cuba in the spring of 1989. Without these subsidies, the Cuban Revolutionary Government was not in a position to continue maintaining its force level. Major cuts were made to the force structure in the fall of 1989. The FAR, which at its peak was 210,000 men strong, was reduced by fifty percent. Today, the FAR force structure is estimated to be between 40,000 to 60,000 men in active duty, diluted between its various military branches. This current force level is compatible, per capita, with what other Latin American countries have fielded, such as Ecuador, Bolivia, and Colombia.
Cuban military doctrine still dictates that its major adversary must be the United States. The small size of the country and its closed-cycle economic system, made imperative that the national defense be made into a national movement, such as it is in Israel to some extent. The principal assignment given to FAR forces as assigned by the Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, currently headed by interim President Raul Castro, is the defense of the national territorial integrity of Cuba; a far cry from the days when Cuba could concentrate its armed forces on exporting revolutionary ideas to other continents. Economic support for the country, as well as civilian assistance tasks have become another main mission of the FAR. The Cuban Army has increased in the last decade its level of economic and social engagements with the civilian population. Construction, manufacturing, health, and transportation services are taking more time and resources out of the FAR, thus diminishing their conventional capabilities. The Cuban Army active duty force strength is estimated at 35,000 men, most of them conscripts, serving terms of two years. Cuba’s tactical reserve forces are in the 39,000 range, also consisting of mainly conscripts. They serve for a period of forty-five days per year. Added to this total, is the Territorial Militia, a civilian reserve force of nearly one million, consisting mostly of youths and older civil servants. The FAR today is mainly an armor and artillery force. FAR possesses four to five elite armed brigades as the backbone of its structure. These forces are assisted by nine mechanized infantry brigades with one artillery, one armored, three mechanized infantry, and one air defense artillery regiment in support. The complete force readiness level is low due to reduced training. The FAR mainstay platform is the battle tank. Current reports of Cuba’s main battle tank strength puts it at 900 units, distributed between T-34s, T-54s and 55s, and T-62s; all Soviet made and currently obsolete by Western standards. The FAR possesses a limited number of the PT-76 light tanks as well as some BRDM-2 reconnaissance vehicles. The FAR forces relies on the venerable BTR-40, 50, 60, and 152s; as its main personnel carrier. Estimates put the BTR strength at 700 vehicles. The Cuban Army possesses one of the largest inventories of artillery systems. Towed artillery systems in FAR’s arsenal are estimated at 500 units divided between the ZIS-3 76mm, the M1938 122mm, the D-30 130mm, and the M-1937 152mm. They also posses a small number of self-propelled artillery, around forty 122mm 2S1 and 152mm 2S3. Reportedly, the FAR also possesses 150 to 175 multiple rocket launcher system, mainly the BM-21 122mm. The number of M-41 88mm and the M-38/43 120mm mortars are estimated to be at one thousand. The FAR also have a small quantity of AT-1 Snapper and AT-3 Sagger anti-tank guided missile systems available to them. The Air Defense Forces of the FAR is equipped with 400 anti-aircraft artillery pieces, the backbone being the 23mm ZU-23 and the 30mm M-53 guns. They have a total inventory of nearly 300 surface-to-air missile platforms which includes the SA-6,7,8,9,13,14, and 16. An estimated 75% of the FAR military equipment is in storage. Economic problems have led to the cannibalization of equipment to support the active duty forces and to cover shortages in spare parts as well as a sharp decline in training, thus reducing the readiness and operational capability of the force. The FAR is no longer capable of mounting an effective operation beyond battalion level.
The Cuban Navy, as with the Army, was once one of the most feared forces in the Caribbean and Central America area of operation. The size of the forces have been steadily reduced in the past years, from 5,000 men in 1999 to around 3,000 today, plus 550 Navy Infantry Troops. Its vessel inventory consists of one Pauk II fast Patrol Craft equipped with one 76mm gun, four anti-submarine torpedo tubes and two anti-submarine weapon rocket launchers. It also possesses four Osa II missile boats to go along with 6 mine sweeper boats. There is also a smaller number of coastal boats as well as one intelligence collection vessel. For the first time since the 1960s, the Cuban Navy did not operate a submersible vessel. Coastal defenses comprised 122mm and 130mm artillery pieces and two SS-C3 systems. The reductions in personnel, equipment and training have left the Navy with no offensive capabilities. It can not operate outside its territorial waters and should be no deterrence against any foe. The most it can hope to accomplish in case of an emergency is to harass undefended civilian vessels. This is the same stage that the Cuban Air Force finds itself. Reduction in both manpower and equipment, the latter due to the lack of resources to maintain the aircraft air-operational have left the Air Force a shell of its former self. The service is staffed by 8,000 men and it operates an air inventory of 130+ aircraft. Of them, only 20 to 25 are operational. The backbone of the forces are the obsolete MiG-21 and 21F, supplemented by the MiG-23MF and around six MiG-29. Its helicopter fleet consists of 44 to 46 Mi-8/-17, plus 5 Mi-14 helicopter gun ships; its transport force of 8 An-2’s, 1 An-24, 15 An-26’s, 1 An-30, 2 An-32’s, 4 Yak-40’s and, 2 IL-76’s are mainly used for civilian transportation. The air-to-air missile inventory is believed to consist of AA 2, 7, 8, 10, and 11. Their air defense capability surrounds 13 active SA-2 and SA-3 surface-to-air missile battery sites. The majority of them center around Havana. This force is incapable of defending Cuban national airspace against an enemy with high performance military aircraft at its disposal. Because pilot training had been cut short and a lack of significant flying time by the Cuban pilots, Cuba would have to rely heavily on its network of surface-to-air missile systems to respond to any attacking force.
The intelligence gathering capability is the only area that has not seen a marked decline in effectiveness. Cuba’s main intelligence collection efforts are still directed at the United States. Over the past years, it had shared the collected data with many nations; Cuba also had entered an agreement with the Russian Federation to maintain the old Soviet Union signal intelligence facilities at Torrens
At present time, Cuba does not possess the military capability to shift the balance of power in the Caribbean region. Cuba’s Armed Forces have been degraded to the point where they would be hard pressed to save guard its territorial integrity against many of the Latin America’s militaries. If the current attrition and degradation rate continued, in the next five years, the FAR would be no more than a para-military force equipped with obsolete weapons systems to achieve its current military doctrine.
– Raul Colon
1 International Institute For Strategic Studies, 2003, 2005
2 The Military Balance, 2003 – 2004
3 The Cuban Treat to U.S. National Security, 1997, 2000 and 2005
4 Analysis of the Cuban Land and Air Forces, Redmunt 2006