The Current State of the
Cuban Armed Forces

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

A Brief Look at China’s
Current Military Capabilities

In the past few years, The People’s Republic of China’s growing military capability has attracted a great deal of interest, but major details regarding China’s near-future military strength have been hard to combine. At this very moment, China is spending massive amounts of financial resources in order to improve its overall military capability. This spike of budgetary expenses by China is setup in the background of the country’s need to upgrade its low-tech armed forces. At this time, reports have placed the number of deployable nuclear weapons China possesses at four hundred. Of these, around twenty are deployed in the Intercontinental ballistic missile configuration. Nearly two hundred and twenty are reported to be deployed in various delivery platforms such as aircraft, submarines and short-to-medium range missile systems. All of these weapons are of tactical capability. The remainder weapons are held in tactical reserves for short range missiles, low yield attacks and demolition purposes. The Central Military Commission, headed by the Chinese President, is the sole administrator of the country’s nuclear arsenal. China’s current Intercontinental ballistic missile force of twenty units is mainly used as a deterrence force. The main component of the system is the Dong-Feng 5 liquid-fuelled missile, with an estimated range of 13,000 km and can carry a single use, multi-megaton warhead. The Dong-Feng 5 was first deployed in the summer of 1981 and has remained the backbone of China’s ICBM force for the past two decades. Twenty frontline Feng 5’s are believed to be stationed in full alert somewhere in Central China. The Feng 5 was a drastic change from the early versions of China’s ballistic missiles. Those early missiles were mainly stored in caves and were rolled-out for launch. The Feng 5 can be launched from vertical silos after just a few hours of the order being received by their launch crews. The Feng 5 operational range gave China the ability to launch a small nuclear attack against most of Europe, Asia and some parts of the United States, mainly the southeast part of the country. Today, two additional missile platforms are deployed or being tested for possible deployment by China. They are the medium range DF 31’s, which entered first-line operation in 2005, and its long range variant, the DF 31A, formerly called the DF-41; which is expected to be fielded by late 2010. Both missiles are going to be propelled by solid fuel cells and based on mobile launchers. China is expected to attempt producing a multiple re-entry vehicle (MVRs) for their new missile systems. An attempt to produce the more technical challenge multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) is underway.

China also deploys intermediate range ballistic missiles and medium range ballistic missile systems. These weapon platforms are capable of threatening the security of many countries in Asia, including India, but its effects on the overall strategic security of Russia are minimal. China’s intermediate missile systems are also capable of hitting targets on Japan’s coastal cities and United States base stations in South Korea and Japan. The oldest missile platform deployed by China is the near stationary DF 3A missile system. This missile platform is being phased-out in favor of the more modern DF 4 and DF 21 systems. The DF 4, with a maximum operating range of 4,750 km, is still the backbone of China’s regional deterrence force. The DF 4 is a liquid fueled system that operates mainly now out of fixed launch sites. With the deployment of the DF 21 in 1986, China’s regional ballistic missile capabilities increased twofold. The operational DF 21 has an estimated range of 1,800km and is carried in mobile launchers for security reasons. The DF 21 is also the base of China’s sea-launch ballistic missile systems. The older, liquid fueled missiles can carry a single nuclear warhead of an estimate 3.3mt yield. The newest missiles also carry a single warhead with maximum yields in the hundreds kilotons range. China also possesses a limited number of short-range ballistic missile batteries. The DF 11/M 11, with an operational range of 300km, and the DF 15/M 9, with a range of 600km, are the backbone of China’s tactical force. Is believed that most of this missile platforms are configured to carry only a small nuclear or conventional warhead.

China’s bomber force is based on the local production of Russian made aircraft first deployed in the 1950s. With the overdue retirement of the Ilyushin IL-28 bomber from front-line, nuclear delivery role, the Tu-16 Badger assumes the role of a medium range, nuclear strike bomber. Being a product of the 1950s technology, the Tu-16 could only carry two or three nuclear bombs over a range of 1,5,00 to 3,100km. China is believed to have over 130 of these vintage planes in operational conditions. The Chinese Navy also operated the Tu-16 in a reserve role primarily. Although the Chinese Air Force possesses a great number of other possible nuclear carrying aircraft, such as the venerable MiG-21, the Russian supplied Su-27, and the newly designed JH-7s; they are not believed to be used for such a role. The Chinese Air Force also has a large inventory of strike and fighter aircraft at their disposal. It is estimated that by 2004 China has a total aircraft inventory of around 4,200 operational aircraft of many types. This inventory includes all the variants of the J-6 or MiG-19 fighter, J-7 or MiG-21, Su-27, IL-28 and Tu 16 bombers. Of these aircraft, the vast majority entered service with the Chinese air force before 1970. The tactical airlift aspect of the air force is at a diminishing capability. Over the last two decades, Chinese leaders have stressed the development of a localized aerospace industry sector capable of designing and developing advanced avionics needed for military aircraft. Despite the investment of large amounts of budgetary and human resources, the Chinese had not shown the ability to promptly design, develop and mass produce an indigenous combat aircraft. The recently revealed J-7, and the J-8, both of which took so long in their developmental stages that by the time they were ready to enter front-line services they were already obsolete by Western standards, showed China the need for more investment in financial and human resources as well as the training of experienced technicians to work in all aspects of the technical design of a combat aircraft. The same holds true of the most vaunted of China’s aircraft developments, the J-10.

China is not alone in this area, other countries had tried in the past to design and mass-produce indigenous aircraft systems, most notable Israel, South Africa, India, Taiwan and south Korea; all abandoned their programs in favor of purchasing existing and proved aircraft types from the five largest weapons producers: the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France and Germany. The main reason is the fact that the economic resources needed, not only to design a generation-leaping aircraft, but to be mass produced for local consume, are so massive that developing countries with a small industrial base simply can not afford to spend the necessary resources for a long period of time. This also holds true of large economies with a small gross national product output such as Russia, which is lagging far behind the Western countries in military technology designs. As a direct result of their failure to establish a permanent industrial base capable of producing front-line aircraft, China has renewed its imports of combat airplanes from Russia.

China also had the distinction of having one of the largest conventional military force in the world. The shear mass of numbers is enough to make a potential enemy think twice about provoking China. The truth is that, although the numbers of weapons are impressive, most of China’s military hardware is obsolete, both physically and technologically. Most of the weapon platforms utilized by China today, entered service in the 1950s, 60s and 70s and still serve the country in front-line units. Although the systems varied in age of development and deployment, the technologies used to create them are sorely based on Soviet blueprints of the 1950s. As a result, while older systems are being phased-out, the overall size of China’s conventional weapon force would be reducing. As of late 2001, estimates reported the size of China’s military force as 2.5 men under arms, of which, roughly 1.8 serve the People’s Liberation Army (China’s ground forces). They are divided into 27 military districts through the country. Within these districts lie 20 army groups, each containing around 60,000 men. They are subdivided into 44 infantry, 5 artillery, and 10 armored divisions. There are also brigade-sized groups in these army units. There are also three airborne divisions under the direct command of the Chinese Air Force. The reserve units are mostly compromised of infantry, artillery and anti-aircraft divisions. These forces are estimated to be composed of 1.1 million personnel. There are also the People of China Para-military units. The Armed Police, Border Defense Force and the Forces of the Ministry of Defense compromise a large sector in China’s strategic reserves. They counted a total of forty four divisions. These reserve formations are expected to increase in size as China moves forward with its major modernization and re-organization plans that emphasize the movement of active troop formations to the strategic reserve roles. The Army’s equipment is also being phased-out as new models were introduced to the force. China’s main battle tank platform, the Soviet designed T-54/55, also a product of the 1950s technologies, is no longer the main tank platform. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, China designed, with Soviet cooperation, and produced various tanks systems, but although their designs were more recently than that of the T-54, its overall capabilities are about the same. All of this changed in the summer of 1988, when China unveiled its newest battle tank, the Type 80. The 80 represents China’s first attempt at breaking with Soviet design concepts for a battle tank. The 80 had a formidable set of systems, some of them are: fire and control computerized? system, a laser range finder, a gun control system and night fighting capability. This tank breakthrough was followed by the Type 85, introduced in the mid 1990s as follow-up development of the 80. China’s latest main battle tank system, the massive T-90II, first revealed in 1991, is still not completely operational with the PLA. This new tank resembles in more than one way, the mainstay of Russian tank formations, and the T-72 heavy tank. China also possesses a force of around 2,100 light tanks, which as it is with much of their weapon systems, are based on Soviets designs from the 1950s. It is estimated that China’s tank strength is between 9,000 to 11,000 units. This number is deceiving; the majority of tanks in China’s front-line services are systems with over forty years of service life. Most of them could not function properly and a great number of them could not function at all. The most interesting part of the situation is that China, which, like the former Soviet Union, tends to value numbers more than any other matters, thus service maintenance of existing systems is poor. The same maintenance problem applies to the new weapons platform entering service today. Thus a major gap exists today in main battle tank design between China and the Western countries, the Chinese are in the processes of designing a new tank system that could compare with that of the Europeans; also they would like to emphasize quality over quantity. With these developments and the expected reduction in its tank force, China expects to be able to support its main battle tank systems with more efficiency in the future.

For most of its history, the People’s Army Liberation Navy submarine fleet has consisted of a small number of coastal vessels. The mainstay of their coastal fleet was the domestic produced version of Russia’s Romeo class submarine. It’s estimated that between 20 to 30 Romeos are still operational with the PALN. In the early 1970s, China decided to start a submarine development and production program aimed to build a local submarine in five years. It succeeded; the first indigenous submarine developed by China is the Ming Class. Although they are not better than the Romeos, they do represent China’s first attempt at self-sufficiency in designing weapon platforms. The next Chinese submarine class, the Song, entered service with the PALN in late 1999. In addition to these subs, China has purchased or is in the process of acquiring, more samples of the Russian-made Kilo Class submarines. In the nuclear-powered submarine field, China’s first attempt to produce a local system produced disappointing results for the PALN. The Han Class first entered service in 1974. Major power plant problems plagued the lead ship of this class. So much so, that the next commissioning of a Han Class sub was not made until mid 1980. China is also believed to be developing, with considerable assistance from Russia, a follow-on nuclear attack submarine, very similar to the Russian’s Victor III Class. China’s SSBN force consists of the Xia Class submarine, which is fitted to launch twelve Ju Lang-1 missiles with a single warhead of 200-300kt and an operational range of 1,700km. In part to its technical difficulties, the Xia Class is never deployed beyond regional waters. The newer submarine class, codename Type 094, would have better reactors and a quieter signature than its predecessors. This new class would be able to deploy 16 JL-2 missile, each capable of carrying up to six nuclear warheads. China’s surface fleet has been growing in size since the 1970s. The Chinese posses a number of Soviet-build Sovremenny destroyers as its main surface fleet weapon platform. They are equipped to carry the advanced SS-N-22 Sunburn supersonic, anti-shipping missile system. The Chinese are also building its own class of destroyers, the Luhai Class which displaces 6,000 tons. The lead ship of this class entered service in late 1999. The largest class of destroyers China operates is the Luda Class. China operates about sixteen of these ships. The remaining force is compromised of 37 frigates. As in the case of destroyers, China’s frigate force is mostly used as an air-defense force. China’s amphibious assault fleet is the Achilles heels of the PALN. China possessed around 49 amphibious assault vessels with full displacement of 1,000 tons. Many of these vessels are vintage WW II systems. Most of them, being United States Navy’s LST used in assaults around the South Pacific. China is planning to deploy an aircraft carrier. They are looking at buying a platform, most likely from Russia. The carrier probably needs to be conventional on take-off and landing aircraft since China does not posses vertical, short take-off and landing aircraft capability. Since China would probably would like to supply the air wings of the carrier with its J-10 fighters and Su-27 fighter-bombers, they would probably would need a carrier platform that could displace around 50,000 tons, which would put China in the need to acquire a carrier like the Russian Kuznetsov or the French Charles de Gaulle. China’s need to acquire a carrier capability is probably more for internal promotion that to actually being a first attempt by them to deploy a Blue Water navy.

The small size of China’s amphibious fleet excludes the Chinese of taking control of Taiwan by means of an amphibious assault. In the past, Chinese leaders had threatened to take action against Taiwan if the island, which China considered a renegade province, decided to declare its independence. The reality is that even if China decided to use force, it lacked the necessary military resources needed to complete the operation. An amphibious assault, which is the only mean China could take control of Taiwan’s territory, is out of the equation. First, China can only transport one armored division across the Straits, and even this would be hard to accomplish. Second, any amphibious landing would need complete control over the skies in the Strait, which the Chinese air force probably could not accomplish. Finally, both Taiwan and the United States could see the signs of pending military offensive months before the actual event. What China could do is to attack Taiwan with a barrage of missiles, the DF 15 and the DF 11. These missile systems are not accurate enough to destroy strategic targets such as airfields, radar stations and transport facilities; their only use would be as terror weapons, such as the V-2 or the Scud. If they are not fitted with nuclear warheads, the damage they could cause would be similar to a natural disaster. China also possesses a limited number of these missiles and any missile siege would be limited in duration. A naval blockade of the island is possible, but due to the strong U.S. statement regarding any attack on Taiwan and the notion of a powerful U.S. fleet coming to relive the besieged island, China would be hard pressed to perform any naval operation in the area.

The reality is that China is investing massive amounts of money to modernize its armed forces, but the current force structure is so old, that the rate of retirement will surpass the rate of acquisition in all major weapon platform systems. This fact means that China overall military force would decrease in size. Aircraft, missile systems and ground combat systems would decrease in numbers, the only possible exception could be China’s surface ship fleet. Also, the modernization process is slow due to the massive investment needed to accomplish it. China is also adding a small number of new technology weapon systems to its overall arsenal. New weapon platforms are purchased in small quantities, which can not dramatically alter the balance of power. China current acquisitions of Russian systems are not as impressive as they might look. Those systems are not comparable to the ones fielded by the United States or Japan. The main problem of China’s militarization might be their inability to produce a continuous indigenous weapon industry to produce next-generation military technology. Which could be used on their existing or newest systems? The recent reversal of policy from the Chinese government, from developing its own weapon systems to purchasing systems, mainly from Russia and Israel; has left the government in Peking without control over the military they so desperately desire. For the foreseeable future, China’s potential military action, mainly against Taiwan, is limited, let alone branching out of the regional setting they are now. Overall, the balance of power in East Asia would remain the same for the next decade.

1 John W. Lewis and Hua di, China’s Ballistic Missile Programs: Technologies, Strategies, Goals, International Security, Original: July 1997 – Updated December 2006.
2 Jeffrey Lewis, The Ambiguous Arsenal, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist, May-June 2003.
3 Bill Gertz, China Advances Missile Program, Washington Times, June 22, 2005.
4 NTI and The Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, China Profile: Nuclear Capabilities, Nuclear Treaty Initiative, Fall 2003.

– Raul Colon