Cuban Military Effectiveness, 1975–1988 Part I

A Cuban tank crew in Angola.

Cuban Operations in Angola, 1975–1976

After the 1959 revolution, Fidel Castro turned to Moscow for aid and assistance of all kinds. One key aspect of Russian support for the new Cuban communist state was to provide weapons, training, and all other forms of military aid, all of which the Cuban armed forces readily embraced. Cuban officers and pilots received extensive instruction from Soviet advisers, and many underwent training in the USSR. Cuban forces strictly employed Soviet tactics and doctrine in all types of conventional military operations. As a result, the Cuban military relied heavily on a Soviet-style of operations, as much as the North Koreans in the 1950s, and to a greater extent than any of the Arab states.

Angola, 1975–1976.

By late 1975, the Angolan revolution was in trouble. The communist Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) had seized the capital of Luanda after the Portuguese pulled out earlier in the year, but by autumn, they faced multiple challenges. In the south, South Africa had invaded Angola from Namibia in support of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). In the east, the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) was mounting its own offensive from Zaire bolstered by Portuguese special forces, Zairian regulars, and Western mercenaries. Finally, in the north, the secessionist Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda (FLEC) was fighting the MPLA for control of Cabinda province, also with Zaire’s backing. In July, the Cubans sent 50 weapons specialists to aid the MPLA’s army, the People’s Armed Forces of Liberation of Angola (FAPLA), then added 480 combat advisors and trainers in September. But in October, the South African Defense Force (SADF) launched its invasion of Angola (Operation SAVANNAH) and made rapid gains. One prong of the SADF’s offensive drove 3,100 kilometers in 33 days, defeated FAPLA forces in several dozen engagements, and was only a few hundred kilometers south of Luanda by early November.

So, on November 4, Castro acceded to an Angolan request and sent 36,000 Cuban combat troops and 300 tanks to Angola to save the MPLA regime. A huge airlift (eventually with Soviet aid but initially all Cuban) began pouring Cuban forces into the country, and by the second half of November, 4,000 Cuban soldiers were fighting on all fronts.

By then, the Cuban advisors had already taken control of the war effort. In late October, the Cubans put together a plan to defend Luanda against the SADF/UNITA force threatening the capital from the south. At Catengue on November 2, a Cuban-led FAPLA battalion (with 50 Cuban advisors fighting alongside them) surprised an SADF/UNITA task force, which the South African commander commented provided the “best organized and heaviest FAPLA opposition to date.” But the South Africans were still the better army, and the Cuban/FAPLA force was eventually beaten and sent reeling.

Nevertheless, Cuban intervention turned the tide of the Angolan Civil War. On November 10, 1,000 Cuban and FAPLA troops backed by Cuban BM-21 multiple-rocket launchers (MRLs) met a combined force of 2,000 FNLA, 1,200 Zairians, and 120 Portuguese Mercenaries with armored cars and South African artillery support at Quifangondo on the Bengo River. The Cubans turned back several crossing efforts by the FNLA and their allies and then lured them into a prepared kill zone where the BM-21s hammered them. The battle stopped the FNLA offensive cold. From November 10 to November 14, other Cuban and FAPLA units defeated in succession four converging offensives by the FLEC and Zaire against Cabinda, nailing down Luanda’s control of its disconnected province.

Inevitably, the fighting in the south against the South Africans was the hardest. The South Africans had adopted Israeli military doctrine, Israeli officers trained many South African troops, and a large number of SADF officers had studied in Israel. The South Africans had learned well, and they moved and maneuvered in ways that must have made their mentors proud.

The first Cuban combat units arrived at the Queve River (about two hours’ march time from Luanda) on November 13. They threw a screening force across the river to hold back the SADF and then blew all three bridges, which gave them time to bring up additional forces and build a formidable defensive line along the river. The SADF shifted its primary axis of advance eastward, and attempted to flank the Cuban/FAPLA line by crossing the Nhia River. But on November 23rd, Cuban forces caught the SADF’s vanguard in an ambush at Ebo, and destroyed 60 percent of the South African armored vehicles. The South Africans would have their revenge in December, when another SADF formation smashed an inexperienced Cuban/FAPLA force of about brigade size in the Battle of Bridge 14. Still, the Cubans responded quickly, dispatching armor and motorized infantry reserves, which established a new defense line that the South Africans did not relish having to breach based on their recent experiences with the Cubans.

In January 1976, the Cubans and FAPLA went on the offensive in a series of Cuban-designed and -led offensives. They launched multiple attacks against the South African and UNITA positions in the Medunda hills south of Luanda. In ferocious fighting, Cuban infantry backed by the fearsome BM-21s pushed the SADF and UNITA out of these positions. This defeat convinced Pretoria that its bid to install a friendly government in Luanda had failed, and so the SADF pulled back to Namibia.

The Cubans quickly recognized that the South African withdrawal created an opportunity to smash UNITA and they sent armored columns south as fast as they could. These forces repeatedly demonstrated good combined arms, good use of tactical maneuver, a good ability to improvise solutions to tactical problems, and excellent speed of advance overall. The offensive covered 400 miles in a little over three weeks and crippled UNITA’s conventional military capability, forcing it to make the painful decision to revert back to guerrilla operations.

With the South Africans and UNITA tamed, the Cubans and Angolans turned back north to deal with the FNLA and their Zairian allies. This too was a highly impressive campaign led by a Cuban commander, Brigadier Víctor Schueg Colás. FAPLA units built around Cuban armored formations launched a sudden offensive that overran the main FNLA air bases at Negage and Camabatela and a day later the FNLA’s “capital” at Carmona. They then developed a pincer attack that captured the FNLA’s last major base at Sao Salvador. In addition to these tactical maneuvers, the entire campaign was a wide, operational-level envelopment of the FNLA defensive network, looping around broadly to the east, driving north, and then heading west to outflank the extensive FNLA defensive positions up the West African coast. So complete was the Cuban/FAPLA victory that the FNLA was never again able to pose a significant threat to the MPLA regime. By the end of March 1976, thanks largely to the Cubans, Angola was back in MPLA hands, the FNLA had been virtually destroyed, and UNITA was so badly battered that it took several years before it could even take up the fight again as a guerrilla force.

Cuban Operations in Ethiopia, 1977–1978

Ethiopia, 1977–1978.

The Cubans barely had time to enjoy their victory in southern Africa before they were pulled northeast. In 1974, the pro-Western emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, was toppled by a Marxist revolution. But the revolution threw Ethiopia into a state of semi-chaos with multiple insurgencies attempting to bring down the Derg, the revolutionary leadership in Addis Ababa. Inevitably, the countries of the Soviet bloc welcomed the new Marxist regime—all but one that is. The Marxist government of neighboring Somalia invaded Ethiopia in July 1977, believing that revolution and civil war had so weakened the Ethiopian military that Somalia could regain the disputed Ogaden region.

The Somali armed forces in 1977 were among the best-armed and most capable in sub-Saharan Africa, having themselves benefited from years of diligent Soviet mentorship. Mogadishu’s army boasted 35,000 troops with 250 tanks, 300 armored personnel carriers, and 66 aircraft including 40 MiG-21s. At Russian urging, the Somalis had largely motorized their infantry, enabling them to wage the kind of high-speed, maneuver war the Soviets preached. The Somalis also benefited from extensive intelligence on Ethiopian military positions and readiness provided by Somali guerrillas that Mogadishu had supported in the Ogaden for over a year.

Meanwhile, the US-trained Ethiopian military was in shambles from the revolution. On paper, Ethiopia had more men under arms (47,000), but fewer arms: no more than 100 tanks, about 100 APCs, no SAMs, and only about 36 aircraft (mostly F-5s and F-86s). The usual revolutionary purges had killed or ousted large numbers of officers, who were replaced by more junior men who lacked the experience or training of their predecessors. As the great historian of the Ogaden War, Gebru Tareke, has written, “the new government in Addis Ababa was beset by murderous power struggles at the center and multiple revolts on the periphery. . . . Insurgents had captured most of Eritrea, while Afar, Oromo, and Tigrayan rebels were causing havoc in their respective areas and beyond.” As a further complication, the United States had cut off arms sales and other military support after the revolution. The other superpower also added to Ethiopia’s woes: the Soviets (who still had large numbers of advisors in Somalia) assured their new Ethiopian comrades that Mogadishu would not invade, convincing Addis to leave few forces in the Ogaden.

To the chagrin of their Soviet allies, the Somalis invaded on July 13, 1977. It was the highly mobile Somalis who first displayed their mastery of Soviet military operations and put it to excellent effect. Somali armor and mechanized formations, employing Soviet tactics and doctrine, smashed the meager Ethiopian forces garrisoning the Ogaden. The Somali units exhibited good combined arms, and they used speed and maneuver to hit Ethiopian positions from multiple directions and so quickly overcame Ethiopian resistance. By early August, the Somalis had penetrated 700 kilometers into Ethiopia and seized 350,000 square kilometers.

The fighting got harder after that. The Somalis had conquered mostly open desert and now found themselves pushing into the more mountainous terrain of central Ethiopia to try to take the main population centers of the Ogaden. In mid-August, they assaulted the town of Dire Dawa, but their mechanized forces were stopped cold by aggressive Ethiopian counterattacks and a punishing air campaign from the Ethiopian air force, which had largely won air superiority thanks to its superior (Western) tactics and American-made AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles.

The Somalis did better at Jijiga in early September. The fighting was vicious and control of the town changed hands several times, but in the end the Somalis concentrated their armor behind massive support from their artillery and MRLs and broke through the Ethiopian lines to not only take the town but overrun the strategically vital Kara Marda Pass beyond it. The Somalis then launched a pincer attack against the City of Harar, the fall of which would have solidified Somali control over all of eastern Ethiopia.

The battle for Harar would rage for four months, during which time the Somali government of Siad Barre broke its treaty with the USSR and tossed out all of its Soviet advisors. Siad Barre appears to have hoped that the Americans would step in to replace the Russians—and would be far more generous with their aid because they would not share Moscow’s divided loyalties between the two warring Marxist regimes. This combination of factors convinced both the Soviets and the Cubans that they had to act decisively to buck up the Ethiopian revolution and ensure that it was not undermined by the loss of so much territory. So in the late fall of 1977, Ethiopia began to receive Soviet military equipment, Cuban combat troops, and a large contingent of Soviet advisors—many of them former advisors to Somalia who went directly from Mogadishu to Addis Ababa, bringing with them a wealth of knowledge about the Somali military. By January, 3,000 Cuban combat troops were operating with the Ethiopians. A month later the force had grown to 18,000, complete with T-62 tanks, and General Arnaldo Ochoa Sánchez, who had commanded the final Cuban campaign in Angola in 1975–1976.

The Cubans first saw battle in late January, when the Somalis launched one last assault to take Harar, another pincer move to surround the city before reducing its defenses. This time they ran into the new Ethiopian 11th Division, built around the hard core of a Cuban armored brigade. The defenders blocked both Somali prongs and held them in place for several days, which allowed the Ethiopian Air Force to work them over. Then, on January 23, a pair of Cuban armored brigades led a counterattack that outmaneuvered and routed the Somali forces, inflicting the worst losses the Somalis had ever taken in a single action since the start of the war.

In February, the Ethiopians and Cubans launched a broad counteroffensive to expel the Somalis altogether. The operation was conducted by a half-dozen Ethiopian divisions, each built around one or more Cuban armored brigades that served as both the division’s offensive spearhead and operational reserve. On February 1, they launched a diversionary attack against Hawale, south of Dire Dawa, using artillery and a fixing attack by the Ethiopian 9th Division to convince the Somalis that the attack would come from one direction while Cuban armor and artillery outflanked their lines at Harewa to the north and rolled them up from the rear. At Jeldsea, barely a week later, they repeated the same performance.

The Cubans and Ethiopians then employed the same approach at an operational level, sending the Ethiopian 10th Division and the Cuban 102nd Armored Brigade to outflank the Kara Marda Pass altogether, while another Ethiopian division with another Cuban armored brigade pushed into the pass itself, again routing the Somali defenders. Freeing the Kara Marda Pass enabled an assault to retake Jijiga, where the Somalis counterattacked fiercely with armor and artillery of their own. The Cubans deftly parried each of these Somali thrusts, then employed a vertical envelopment, using Mi-8 helicopters to airlift a Cuban battalion behind the Somali lines. Jijiga was retaken and the Somalis lost roughly 150 tanks and almost 3,000 of their 6,000 troops.

Thereafter, the Ethiopian and Cuban forces routed the demoralized, scattered, and undersupplied Somali forces holding the southern Ogaden. In a series of rapid encircling maneuvers, Cuban mechanized brigades again led Ethiopian formations in obliterating the remaining Somali forces. When Somalia committed its strategic reserve (a mechanized brigade task force) Cuban pilots flying Ethiopia’s new MiGs and Sukhois busted up the Somali columns and sent them fleeing across the border. By the end of March 1978 the Ogaden was back in Ethiopian hands while the Somalis had suffered 8,000 dead and lost over 200 tanks and 25–30 combat aircraft.

Cuban Operations in Angola, 1987–1988

Back to Angola, 1976–1986.

Whatever one may think of Fidel Castro, he repeatedly proved himself a canny general. After his troops saved the Angolan revolution he hoped to bring most of them home. He recognized (before either the Angolan communists or the Soviets) that Angola’s war against UNITA had now degenerated into a counterinsurgency (COIN), and he wanted no part of it. He began withdrawing his forces but had only removed about 2,000 when he was forced to stop. Victory (albeit temporary) in the civil war provoked vicious infighting among the MPLA leaders, along with a decision to support Namibian insurgents of the South West African People’s Organisation (SWAPO) against the South African occupation. Pretoria responded with regular preemptive raids into Angola to prevent SWAPO from launching operations of its own. The first came at Cassinga in May 1978, and led to a brief firefight between a Cuban mechanized reserve that counterattacked the SADF force as it cleaned out a SWAPO base. The Cubans (fighting with nothing but old T-34s and BTR-152s) got the worst of it, but the battle convinced Castro that if he withdrew significant numbers of troops, the South Africans would have their way in Angola, and that would jeopardize the political hold of the MPLA in Luanda.

So the Cubans stayed. But they left the COIN war to the Angolans and instead focused on protecting the regime from a South African invasion. This left southern Africa a battleground among the alphabet soup of FAPLA, SWAPO, UNITA, and the SADF, with Cuban units only occasionally becoming involved. Over the next 10 years, South African forces mounted incursions into Angola over a dozen times, and in May 1981, the SADF took over the southern part of Angola’s Cunene province—both as a forward base to operate against SWAPO and a buffer zone to block SWAPO operations into Namibia.

In December 1985, with the war dragging on, the Soviets upgraded their advisory mission in Luanda and took control of the fight. They sent a senior Soviet general along with roughly 1,000 field grade officers—many of them veterans of Afghanistan—to serve as advisors, and charged them with bringing Angola’s debilitating war to an end. Despite their Afghan experience, the Russians believed that large-scale conventional operations to destroy the UNITA bases in southern Angola were the only way to end the insurgency. The Cubans knew better and argued against this strategy, but in 1986 Moscow got its way. With Soviet advisors attached down to company level, an army of 20,000 FAPLA troops with 150 tanks and a number of Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters, plus 7,000 SWAPO guerrillas, launched a massive offensive against UNITA. But UNITA was now being armed with American Stingers and TOWs, and a 3,000-man SADF force came to its aid. Not surprisingly, the offensive was a complete failure and the FAPLA troops were given a drubbing. Still, the Russian generals clung to their strategy.