Cuban Military Effectiveness, 1975–1988 Part II

Cuban Operations in Angola, 1987–1988

Cuito Cuanavale, 1987–1988.

The next time, the Soviet generals amassed a somewhat smaller, but better armed and trained force to succeed where the previous year’s offensive had failed. They concentrated 10,000 FAPLA troops with 150 T-55 and T-62 tanks, several dozen Mi-24s, as well as a large artillery park made up of D-30 and long-range M-46 guns. The offensive would be launched from the FAPLA base at Cuito Cuanavale, a town at the confluence of the eponymous Cuito and Cuanavale rivers. Four FAPLA brigades with 6,000 troops and 80 tanks would lead the attack by mounting a double envelopment of UNITA/SADF positions along the Lomba River west of the UNITA staging base at Mavinga. Once those forces were eliminated, the FAPLA brigades would turn east and overrun Mavinga from the flank, before developing a second-stage offensive against UNITA’s capital farther south at Jamba.

Once again, the offensive was a disaster. The attack kicked off in mid-August 1987, but the Angolans used the same tactics and even the same routes of march as they had the prior year. Although initial UNITA resistance was relatively light, the Lomba River line was held by a South African force 3,000 strong with 30 Olifant (modified Centurion) tanks, dozens of Ratel armored fighting vehicles, and several batteries of deadly G-5 howitzers. FAPLA units had poor unit cohesion and erratic command and control—with orders to attack followed by long stretches without any orders at all. Moreover, the South Africans performed extremely well, darting around the heavy bush such that FAPLA’s Russian tanks really could not bring their firepower to bear, whereas the South African artillery was positively lethal. On several occasions when SADF guns caught Angolan troops pinned along the river banks, their fire was devastating. By the first week of October, the FAPLA offensive was broken, with two of its four brigades crippled, 2,000–3,000 casualties, as many as 60 tanks and over 100 other AFVs lost, and the remainder of the assault force demoralized and beaten back to Cuito Cuanavale.

With FAPLA’s best formations battered and retreating helter-skelter, Pretoria decided to press its advantage. At the very least, the South Africans wanted to clear all FAPLA and allied forces east of the Cuito River, leaving UNITA an expanded base of operations and new pathways into the Angolan interior. However, some sources suggest that Pretoria envisioned taking Cuito Cuanavale as the gateway to the big Cuban air base at Menongue, and beyond it to Luanda itself, to achieve what Operation SAVANNAH had failed to do in 1975.

Defeat at the Battle of the Lomba River again panicked the MPLA leadership, which sidelined its Soviet advisors and appealed directly to Cuba for aid. Castro reluctantly agreed, but having made the decision to recommit to Angola he also decided that this time, he needed not only to halt the South African invasion, but to force the SADF out of Angola altogether and create the diplomatic circumstances in which the MPLA could deal with UNITA on its own. Consequently, on November 15, 1987, Castro ordered a massive air- and sealift—facilitated by Soviet air assets—that rapidly increased the Cuban presence in Angola from about 15,000 to over 50,000 in early 1988. As part of this deployment, Castro sent his elite 50th Division, the formation that normally held the perimeter around the American military base at Guantanamo Bay, along with some of his best fighter squadrons.

Finally, Castro also dispatched General Arnaldo Ochoa Sánchez to take command at the scene. However, demonstrating the importance of this operation, Castro exercised a high degree of control over operations directly, spending hours at the Cuban general staff headquarters in Havana, receiving a stream of endless reports, situation updates, and force laydowns from a swarm of aides he sent to Angola to perform this function. Ultimately, it was Castro himself who planned the defense of Cuito Cuanavale and ordered many of the key operational moves of FAPLA and Cuban forces during the battle. Indeed, Castro’s direct exercise of command infuriated Ochoa, leading Castro to increasingly sideline him in favor of General Leopoldo Cintra Frías (known as “Polo”).

Although he may have been 6,000 miles away, Castro’s generalship at Cuito Cuanavale proved critical. He ordered that all of the FAPLA brigades pull back to a narrow, triangular bridgehead on the east side of the Cuito River, literally where the bridge crosses into Cuito Cuanavale on the west bank. The position was protected by tributary rivers and heavy bush to both the north and south. Castro had Cuban engineers build extensive trenches and minefields in depth around the perimeter of what was called the Tumpo bridgehead. He deployed five FAPLA brigades in a tight, two-tiered defense within the bridgehead, each brigade paired with a battalion or company of Cuban regulars to stiffen their spines. He dug-in another FAPLA brigade on the west bank to hold the Cuito bridge along with a Cuban armored brigade as an operational reserve for the whole force, and placed four battalions of Cuban artillery and MRLs on high ground on the west bank where they could range the entire battlefield and even use direct fire across the river if the South Africans got that close.

Between February 14 and March 23, 1988, the SADF mounted at least four deliberate attacks against the Tumpo bridgehead. Each was a ferocious struggle, the SADF mustering a mechanized force of 2,000–3,000 men, with roughly 30 tanks, and several dozen Ratels and other armored vehicles backed by a dozen or more artillery pieces including the outstanding G-5s and G-6s. Typically, several thousand UNITA fighters also participated, although South African accounts often ignore their role altogether. In some of the early battles, the South Africans made progress against the outer line of Cuban-backed FAPLA positions, prompting Castro to decide in early February—against Ochoa’s advice and prompting his replacement by Polo—to pull all of his units back to the west bank except the FAPLA 25th Brigade and a task force organized around the Cuban 3rd Tank Battalion. He ordered Cuban and FAPLA sappers to build additional bunkers, trenches, antitank obstacles, and minefields, and concentrated all of the Cuban and Angolan artillery directly behind these positions, along with additional Cuban tanks in hull-down positions along the west bank of the river.

Castro’s moves ultimately won the battle. In each subsequent attack, the SADF would spend hours trying to punch through a forward defensive line, all the while under heavy fire, only to find the forward trenches abandoned—a tactic the Germans had first pioneered. When the South Africans attempted to push forward, they would then (repeatedly) blunder into skillfully laid secondary minefields and defensive lines, where they would get hammered even harder by Cuban artillery and armor, and then would typically find themselves counterattacked by Cuban armor leading to harrowing firefights. “The fighting was chaotic, and the Cuban tanks impressed the Olifant commanders with their aggressive (and often suicidal) sallies into the midst of the South African squadron in search of targets.” In addition, Cuban MiGs won air superiority over the battlefield and constantly harassed South African units, greatly impeding their movements and silencing the G-5 and G-6 artillery pieces that previously had dominated the fighting. Although SADF losses were typically much lighter than Cuban and FAPLA casualties in each of these battles, UNITA lost heavily, and ultimately, the South Africans simply could not withstand Cuban firepower while simultaneously trying to clear the thick defenses and fend off determined Cuban armored counterattacks. The SADF’s attacks on the Cuito Cuanavale defenses in February and March began to cost them painfully without accomplishing any of their goals. Pretoria could not afford to continue the fruitless assaults, and so it ordered the SADF to fall back to Namibia.

Then Castro went on the offensive. He understood that humiliating the SADF at Cuito Cuanavale wasn’t enough to achieve the political settlement he wanted. He needed to threaten Pretoria’s buffer zone in Cunene Province. To do so he mounted what is now called his “Western Offensive.” He dispatched the elite 50th Division, his 40th Armored Brigade (with T-62 tanks), air defense radars, additional anti-aircraft artillery and 150 SA-8 launchers to Cunene, along with two of his best MiG-23 squadrons. Eventually, the Cuban forces in Cunene would amount to two full divisions, over 200 tanks, and hundreds of SA-2/3/6/8/9 launchers all netted together with MiGs, AAA, and radars in a daunting integrated air defense system (IADS).

Then, at the end of June, the Cubans launched a two-pronged offensive, with one force advancing from Xangongo to capture Cuamoto and the second moving from Techipa to Calueque. The first, western Cuban column ran into a South African blocking position, and although the Cubans gave better than they received, the force still pulled back. The second, eastern Cuban column, however, caught a South African force in an ambush on June 27 and began to hammer the SADF in a fierce fight. The SADF sent up a force of Olifants to rescue the situation but the Cubans counterattacked with a battalion of T-55s in a flanking maneuver that forced the South Africans to withdraw all the way back to Namibia, harassed by Cuban MiGs the whole way. That same day, Cuban MiGs struck the Calueque dam and hydroelectric plant, which was critical to powering South African–controlled Namibia. The attack was extremely accurate and effective, severely damaging the bridge and nearby sluicegates, as well as the power plant, engine rooms, and an important freshwater pipeline. The Cuban mechanized forces then began patrolling aggressively and in force preparatory to resuming their ground advance—which Pretoria worried would not only drive the last South Africans from Angola, but would press on into Namibia. Between their heavy casualties (by South African standards), the humiliating loss of territory, and the fear of the war shifting to Namibia, the South African government decided finally to negotiate an end to the war.

Patterns of Cuban Military Effectiveness.

During their various campaigns in Africa between 1975 and 1988 Cuban forces consistently performed well in most aspects of combat operations, although they did perform poorly in some. Not only did the Cubans perform notably better than Arab armies overall, there was little overlap between the Cuban patterns of performance and Arab patterns.

Of greatest importance, Cuban tactical leadership was generally quite good. Cuban commanders from brigade-level down were flexible and creative in their approach to combat situations. They were very aggressive and rarely could be faulted for failing to seize the initiative or take advantage of opportunities arising in the chaos of battle. The South Africans felt that Cuban mechanized formations were aggressive to the point of being almost suicidal. Cuban tactical units made excellent use of tactical maneuver. They repeatedly confounded SADF units with flanking counterattacks in the battles at Cuito Cuanavale, Cuamato, and Techipa in 1988. In the Ogaden, the Cubans made superb use of maneuver, regularly outflanking and enveloping the defending Somali forces. The pace of operations and dramatic victories won by Cuban forces in these fluid maneuver battles was only possible because Cuban tactical commanders were willing to improvise and take the initiative when opportunities presented themselves.

Cuban forces demonstrated superb cooperation both within units and among units (and armed services). Cuban formations of all sizes generally evinced thorough integration of all combat elements into effective combined arms teams. In Ethiopia and again in Angola, Cuban armor, mechanized infantry, infantry, engineers, helicopters, and fixed-wing aircraft worked extremely well together. In Angola in particular, the thick vegetation of the bush made it essential for dismounted infantry to work together with armor to take advantage of the strengths and cover the weaknesses of each arm. Cuban units also did a good job working together and supporting each other in combat. In particular, the success of the large-scale Cuban maneuvers in all of their wars were possible only because of the ability of geographically distant Cuban units to coordinate their actions in pursuit of broader objectives. Finally, the Cuban Air Force (DAAFAR) did a good job supporting Cuban ground forces. This was especially evident in Angola in 1987–1988 when ubiquitous Cuban close air support and battlefield air interdiction missions made it difficult for SADF units to maneuver or artillery to provide fire support.

Individually, the performance of the various Cuban combat arms was more mixed, but never poor. Cuban tankers were mediocre marksmen but consistently attempted to “stalk” South African armor in the bush of Angola and otherwise maneuvered to gain advantageous positions over their adversaries. Likewise, Cuban antitank teams relentlessly hunted SADF tanks, forcing the South African armored units to fall back several times or risk heavy losses. Cuban artillery units were accurate and could shift fire well. Although often outdueled by South Africa’s outstanding G-5s and G-6s, in 1987–1988 when Cuban MiGs eventually shut down the SADF artillery units, Cuban M-46, D-30, and (especially) BM-21 batteries displayed an impressive ability to chase South African formations around the battlefield and quickly shift fire to cover the operations of their own maneuver units.

Cuban tactical commanders also paid excellent attention to reconnaissance and other forms of intelligence gathering. Throughout the campaigns at Cuito Cuanavale and Cunene in 1988, Cuban units relied on constant patrolling to deprive SADF units of the element of surprise, on rapid counterattacks by mobile reserves, and on aggressive maneuvers against the SADF’s flanks to halt and ultimately drive back the South Africans.

The ultimate success of all three major Cuban military campaigns derived from these tactical skills. After their third attack on Cuban positions in the Tumpo bridgehead failed on February 29, 1988, one of the South African task force commanders famously explained their defeat by remarking that “the enemy is strong and clever.” Even the South African author Helmoed-Römer Heitman grudgingly said of the Cuban-FAPLA units defending Cuito Cuanavale that they had “once again demonstrated their ability to conduct an effective and imaginative defence, and competent control of their artillery.”

When the Cubans were allowed to command, their strategic leadership was also very good. In the Ogaden War—and disastrously at the Battle of the Lomba River—Soviet generals were ultimately in charge. However, in Angola, both during Operation CARLOTA in 1975–1976, and again at Cuito Cuanavale and Cunene in 1987–1988, the Cubans ran things the way they wanted. In particular, Fidel Castro proved to be a gifted commander, contributing considerably to CARLOTA and saving the day at Cuito Cuanavale. Leopold Scholtz has written the best account of the fighting in Angola from the South African perspective, and he grudgingly concluded about Castro that “Whatever one may think of his politics, he was a very good tactician and strategist.”

In the air war, DAAFAR performed well in both ground-to-air and air-to-air operations. Cuban MiGs and SAMs quickly established air superiority over Ethiopia in 1978 and Angola in 1987–1988. There were only a handful of air-to-air engagements between Cuban and South African pilots, and they tote up to a draw in numeric terms. In these very limited engagements, South African pilots nonetheless concluded that their Cuban counterparts were very “aggressive and clever,” and concede that they lost several of the handful of engagements that took place. And this despite the fact that the Cubans flew according to Soviet doctrine and so were somewhat reliant on GCI.

While South African accounts swear up and down that they were not afraid of the Cuban air force, the bottom line is unmistakable: between the MiGs; the heavy, integrated SAM network; and the long distances that SAAF fighters had to fly, they effectively ceded the skies to DAAFAR. The South Africans were so worried by Cuban air power in 1987–1988 that they restructured their operations to mitigate DAAFAR’s impact on the fighting. They tried to mount their various assaults on the Cuito Cuanavale defenses in periods of bad weather when the Cubans could not fly. Worse still, the SAAF itself was reduced to toss-bombing* to avoid the Cuban fighters and SAMs.82 This method of air strike is so inaccurate that it effectively prevented the SAAF from conducting either CAS or dynamic interdiction missions, and limited South African pilots to deliberate strikes against Cuban/Angolan positions. It really meant that the SAAF just could not target Cuban/FAPLA tactical forces.

The Cuban record in air-to-ground operations was more mixed. The accuracy of Cuban air strikes varied. As in most air forces, Cuban pilots did better when attacking stationary targets—such as the Calueque dam—and ground forces deployed in open terrain—as in the Ogaden—but did not fare as well against ground forces moving quickly or in heavy vegetation, such as the thick Angolan bush. Nevertheless, even against the South Africans in Angola, Cuban air-to-ground operations were paralyzing. The SADF constantly had to invent schemes to divert or confuse the Cuban MiGs to allow them to conduct ground operations without interference, but these ploys rarely worked. Ultimately, an important factor that prompted the South Africans to call off their attack on Cuito Cuanavale was that Cuban aircraft began to pound South African supply lines and bases, threatening the SADF’s logistical lifeline. The Cuban MiGs effectively suppressed the deadly South African G-5 and G-6 artillery pieces, even though they never destroyed a single gun. Although Heitman maintains that Cuban and Angolan MiGs did little actual damage, he acknowledges that “What they did achieve was to hamper South African operations quite considerably. It would not be going too far to say that on several occasions it was only the timely arrival of [Cuban] MiGs over a battlefield that prevented the complete destruction of a FAPLA brigade.”

Cuban unit cohesion was good but not great. In Angola in 1975 the first real impact of Cuban forces was to stiffen FAPLA resolve and demonstrate to the South Africans that Angola would not be a walkover. FAPLA units regularly disintegrated under any real pressure from either the SADF or the FNLA; however, while the first small Cuban contingents were repeatedly outflanked and forced to retreat, they never broke and ran. Moreover, in all three campaigns, there are no recorded instances of Cuban units falling apart under pressure, even in the bleakest moments along the Queve River in 1975, at Harar in 1977, or at Cuito Cuanavale in 1988. By and large, Cuban mechanized formations fought exceptionally hard, taking risks to carry out their missions that earned the respect of the South Africans. At other times and in other places, Cuban units preferred to give up a position and retreat rather than sacrifice themselves defending it.85 This is not necessarily an indictment of Cuban courage, and may well reflect the perceptiveness, initiative, and quick-thinking of Cuban junior officers who recognized when a position was untenable and preferred to pull their troops out rather than have them needlessly killed or captured.

Cuban forces also did reasonably well at logistics. Cuban units never suffered from a lack of supplies, even when conducting fast-paced operations over great distances, such as in Ethiopia, or in extremely difficult terrain, as in Angola.86 Lt. General Bernard Trainor, who observed Cuban operations in Angola in 1987–1988 as a war correspondent, commented that Cuban logistics operations were very impressive, and in some ways even rivaled US logistical feats during the Persian Gulf War. In particular, Trainor noted that Cuban quartermasters reflected the aggressiveness and daring of their operational counterparts by establishing forward supply points to facilitate their rapid mechanized advances. In addition, the Cubans demonstrated real imagination and determination in moving forces over long distances when the need arose. The redeployments to Angola in 1975, Ethiopia in 1977, and southeastern Angola in 1987 were quite remarkable, moving tens of thousands of Cuban troops and their equipment over thousands of miles in very short periods of time. Although the Soviets often provided help for these redeployments, the initial deployment to Angola was a wholly Cuban enterprise, and Havana pressed into service warships, merchant ships, fishing boats, and an assortment of private craft as well as ancient Bristol Britannia transport aircraft, which had to land to refuel three times to make the trip across the Atlantic.

Maintenance and repair appears to have been a particular strength of Cuban forces. In the 1970s when Cuba had only small numbers of heavy weapons, Havana made a major effort to keep this equipment operational and so imposed high maintenance standards on its troops. These standards continued to hold even into the late 1980s after the Cuban arsenal had expanded considerably. In 1979, the US Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that Cuban forces were fully capable of all major repair and overhaul on all but their most sophisticated equipment, such as the latest Soviet electronic warfare gear. At least two additional pieces of evidence suggest the Cubans were quite good in this area. First, in 1987–1988, Cuban and Angolan MiGs, which were maintained and repaired by Cuban technicians, flew tremendous numbers of sorties. Heitman remarks that the MiGs were “constantly in the air,” and Scholtz states that the Cubans flew 1,283 sorties in about 60 days in January–March 1987 at Cuito Cuanavale (or roughly a sortie per day per aircraft).90 This level of sustained activity in combat in the inhospitable environment of the Angolan bush suggests an impressive repair and maintenance capability. Second, Cuban technicians and technical advisers were employed by numerous Third World allies of the USSR, including many of the Arab states. In particular, before the 1973 October War, the Syrians found themselves incapable of maintaining some of their new Soviet hardware, such as T-62 tanks, and so Cuban technicians were brought in to man the Syrian repair and maintenance depots. Clearly then, Cuban technicians were at least considered significantly more capable than Arab technicians.

Of course, Cuban forces were hardly perfect. They had areas of weakness too. Cuban soldiers and weapon crews do not seem to have been terribly good shots. In Angola in 1987–1988, this failing was particularly evident as Cuban units fired tremendous amounts of ordnance at close ranges and often into the flanks or rear of SADF units and yet scored few hits. In part this can be excused by the difficult terrain, and in part by the inferior equipment of the Cubans, but ultimately these are only partial explanations. It is still the case that South African units regularly outshot Cuban units, even when the Cubans had gained an advantage through maneuver or positioning.

As a final note, the South Africans themselves came away with a healthy respect for their Cuban enemies—a respect that no Arab army has ever earned from either ally or adversary. Leopold Scholtz conceded that “Tactically, the Cuban and South African armies measured up well against each other. The Cubans were surprisingly aggressive and at times even rash, although the battle-hardened SADF probably had the edge because of its superior doctrine, experience and training.” Likewise, South African combat veteran Ross Mardon told another author that the SADF was “definitely by far outgunned, out-maneuvered, out-fought, out-tacticed [sic], out-everything you want to say,” by the Cubans at Cuito Cuanavale.

When a plane “toss bombs” it flies very low to its target to avoid detection by enemy air defenses. Then, as far from the target as possible, the plane suddenly climbs (which makes it more likely to be detected by enemy radar) and releases its (unguided) weapons during this sudden ascent. The plane then turns and drops back down to the deck and screams back to its base and safety. Meanwhile, its bombs, having been “thrown” from the plane while it was climbing, follow a ballistic trajectory that allows them to cover a considerable distance before striking the ground. This allows the plane to make its escape long before it gets close to the target, thereby minimizing its exposure to enemy air defenses and maximizing its chances of survival. The problem is that toss-bombing is very inaccurate, relying on a pilot to release while flying at high speed, while still far from the target, and while ascending (which means flying away from the target on the ground, as opposed to the preferred approach of flying toward the target). It is not a precision method of bombing, and it is useless for striking small moving targets such as tanks or trucks, although it can work when striking large stationary targets such as airfields.