Cuban Air Force / Defensa Anti-Aérea y Fuerza Aérea Revolucionaria
By Wim Sonneveld
History Three main native groups inhabited Cuba when Columbus reached the island in 1492. The Ciboney and Guanahatabey populated the west, while the Taino people lived in the central and eastern area, mainly on the coast. Slavery and the establishment of large plantations began almost immediately after European colonization. The indigenous population was quickly decimated. Cuba was also used as a base for Spanish treasure ships and it was from here that the Spanish organized trips to the Americas. Throughout the 17th century, life in Cuba was difficult for the Spanish by epidemics, hurricanes and attentions of rival colonial powers. The next century proved more successful, as a huge increase in the population took place, when hundreds of thousands of slaves were imported from Africa.
Spanish refusal to deal with the growing independence movement in the late 19th century led to two wars of independence. The first, between 1868 and 1878, ended in stalemate; the second, in which the poet and revolutionary, José Martí, inspired the rebels, began in 1895 and ended when the USA was drawn into the war in 1898. Although nominally independent thereafter, Cuba was initially occupied for two years by US forces. After their withdrawal in 1901, the USA maintained effective political and economic control of the island, while governed by a series of dictators such as Fulgencio Batista and Carlos Pro Socarrás. In 1959, after a guerrilla campaign, Fidel Castro overturned the corrupt Batista government and established a socialist state.
All US businesses were expropriated in 1960 and diplomatic relations between the two countries were broken by the USA. In 1961, the CIA organized a corps of anti-Castro rebels to invade the island and galvanize an uprising to overthrow the regime. This 'Bay of Pigs' invasion was a complete fiasco; all the invaders were captured or killed and US involvement was quickly revealed. Later that year, Castro declared Cuba a Marxist-Leninist state and accelerated the development of close relations with the USSR. The following year, Soviet missiles capable of hitting targets in the USA were installed on Cuba. President Kennedy ordered a naval blockade against the island. The confrontation escalated to the threshold of nuclear war, before Kennedy and Khrushchev reached a settlement. After the crisis, Cuba, for the most part, proved a loyal Soviet ally and was the largest recipient of Soviet foreign aid.
The other main plank of Cuba's foreign policy was military assistance to Third World nations as Angola and Ethiopia. Since the demise of the USSR and the economic retrenchment at home, Cuba's foreign adventures have ended. At home, Cuba has enjoyed a reputation for the quality of its health care and social services, although not for its overall quality of life or tolerance of opposition. The US economic blockade has undoubtedly hindered the development of the economy; the strength of the lobby limits the ability of any US administration to normalize relations. There were some signs of an improvement in late 2001, when president Bush authorized the sale of food and medicines to Cuba. In 2002, the US administration's war against terror drew attention to Guantanamo Bay. This heavily fortified naval base on Cuba's eastern tip has been used as a prison for captives from the Taleban and the al-Qaeda organization. Originally leased to the US in 1901, the Castro government has accepted it as a sort of geopolitical wart; the Americans continue to pay the annual rental for the land and the Cubans have made no serious moves to dislodge it.
As Castro turned 80, speculation is growing about his successor and whether the socialist system will survive his departure.
Cuerpo Aéreo del Ejército
History The birth of Cuban military aviation is marked by the foundation of the Cuerpo Aéreo del Ejército in March 1915. The first aircraft acquired by the military was a Curtis FS. From 1918, a group of 33 Cubans was sent to France in support of the allied powers during the First World War. The Escuadrille Cubaine was subsequently formed on May 15, 1918. After the war the escuadrille turned to Cuba and formed the nucleus of the air corps. A new base at Campo de Colombia was inaugurated soon after. In 1928, president Machado opened the Escuela de Aviacion Militar at Campo de Colombia where many student pilots from Latin America obtained their wings. First real action by the air corps in Cuba occurred in 1931 when leftist rebels took the town of Gibara, they surrendered following heavy air attacks by Vought O2U-3A Cosairs. Ironically, in 1933 the air corps played a major role in the resignation of dictator Machado and the start of a revolution.
The Cuban Eight The Cuerpo Aéreo del Ejército attended an air show in Miami in 1936 with a Curtis Hawk II, piloted by Len Povey. During his aerial demonstration Povey made an extra manoeuvre with three aileron rolls in the top of a loop. He realized that in the top of the loop his aircraft was still at 140 mph and he decided to continue the loop, followed by a half roll. He repeated the manoeuvre in order to make a flat "8". Upon landing, James Doolittle, who was one of the judges, questioned Povey about this manoeuvre. The "Cuban 8" was born.
WW II Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Cuba declared war to Japan, Italy and Germany immediately. Deliveries of US aircraft commenced under a lend/lease contract and eventually about 48 aircraft were delivered to the air corps. In September 1942, a military agreement was signed with the USA, which saw the construction of two major airbases in San Antonio de los Baños and San Julian, marking the strategic importance of the country.
1945-1953 After the war the revolutionary movement El Legion del Caribe acquired a fleet of aircraft in Cuba in order to oust the Dominican dictator Trujillo. The Cuban government confiscated the aircraft and many were pressed into service. Earlier in 1947, many US surplus aircraft were delivered, including four B-25 Mitchells.
Fuerza Aérea Ejército de Cuba
In 1953 the air corps was renamed Fuerza Aérea Ejército de Cuba (FAEC). The Mutual Defense Air Program (MDAP) resulted in the arrival of new equipment and Cuban pilots, after receiving basic military training in Cuba, were sent to the United States, in order to receive the pilot courses offered, flying modern equipment like the PA-18, AT-6, B-25 and T-33. As from 1956, several uprisings started against the Batista regime and airpowers were sometimes called upon. On January 1, 1959, the revolutionaries directed by Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara took full power when Batista fled the country. About ten P-47s, fourteen B-26s, seven T-33s, ten C-47s, four C-46s, two C-54s, twelve Sea Furies and training aircraft such as AT-6, PA-18, PA-22, Beavers and various helicopters were still in flying condition and taken over by the revolutionaries.
Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias
The main task of the DAAFAR is to preserve the integrity of Cuban airspace, to give tactical and logistical support to the army and navy and to provide such aviation services for civilian agencies as may be required. By the quantity of combat aircraft, education and combat experience of its personnel, the DAAFAR could be considered one of the best-equipped air forces in Latin America. Many pilots gained operational experience in several overseas military campaigns. However, after the end of the Cold War things changed dramatically. Support from the former Soviet Union decreased and spareparts and kerosine had to be paid in Western currency instead. Subsequently, dramatic cutbacks took place at the beginning of the nineties. The DAAFAR fired half of its personnel, all older fighter types were taken off strength and all basic flight training was suspended. With the disbandment of the flying units of the Tropas Guardafronteras in 1990 and the Sociedad de Educacion Patriotico-Militar y Internacionalista (SEPMI) significant steps took place. Most older MiG-21s were written from use by the end of 1993 and most of the L-39C Albatrosses followed soon after, marking the disbandment of the Escuela de Aviacion Militar "Comandante Ché Guevara" at San Julian. The DAAFAR nowadays operates only two active fighter squadrons, based at San Antonio de los Baños and Holguin respectively, equipped with a mix of fighter aircraft. Most transport aircraft and helicopters were transferred to the commerical branch of the air force, Aerogaviota, which is entirely run by the military. Piltos maintain their flying skills with Aerogaviota and training is mostly carried out on simulators.