Cuba Returns Mistakenly-Shipped Hellfire Missile to U.S. 20 Months Later

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

The rogue regime of Cuba has returned an American Hellfire missile that somehow arrived in Havana after NATO operators in Europe shipped it there instead of Florida almost two years ago. American officials have not said whether the missile, a dummy model, shows signs of having been taken apart for study.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner confirmed that “the inert training missile has been returned with the cooperation of the Cuban government,” crediting President Barack Obama’s 2014 concessions to the Castro regime with having made the process of retrieving the missile smoother. “The reestablishment of diplomatic relations and the re-opening of our embassy in Havana allow us to engage with the Cuban government on issues of mutual interest,” he said. The American government statement on the Hellfire missile described the situation as “worrying” for Cuban authorities and attributed the loss of the missile to “error.”

The Hellfire is a surface-to-air missile that is often also modified to shoot out of attack helicopters and drones. CNN notes that this particular missile was inert, but “still contained sensitive American weapons technology, such as targeting and sensor information, that U.S. officials said would be concerning if it fell into the hands of adversaries.” Such a situation led the United States to attempt to work as swiftly as possible to retrieve the item but, contrary to Toner’s statement, CNN suggests that “the historic thaw between the U.S. and Cuba” could have delayed talks regarding the return of the missile.

While the missile arrived in Havana in summer 2014, the Wall Street Journal acquired information regarding its disappearance and published it in January 2016, prompting the intelligence community to question how the missile got to Havana and why it had been allowed to stay there so long. It appears to have been shipped out of Spain after use in NATO exercises, landing in Paris before arriving in Havana instead of Florida. The Wall Street Journal described the situation as unprecedented.

Cuba remains under international sanctions that prevent it from acquiring such technology. Nonetheless, some observers argued that there was little Cuba could do with such a missile, as most of America’s enemies abroad had access to some variety of similar technology. Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey all possess such technology, and the Islamic State seized $700 million worth of non-inert Hellfire missiles in July 2014, during the seizure of Mosul.

Others note Cuba has at least one ally that would be extremely interested in studying an inert Hellfire missile: North Korea. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O’Grady noted that North Korea and Cuba still boast warm ties, even after Raúl Castro agreed to allow an American embassy in Havana. “In the past 2½ years Cuba has tried to smuggle weapons to Pyongyang, engaged in high-level meetings with North Korean officials, and secured U.S. military technology,” she writes, noting that Cuba, with its dire economic circumstances under communism, could greatly benefit from selling military intelligence.

The weapons smuggling incident O’Grady refers to occurred in 2013. The ship in question failed an inspection going through the Panama Canal, after security officials found “military hardware including two Soviet-era MiG-21 fighter aircraft, air defence systems, missiles and command and control vehicles.” Cuba claimed none of the artillery was functional, therefore legal, but did not explain why it was hidden under sacks of cane sugar.

This month, Cuba expanded its cooperation on science and technology with North Korea in a mutually-signed “barter” agreement. The communist governments signed “two protocols of international collaboration in trade and scientific-technical development.” According to Cuban state media, Cuba will receive help in promoting its sugar industry; the announcement did not specify what North Korea would receive in return.