Officials fearing some sort of modern-day Cuban Missile Crisis could only have been relieved to find out that what Cuba describes as an assortment of antique Soviet weapons discovered aboard a North Korean ship are more suited to a Cold War museum than they are to being used as weapons in the 21st century.
Cuba says the weapons, which were en route to North Korea for repairs, are “obsolete.” And experts who identified early Cold War relics like the Soviet-designed SA-2 air defense system among the ship’s cargo say that’s not far from the truth.
“We are talking about really old stuff — that technology was designed in the 1940s and 50s,” said James O’Halloran, editor of Jane’s Land Based Air Defence and Jane’s Strategic Weapon Systems. “Very few countries still employ the SA-2 system as a frontline defensive weapon.”
Cuba requires repairs on old systems like the SA-2, which went out of commission decades ago, and the MiG-21 jet, which was last produced in 1985 and is now mostly kept by long-time Russian allies for spare parts, according to O’Halloran at Jane’s.
In the meantime, experts don’t expect the episode will have a lasting effect diplomatically on either country — North Korea is already “sanctioned to the hilt,” says Mike Elleman, Senior Fellow for Regional Security Cooperation at IISS, and Cuba’s relations with the U.S. are thawing after decades of tension.
The more lasting impression of the raid on ship could, in the end, be the 10,000 tons of brown sugar found on-board the ship. Experts believe the sugar could be Cuban payment to cash-strapped North Korea in exchange for the weapons repairs.
“This will be much ado about nothing, except telling the world just how bad a shape Cuba and North Korea are in today — bartering early Cold War materials for sugar, that speaks volumes,” said Ellemann.