U.S. missile used for training disappears, shows up in Cuba

An OH-58 Kiowa observation helicopter fires a Hellfire missile in an attempt to destroy an improvised explosive device during Operation Browning in southern Arab Jabour Jan. 22. Image credit: Sgt. Luis Delgadillo, U.S. Army.

In 2014, the U.S. sent a Hellfire missile to Europe for training purposes. Instead of being shipped back to the U.S., the missile mysteriously ended up in Cuba.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the shipment of the missile to Cuba has perplexed experts and investigators because there is a regulatory system designed to prevent such equipment from falling into the wrong hands.

For over a year, the United States government tried to get the Cuban government to return the missile to no avail, due to the frosty relationship between the two governments.

While the U.S. government was trying to get Cuba to return the missile, federal investigators were tracing the paper trail of the missile to determine if the missile ending up in Cuba was the work of spies or criminals, or was due to a series of blunders.

The missing missile didn’t contain any explosives, but the U.S. is worried that Cuba could share the targeting technology and sensors inside it with countries like North Korea, China, or Russia.

Hellfire missiles are air to ground missiles that are usually fired from helicopters. They were designed to be used against tanks decades ago, but they have been modernized and have become a big part of the U.S. government’s antiterrorism arsenal.

Some U.S. officials believe the missing missile points to some long-standing concerns they have about the security of international commercial shipping and the difficulty of keeping tabs on important items.

“Did someone take a bribe to send it somewhere else? Was it an intelligence operation, or just a series of mistakes? That’s what we’ve been trying to figure out,” a U.S. official said.

The Hellfire missile was shipped to Europe by Lockheed Martin, the company that manufactured it.

Before shipping the missile, Lockheed Martin received permission from the State Department, which oversees the sharing of sensitive military technology with allies.

The effort to determine how and why the missile was sent to Cuba has gone slowly because the key clues are in Europe and the process of sending diplomatic requests allowing officials to gather evidence can take some time.

If the missile was intentionally sent to Cuba, it could constitute a violation of the Arms Export Control Act, and would also be a possible violation of Cuban sanctions laws because U.S. military exports are prohibited.

If the Hellfire was sent to Cuba due to human error, the criminal investigation would end and the State Department would have to decide whether to pursue a settlement with Lockheed Martin over the incident.

A U.S. official speaking on condition of anonymity said, “This is a complicated business, mistakes are inherent in complicated businesses. Mistakes are a part of any human endeavor. Mistakes are made.”

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