An inert U.S. Hellfire missile sent to Europe for training purposes was wrongly shipped from there to Cuba in 2014, said people familiar with the matter, a loss of sensitive military technology that ranks among the worst-known incidents of its kind.
The unintended delivery of the missile to Cuba has confounded investigators and experts who work in a regulatory system designed to prevent precisely such equipment from falling into the wrong hands, said those familiar with the matter.
For more than a year, amid a historic thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, American authorities have tried to get the Cuban government to return the missile, said people familiar with the matter. At the same time, federal investigators have been tracing the paper trail of the wayward Hellfire to determine if its arrival in Cuba was the work of criminals or spies, or the result of a series of blunders, these people said.
Naturally, in his haste to “normalize” relations with Cuba, Obama didn’t make return of the missile a condition of the diplomatic thaw. Then again, why would he?
This particular missile didn’t contain explosives, but U.S. officials worry that Cuba could share the sensors and targeting technology inside it with nations like China, North Korea or Russia, these people said. Officials don’t suspect Cuba is likely to try to take apart the missile on its own and try to develop similar weapons technology, these people said. It is unclear whether a U.S. adversary has ever obtained such knowledge of a Hellfire.U.S. officials said the case of the missing missile, while highly unusual, points to long-standing concerns about the security of international commercial shipping and the difficulty of keeping close 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,” said one U.S. official.