For the past year and a half, Cuba has been in possession of an inert U.S. Hellfire missile erroneously shipped to the sanctioned nation. Although Cuba and the U.S. restored diplomatic relations last year, Cuba remains on the list of countries in which U.S. military exports are prohibited.
According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, defense contractor Lockheed Martin sent the Hellfire missile from Orlando International Airport to Madrid in early 2014. Instead of immediately returning the unarmed missile after it was used in a NATO military exercise in Spain, the device was shipped to Germany and France. After arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, the missile was supposed to be sent back to Florida but ended up loaded onto an Air France flight to Havana instead.
Around June 2014, Lockheed Martin officials realized the Hellfire missile was missing and notified the U.S. State Department after learning a Cuban official had seized the shipping crate upon its arrival in Havana. Although the missile was not armed with explosives, the device had been equipped with sensitive military technology, including sensors and targeting systems. U.S. officials fear the Cuban government may share or sell this information to hostile countries determined on reverse-engineering the technology.
According to the Defense Department, the Hellfire missile is a laser-guided, air-to-surface missile that can be deployed from an attack helicopter such as the Apache or an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) such as the Predator. In recent years, the Hellfire missile has been used while deploying drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.
Federal investigators still do not know whether the missile was purposely stolen or accidentally shipped to Cuba. Although U.S. officials have been aware of the missing missile for a year and a half, most of the clues and suspects reside throughout Europe with diplomatic requests taking years to conclude.
“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,” one U.S. official told WSJ.
During June 2014, the State Department had been engaged in secret negotiations with Cuba when Lockheed Martin informed them of the Cuban government seizing their missing Hellfire missile. After announcing that the two nations would normalize relations, reestablish embassies, and exchange prisoners, the U.S. and Cuba later restored diplomatic relations in July 2015. Although the State Department succeeded in opening a line of communication, the Cuban government still refuses to return the misplaced missile.