Inert Hellfire missile sent to Europe for a training exercise makes mysterious trip, sparking concerns over loss of military technology
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.
Hellfires are air-to-ground missiles, often fired from helicopters. They were first designed as antitank weapons decades ago, but have been modernized to become an important part of the U.S. government’s antiterrorism arsenal, often fired from Predator drones to carry out lethal attacks on targets in countries including Yemen and Pakistan, said people familiar with the technology.
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.
The government response to the missing missile has been two-pronged. First, it has tried to get the missile back. Second, officials want to determine who, if anyone, intentionally sent it off course. That effort has gone slowly, the people familiar with the probe said, in large part because the most important clues are in Europe, where evidence-gathering is subject to transnational diplomatic requests that can take years to complete.
The missile was sent from Orlando International Airport in early 2014 to be used in a North Atlantic Treaty Organization military exercise, said the people familiar with the case. As with other sensitive military gear, the shipping crate was clearly marked as containing material subject to rigorous export controls, and that shipping information would have made clear to anyone handling it that it wasn’t regular cargo, these people said.
The missile was sent by its manufacturer, Lockheed Martin Corp. , after the company got permission from the State Department, which oversees the sharing of sensitive military technology with allies.
A Lockheed Martin spokeswoman declined to comment on the matter, referring queries to U.S. government officials.
State Dept. spokesman John Kirby said the agency “is restricted under federal law and regulations from commenting on defense trade licensing and compliance issues.”
The people familiar with the case said the missile was sent to Spain and used in the military exercise. But for reasons that are still unclear, after it was packed up, it began a roundabout trip through Europe, was loaded onto a truck and eventually sent to Germany.
The missile was packaged in Rota, Spain, a U.S. official said, where it was put into the truck belonging to another freight-shipping firm, known by officials who track such cargo as a “freight forwarder.” That trucking company released the missile to yet another shipping firm that was supposed to put the missile on a flight originating in Madrid. That flight was headed to Frankfurt, Germany, before it was to be placed on another flight bound for Florida.
At some point, officials loading the first flight realized the missile it expected to be loading onto the aircraft wasn’t among the cargo, the government official said. After tracing the cargo, officials realized that the missile had been loaded onto a truck operated by Air France, which took the missile to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. There, it was loaded onto a “mixed pallet” of cargo and placed on an Air France flight. By the time the freight-forwarding firm in Madrid tracked down the missile, it was on the Air France flight, headed to Havana.
Attempts to reach Air France were unsuccessful.
When the plane landed in Havana, a local official spotted the labeling on the shipping crate and seized it, people familiar with the case said. Around June 2014, Lockheed Martin officials realized the missile was missing, was likely in Cuba, and notified the State Department, said those familiar with the matter. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, as well as prosecutors with the Justice Department are now investigating to see whether the redirection of the missile was a crime.
Several of those familiar with the case said the loss of the Hellfire missile is the worst example they can recall of the kind of missteps that can occur in international shipping of sensitive military technology. While there are instances in which sensitive technology ends up getting lost in transit, it is virtually unheard of for such a shipment to end up in a sanctioned country like Cuba, according to industry experts.
Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, said it is likely some foreign nations would like to reverse-engineer parts of a Hellfire, such as the sensors or targeting technology, to develop countermeasures or to improve their own missile systems.
“Now it’s a proliferation concern—someone else now understands how it works and what may have been cutting edge for us is deconstructed and packaged into what other players sell on the open market—and possibly provided to countries that we wouldn’t sell to,” said Mr. Singer.
The Defense Department’s Joint Attack Munitions Systems project office asked officials at the Defense Intelligence Agency to provide an assessment of the security impacts of the lost munition to determine the risks associated with its loss. An official at DIA declined to comment. But a defense official confirmed that DIA has reviewed the implications of the lost missile.
The Cuban Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to multiple messages seeking comment. Representatives at the embassies of Spain and France didn’t immediately comment, while attempts to contact the German Embassy were unsuccessful.
Several officials and industry experts said what was most baffling about the case was how so many shipping-company workers who should have noticed the labeling on the shipping crate and—at a minimum— asked questions about why it was going somewhere else apparently allowed it to proceed along a circuitous route until it ended up in Cuba.
If someone intentionally sent it astray, that could constitute a violation of the Arms Export Control Act, as well as a possible violation of Cuban sanctions laws. There are more than 25 countries to which U.S. military exports are generally prohibited. Cuba was added to the list in 1984.
The State Department’s office of Political-Military Affairs, which oversees exports of military hardware, regularly finds companies to be in violation of the Arms Export Control Act for a variety of reasons. Each year, there are about 1,500 disclosures of potential violations to the Arms Export Control Act. Many of those violations are because of mis-shipments, said a State Department official, but the official said the government doesn’t track the specific number each year.
“Mis-shipments happen all the time because of the amount and volume of the defense trade,” the official added. But no official could recall an instance when a U.S. missile was sent to a sanctioned nation.
The Hellfire missile has been missing during the most sensitive time in U.S.-Cuba relations in more than a generation. In June 2014, when the U.S. first realized the missile was in Cuba, the State Department was engaged in secret negotiations to normalize relations with Cuba, ending a standoff dating back to the 1950s.
That rapprochement culminated in a December 2014 announcement that the two nations would normalize relations, re-establish embassies and exchange prisoners.
If it turns out that the Hellfire was lost because of human error, the criminal probe would end and the State Department would have to determine whether to pursue a settlement with Lockheed Martin over the incident.
Companies that violate export-control laws can be fined millions of dollars and be required to address whatever issues contributed to the problem, the State Department official said. Large defense firms like Northrop Grumman Corp. and Boeing Co. have entered into consent agreements over the years, according to the State Department. Lockheed Martin has been cited in the past by State, including in 2000 and 2008 for a total of 16 violations. In another instance, another defense company, BAE Systems PLC, paid the Treasury $79 million in 2011, the highest amount ever paid. Lockheed Martin, which voluntarily disclosed the missing missile, is cooperating with investigators, U.S. officials said.
“This is a complicated business, mistakes are inherent in complicated businesses,” the official said. “Mistakes are a part of any human endeavor. Mistakes are made.”