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Analysis: Ship seizure shows dire straits of Cuban military rather than threat

Panama police officers stand guard in front of a container holding a green missile-shaped object seized from the North Korean flagged ship ''Chong Chon Gang'' at the Manzanillo Container Terminal in Colon City July 17, 2013.
Credit: Reuters/Carlos Jasso
Panama police officers stand guard in front of a container holding a green missile-shaped object seized from the North Korean flagged ship ''Chong Chon Gang'' at the Manzanillo Container Terminal in Colon City July 17, 2013. Credit: Reuters/Carlos Jasso

MIAMI | Wed Jul 17, 2013 8:47pm EDT

(Reuters) - The seizure in Panama of a North Korean cargo ship carrying aging Cuban military hardware in need of repair is more a sign of hard times in Havana than of any sinister military threat, analysts say.

Although Cuba may have violated United Nations sanctions barring military trade with North Korea, the infraction could result in little more than a slap on the wrist as the Soviet-era weaponry appears unrelated to international concern over proliferation of nuclear weapons by Pyongyang.

"Based on what we know, the military impact seems to be negligible," said Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Virginia-based Cuban Research Center. "This material has nothing to do with the international community's core concern about North Korea, which is nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles."

The shipment included two anti-aircraft missile batteries, nine disassembled missiles, two MiG-21 aircraft, and 15 MiG engines, all Soviet-era military weaponry built in the middle of the last century.

The Cuban military was "using weapons and equipment of staggeringly old vintage" and the Pentagon had long since written off the island as a military threat, said Hal Klepak, professor of History and Strategy at the Royal Military College of Canada and author of a book on the Cuban military.

At the same time, Cuba's military doctrine was designed to deter any attack, and its defensive capacity was badly in need of an upgrade, he said.

"Nothing Cuba has, as the Pentagon has repeatedly made clear in its own analyses, constitutes a threat to the U.S. or other neighbors, but if Cuba cannot keep any limited air-defense capability in being at all, then it cannot convince anyone that its conquest would not be easy to achieve," he said.

In a 1998 report, the Pentagon concluded that the collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1991 had seriously eroded the size and power of Cuba's military, which was left posing "a negligible threat to the U.S. or surrounding countries."

The report said Cuba's army could no longer mount "effective operations" due to mothballed equipment, and it's air force had fewer than two dozen operation MiGs.

Despite the possible violation of U.N. sanctions, the Obama administration has reacted cautiously to the Panama seizure.

It went ahead on Wednesday with scheduled migration talks with Cuba, and rather than lash out at Havana, U.S. officials have taken a wait-and-see approach, saying they plan to speak to the Cubans about the incident once all the facts are known.

"HOPELESSLY OUT OF DATE"

Cuba says the "obsolete" weapons were being sent back to North Korea for repair and has insisted it remains committed to international law and nuclear disarmament.

Klepak termed the MiG-21, which first flew in the 1950s, "hopelessly out of date," as were the anti-aircraft radar systems reportedly on the ship.

"Cuba cannot afford to buy anything newer and does not have repair facilities of its own for such needs. Thus if it is not to scrap, for example, the aircraft entirely, it must repair and potentially update them in some areas," he said.

Cuba's dire financial situation most likely led it to turn to North Korea, allowing Havana to enter a barter arrangement, perhaps for sugar, Klepak added, noting that the North Koreans had repaired similar weaponry in the past in exchange for food.

While Russia and China could repair the systems, or perhaps modernize them, they would only do so for cash, he said.

The surreptitious nature of the cargo, and the ship's route with its transponder switched off when it left the Panama Canal to collect the Cuban weapons, indicated that Cuba knew it was violating the U.N. sanctions, but was willing to take the risk of being caught, according to some analysts.

Despite official U.S. caution so far, the weapons shipment could hurt Havana's efforts to rekindle relations with Washington, given that Cuban-American members of Congress have already called for tougher action from the Obama administration.

"Weapons transfers from one communist regime to another hidden under sacks of sugar are not accidental occurrences, and reinforces the necessity that Cuba remain on the State Department's list of countries that sponsor state terrorism," U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.

Peters called Cuba's action a political blunder. "Cuba deserves to be criticized for violating a U.N. resolution, but it's a long leap to then take this action and spin it into some big security threat emanating from Cuba because it just doesn't exist," he said.

"The Cuban military has never been an offensive threat to the United States and for the past 20 years it's been a shell of its former self."

(Additional reporting by Marc Frank in Havana; Editing by David Drunnstrom)

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