Cuban Air Force May be Deployed as U.S. Considers Deploying EW Balloons for Information Warfare

Following unrest in Cuba and considerable Western support for anti-government riots and protests, the Cuban government has jammed some radio broadcasts from the U.S. and blocked the country's limited internet access. Tens of thousands of artificial tweets were notably created on the American social media site Twitter in what appeared to be an effort to create the impression of a social consensus in support of the demands of pro-Western protestors - the same kind of operations seen during the 2019 U.S.-backed military coup in Bolivia, which was taken by many analysts as an indicator of deep U.S. involvement in the unrest. 

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez took this further, stating: "I accuse the U.S. government of being directly involved and gravely responsible for the incidents that took place on July 11, and it will be held responsible for their consequences.” His allegations have yet to be proven, however. 

Calls in the U.S. for military action against Cuba were far from uncommon, with Mayor of Miami Francis Suarez calling for the United States to bomb the "island of freedom,” citing attacks on Yugoslavia and Panama as viable precedents. 

Following the unrest, the United States government has reportedly begun to consider options to support operations by anti-government groups in Cuba by launching high altitude balloons over the country to provide unrestricted internet access. 

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, for one, called  President Joe Biden to "immediately authorize and allocate funding to provide emergency connectivity to the internet for Cuba through balloon-supplied internet coverage." An unnamed Biden administration official told the Washington Post that the White House “will be actively collaborating with the private sector to identify creative ways to ensure that the Cuban people have access to the free flow of information on the Internet,” although the exact means used remained uncertain. 

Known as Raven Thunderhead balloons, these would be deployed approximately 25 miles north of Cuba to provide coverage, and have been used before in Kenya and Puerto Rico. Beyond providing internet, the balloon boasts advanced radar sensors, electronic intelligence, and electronic warfare systems, and optical payloads, which provide a much cheaper and more expendable alternative to satellites for many kinds of missions. 


Looking to known precedents, there are indications that Cuba could respond to the launching of balloons with force. In 1996, for example, a Cuban MiG-29 shot down two Cessna 337 aircraft belonging to a U.S.-based anti-Havana organization after they approached its airspace. 

Beyond the Western hemisphere, in 2020 propaganda balloons launched from NATO territory against Belarus during its own period of unrest were met with military helicopters which shot them down. 

The Cuban Air Force, although a shadow of its former self which was by far the most capable in Latin America during the Cold War years, still deploys a small number of operational fighters such as MiG-23s and MiG-29s which are more than capable of neutralizing high altitude balloons. If the balloons remain outside the country’s airspace, however, there will be some risk that neutralising them will lead to a serious U.S. government response. 

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