The Science of “Cratology”

How CIA photo analysts could see the invisible.

Forty-fourth Chapter in a Series Chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

The CIA’s Challenge: Seeing the Invisible

One of the major challenges facing the U.S. intelligence community was figuring out what was inside all those Soviet Bloc freighters streaming toward Cuba 50 years ago.

Passenger ships weren’t the problem: they were carrying passengers. Uncovered vehicles on freighters’ decks weren’t the problem: they were what they were. It was the cargo in freighters’ holds that stumped the analysts. Solid information would have to wait until the ships reached Cuba.

As we have seen, however, the Soviets went to extraordinary lengths to shield the unloading process from prying eyes. They went to similar lengths to shield unloaded cargo being transported inside Cuba.

Penetrating Deck Crates

The CIA’s photo analysts had outwitted the Soviets in one respect, however. They could see inside the crates carried on freighters’ decks.

Dino Brugioni of the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) tells us that photo analysts were able to measure these crates precisely using photogrammetric techniques. When photographs of crates were correlated with photographs of objects unloaded from similar crates at Soviet and foreign airfields, analysts knew that crates with certain shapes and dimensions were carrying specific objects like “fuselages, wings, engines, rotors, and so forth.” They even measured and recorded “protrusions on crates for toolboxes [and] shipping hooks…”

Using what it called “cratology,” NPIC built up an invaluable photographic library of Soviet crates.

The IL-28 Crates

The first photograph in this chapter is a good example of cratology at work. This aerial photograph of the Soviet freighter Kasimov, taken in September 1962, clearly shows rows of crates on her weather deck.

Thanks to NPIC’s library of photographs, analysts knew that these crates contained the fuselages for Il-28 twin-jet medium bombers (the “Beagle”). The wings and engines would be shipped in different-shaped crates.

Though obsolete, the Il-28 could be configured to deliver nuclear bombs. When assembled in Cuba, the Il-28’s range would permit it to deliver conventional or nuclear weapons inside the southern United States.

The KOMAR Patrol Boats

The crates on the Kasimov’s weather deck were a cinch. On August 18, 1962, however, photographs of a Soviet vessel named Sovetskaya Gavan showed four large crates on her weather deck (second photograph above). While the outline and size of the four crates suggested their contents, the analysts had to be sure.

The first step was to measure the crates. Then came the test.

When analysts superimposed a same-scale silhouette of a new Soviet KOMAR patrol boat on one of the crates (third photograph), the silhouette fit inside the crate’s dimensions. Sovetskaya Gavan was carrying four KOMARs to Cuba. Others followed.

The KOMAR’s Deadly Sting

According to Brugioni, the discovery that KOMARs were on their way to Cuba did not alarm the intelligence community “because KOMARs…had been sent as part of military-aid packages to other nations.” According to Norman Polmar and John D. Gresham, however, each of these relatively new boats carried “two anti-ship missiles, weapons against which U.S. warships had no effective defense at that time.”

These missiles, the SS-N-2 STYX, delivered a conventional high explosive warhead. The effectiveness of the STYX was demonstrated on October 21, 1967, when one of the missiles fired by an Egyptian KOMAR sank an Israeli destroyer at a range of about 14 miles.

The KOMAR would look like an insect alongside a destroyer—but the insect could kill the destroyer.


Email your questions to phufstader@sbcglobal.net or post a comment.

Sources and Notes

Brugioni’s descriptions of cratology techniques appears on pp. 73, 100, and 172-4 of his Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of The Cuban Missile Crisis (Robert F. McCort, ed.). New York: Random House, 1991. The unabridged Random House Dictionary of the English Language (1966 edition; Jess Stein editor in chief) defines photogrammetry as “the process of making surveys and maps through the use of photographs.”

The discussion of the KOMAR patrol boat and the STYX missile appear in Norman Polmar and John D. Gresham’s DEFCON-2: Standing on the Brink of Nuclear War during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2006, pp. 52, 59, 65, 74, 75, 138, 270, and 312-13 (the last pages describe the operational characteristics of the STYX).

The photographs in this chapter came from the Dino A. Brugioni Collection, National Security Archive, Washington, D.C. http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/nsa/cuba_mis_cri/photos.htm. Reproduced with the permission of the National Security Archive.

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Jeffrey Wright August 18, 2012 at 10:36 PM
Thanks Peter, The next time Cratology comes up in conversation I will be more than ready to add my two cents worth .....
Peter Hufstader August 18, 2012 at 10:39 PM
I bet the technology of today, 50 years later, has so far surpassed photogrammetrics that you'll never ever hear of "cratology' today except in an historical context like this one. Thanks so much for writing. PH
Louisa Hufstader August 18, 2012 at 11:59 PM
Good stuff PHH! 1) This post made me think of a young Louisiana scientist I met last year who developed a way of using GPS in loading Mississippi barges to their maximum safe capacity. 2) Dangerous cargo, and how to identify it, is the plot centerpiece of the far-fetched but intriguing recent William Gibson novel "Spook Country."
Peter Hufstader August 19, 2012 at 01:28 PM
Thanks for feedback, LRH. I'm sure that today's spooks have far more "all seeing" techniques at their disposal than Dino and his guys. John McCone tomorrow!
Peter Hufstader August 19, 2012 at 01:30 PM
Not sure of the context of radioactive bullets. I do believe that the A-10 Warthog tank killer fires depleted uranium slugs from its cannon. Thanks for commenting. PH


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