Long after cold war, artists' paintings of Soviet weapons remain

During the cold war, Defense Intelligence Agency artists painted pictures of Soviet missiles and helicopters to build support for defense spending. That program is gone, but the paintings remain at a Smithsonian museum.

Back when superpower summits were the most important dates on a president’s calendar and arms control was debated as fiercely as health-care reform is today, one of the US military’s best cold-war weapons might have been painting.

That’s right – brushes, palettes, easels, the whole Picasso thing. But the artists in question weren’t producing “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” They were depicting missiles.

From 1981 to 1991, the Pentagon published a glossy booklet titled “Soviet Military Power.” This yearly assessment of the USSR’s might had its critics, who thought it exaggerated the size of Kremlin arsenals and the effectiveness of Soviet forces.

But the pamphlet was supposed to rally US support for defense spending – and that it did. (Nobody ever talks about a Reagan-era military funding squeeze, do they?) It wasn’t just the scary red covers and the comparison charts that helped keep appropriations flowing. The most impressive part was the lush illustrations depicting Soviet weapons in their operational habitat.

The paintings produced by Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) artists included such classics as “Soviet SS-20s in Firing Position,” which depicted intermediate-range nuclear missiles awaiting launch orders in a pine forest, and “Soviet MI-24 Hind Delivering Chemical Spray,” which showed swooping helicopters misting some sort of gas over a defenseless (and apparently unpopulated) mountain field.

Why paintings? Because the artists were working from classified photos and other intelligence that couldn’t be reproduced. They could leave out stuff they didn’t want the Soviets to know that we knew.

The collapse of the Soviet Union made this exercise superfluous. “Soviet Military Power” was canceled in 1991. The DIA painting era ended at the same time. Today the Pentagon uses computer generation if it wants fancy illustrations.

But art is eternal – and you can still see many of these paintings on the public part of the DIA website, or in person at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum.

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