Soviet Missiles and Persistence

I found this picture on the internet. I was searching for an image that I could use in a presentation to make people think about nuclear missiles. It’s an extraordinary picture. The caption reads, “AFP: This file picture taken on March 18, 2008 of Russian Topol ICBMs behind a barbed-wire fence during a repetition for the nation’s annual May 9 Victory Day parade 50 km outside Moscow in Yushkovo.”russian mobile missiles

At first glance, what you notice is the impressiveness of the missiles. They’re big—really big—they dominate the picture. The men standing next to them are dwarfed. You can see the compression caused by their weight on the tires of the vehicles. It may also cross your mind—it crossed my mind—that they are the pinnacle of nuclear weapons delivery systems. They can not only launch warheads to the other side of the globe with incredible accuracy, they are mobile—a technology not even the United States has. The picture is a marvelous representation of the awesomeness and modernity of nuclear weapons. It’s been floating around the internet for, oh, I don’t know, at least five years. I’ve seen it dozens of times. But until last night I never noticed the really interesting thing about it.

There is something hidden in this picture. Something that provides a different, deeper meaning. A closer inspection will change your view and give added insight into the nature of technological evolution. See it? No? Well, I’ll blow up the part that struck me, in case the resolution of the version you see isn’t sharp enough to allow you to enlarge it several times.

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There. See it? Leaning against the third wheel of the vehicle on the left are three brooms. But they’re not just any ordinary brooms. They’re not standard Russian military-issue brooms. They are specially made. In fact, I’m pretty sure they’re hand made. Their handles appear to be saplings that have had the bark and branches shaved off, and the brooms themselves have been made by bundling small twigs together and tying them to the handle. This is a classic broom used at least since the Middle Ages and probably before. Actually probably much, much before.

I’m not mocking Russian soldiers or making a point about Russian military budgets cuts. What struck me was how durable this particular kind of broom is. This same broom, with these same parts and construction, has been used in Russia (and other parts of the world) for probably—I don’t know—three thousand years. An archeologist could tell us how long for sure. But I’d be willing to bet that people in Mesopotamia in the era of Sargon II (722-705 BC) were sweeping their doorsteps with something pretty similar. That is a remarkable record of longevity.

Those brooms are a marvel of technology: simple, made from readily available materials, yet hardly unsurpassed in utility. There are modern brooms that are somewhat more useful. But not much more.

Think about it. What other technology comes to mind that has persisted, virtually unchanged, over three thousand years? Wheels have been around longer, but the materials and design we use for their construction have changed considerably. Bows and arrows are still being used largely unchanged in some corners of the globe, I suppose. But what other ancient piece of technology has persisted side by side—literally, as you can see in this picture—with some of the most advanced technology in the world?

And it got me thinking. Which is the more impressive technology in this picture? The really, really destructive one that requires smashing atoms and rocket science? Or the simple, homely one that is hardly as impressive, but has nonetheless lasted thousands of years?
And that brought another thought to mind. Perhaps one that is more than idle musings about technology innovation. One that has relevance to policy discussions today. How long will nuclear weapons last? Are they the type of technology that will persist—unchanged in design or materials—for a thousand years? A hundred? Do they have the characteristics that make a technology widely adopted and persistently retained? Do they have the kind of broad utility that keeps a technology in the ever-changing bundle of technologies that human civilization considers essential?

The evidence is not very promising. In fact, if you listen closely, you might almost convince yourself that you can already hear the death knell of nuclear technology tolling in the distance. After all, the technological trend in military weapons over the last seventy years is very distinct, very discernible, and very definitely headed away from nuclear weapons. The trend in military technology is toward more precise, more intelligent, smaller weapons. Drones, smart missiles, miniature machines with tiny cameras. Everything is getting smaller and smaller. Look at the tiny machine below. This is the black hornet nano, a four inch drone with a tiny camera that hovers over the battlefield and peaks behind obstacles to give soldiers a clear view of what’s around the corner. Nuclear weapons—the quintessence of bigness—already look as if they’ve being left behind.

black hornet nano uav

It almost makes you think (if you will forgive me for mixing my metaphors) of the evolutionary race between dinosaurs and mammals. Dinosaurs were big, massive, impressive. They were, if I may borrow a phrase from the paragraph above, the quintessence of bigness. But they were outlasted and overwhelmed by the smaller, smarter, more nimble mammals.

It makes you think.

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