Computer Models in History: Soviet Political Realism

Stepping into a slightly different pool than usual, let’s look at something from history: VRYAN (Russian acronym for Surprise Nuclear Missile Attack), the 1980’s Soviet Union’s computer model. Last week VRYAN came back into the news as the 1990 United States intelligence review of the 1983 Able Archer event was declassified.

The Able Archer was an annual NATO training exercise during the Cold War in preparation for a potential invasion by the USSR. These military exercises had always attracted attention by the Soviet Union, but in 1983, they nearly triggered a nuclear war. The Soviet Union had grown increasingly concerned over the scale and potential belligerency of the program. In addition, there was a sense that relative power balance and procedures for nuclear weapons were shifting, redeploying missiles towards a more aggressive position. By November of 1983 the Soviet Union was in full military alert. An important factor was VRYAN.

The VRYAN computer model was developed by the KGB in 1979 to calculate the “correlation of forces.” The leadership of the Soviet Union was hoping to gain a more precise quantitative model that would be reliant on solid metrics allowing them to properly analyze the vast amount of data they had available, without truncating it or relying on long time delays for human analysis. The objective was to identify inherently unstable political situations that could tempt the US into a first strike against the Soviet Union.

The VRYAN model used a database of over 40,000 weighted elements collected from classified military, political, and economic sources across the Soviet Union. While the exact sources have not been declassified yet, what is known is that they were based on what the Soviet Union considered key factors in WWII. The model also considered NATO war plans and decision making politics.

The ultimate goal was to provide a simple numeral assessment of the two states’ (US, USSR) relative power. The United States political-economic-military power had a fixed value of 100 while the Soviet Union’s was presented as a percentage of the United States. If the Soviet Union value was 60 or higher, it would be considered strong enough to prevent a preemptive strike, and if it was below 40, the USSR’s security could not be guaranteed, and a preemptive attack against the United States was strongly recommended. BY 1984 the USSR had fallen to 45.

While this number was not officially placed in the hands of the government, it did play a role in presenting and informing the Politburo (executive committee of the communist government) and the KGB as to what to do. This information alongside the assumption that the US would definitely seize the opportunity for a decisive strike if they realized the relatively strength they had, and President Regan’s rhetoric against the USSR, resulted in a historically tense military situation for the duration of the Able Archer exercises.

The strong reliance on the VRYAN system is now considered a factor in this crisis. The government concerns lead to be constantly asking for VRYAN for reports to determine relative strength. These reports built more anxiety in the government, trapping them in an observation-analysis-decision cycle. During this time, the USSR also increased the number of people working on VRYAN, adding a new strategic section to deal with processing data for VRYAN. The over dependence on the number generated by the computer was done at the expense of more qualitative and ambiguous information that was key in the analysis.

This crisis lasted until Autumn of 1984 when it was realized that the VRYAN predictions had failed. VRYAN had also suffered in political infighting by military officers who felt it was biased towards assuming conflict. By 1985 VRYAN was defunct.

The Soviet ““War Scare” President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.” George H.W. Bush Presidential Library February 15, 1990 Web.

Hoffman, David E. “In 1983 ‘war Scare,’ Soviet Leadership Feared Nuclear Surprise Attack by U.S.” Washington Post 24 Oct. 2015, National Security sec. Web.

Hoffman, David E. “In 1983 ‘war Scare,’ Soviet Leadership Feared Nuclear Surprise Attack by U.S.” Washington Post 24 Oct. 2015, National Security sec. Web.