Software Once Led Us to the Precipice of Nuclear War. What Will AI Do?


This post is by steve blank from Steve Blank


A version of this story previously appeared in Defense One.

The story of RYAN and Able Archer is an oft-told lesson of a U.S. intelligence failure, miscalculation, and two superpowers unaware they were on the brink of an accidental nuclear war — all because the Soviet Union relied on a software program to make predictions that were based on false assumptions.

As more of our weapons systems and analytical and predictive systems become enabled by AI and Machine Learning, the lessons of RYAN and Able Archer is a cautionary tale for the DoD.


In 1983, the world’s superpowers drew near to accidental nuclear war, largely because the Soviet Union relied on software to make predictions that were based on false assumptions. Today, as the Pentagon moves to infuse artificial-intelligence tools into just about every aspect of its workings, it’s worth remembering the lessons of RYAN and Able Archer.

Two years earlier, the Soviet Union had deployed a software program dubbed RYAN, for Raketno Yadernoye Napadenie, or sudden nuclear missile attack. Massive for its time, RYAN sought to compute the relative power of the two superpowers by modeling 40,000 military, political, and economic factors, including 292 “indicators” reported from agents (spies) abroad. It was run by the KGB, which employed more than 200 people just to input the data.

The Soviets built RYAN to warn them when their country’s relative strength had declined to a point that the U.S. might launch a preemptive first strike on the Soviet Union. Leaders decided that if Soviet power was at (Read more...)