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Tuesday, 20 February, 2001, 16:23 GMT
'Star Wars' makes a comeback
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Most Star Wars tests have failed
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

Reading the signs, there are some in the US defence community who would not be at all surprised if the United States, Russia and Europe agreed to build a joint defence shield against possible missile attack from countries like Iraq and North Korea.

Politicians say there is a long way to go before such an historic agreement, but given the softer stance on missile defence displayed by the Russians from time to time, not many would rule it out completely.

It would mean that missiles would be launched that would fly to the edge of space and intercept incoming nuclear-armed missiles launched from so-called rogue countries.

It could also mean that the most powerful computers in the world, the battle-management computers operated by the US military, would be working to protect Russians and possibly Europeans as well.

The US and Russia are jointly building a space station in Earth orbit and soon they could be doing what was once unthinkable: building a joint system to protect against nuclear ballistic missiles.

Impotent and obsolete

In no other field has technology and politics become so intertwined as in the "Star Wars" projects of the US and Russia.

Decades ago, both sides developed missiles to lob nuclear weapons on to each other's soil. In 1972, they signed the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) treaty banning nationwide countermeasures against these weapons.

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Russia has objected to US tests
But in 1983, President Reagan introduced the idea of building a range of weapons against them. These included anti-missile missiles, lasers and sub-atomic particle beams. He said he wanted modern technology to find a way to render these weapons of mass destruction "impotent and obsolete".

But Star Wars petered out. By the end of the 1980s, its budget had been cut and many of its programmes reduced or curtailed. Simply put: the technology was not up to the job.

But things started to change in the late 1990s when it was realised that improving technology, particularly computers, might mean that a more limited system, called Son of Star Wars, might offer smaller-scale protection against missiles from states like Iraq.

Component failures

At first, Russia did not like the idea but there are signs it may be willing to become part of the project now.

The proposal by Russian Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev that Russia and Europe develop a common defence against nuclear missiles is not the first time this has been suggested by the upper layers of the Russian Government. It is the start of an intensive round of diplomatic initiatives that could result in a joint missile defence system.

At the same time that Mr Sergeyev made his suggestions, a US Congressional delegation is in Moscow reportedly with a series of proposals from President Bush for the development of such a shield.

Not that the Russians had a great deal of choice in the matter. Despite its protestations, the development of a NMD (National Missile Defence) system is official US policy.

The Son of Star Wars is, however, fraught with technical problems. Most tests of the system's components have failed, although US defence officials have said that its failures were "random" and have not undermined the project.

Technical problems

But the system is designed, in its first stages at least, to shoot down a small number of missiles - that is, the odd "rogue" strike.

It therefore overcomes one of the major technical hurdles that the full-scale Star Wars system faced: being overwhelmed by hundreds of missiles at the same time.

Over the past year Russia, perhaps realising that its technology and its reduced military budget would not allow it to compete with the US in anti-missile defence, has been making suggestions that it and the European Union join forces. For its part, the US has also intimated that it would share the technology.

It would be a project that would protect Russia, Europe and America - if the technology can be made to work. As for promoting world stability, ask China how it feels.

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See also:

27 Jan 01 | Americas
The battle over missile defence
26 Jan 01 | Americas
Bush confirms 'Star Wars' plan
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