It Ain't 'Star Wars,' But It's Getting There

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Sleep easy, everyone — in five years or so, the U.S. might have a pretty good chance of defending itself against a surprise nuclear attack by... North Korea. With the least technological fudging yet, the Pentagon on Saturday night managed to shoot a dummy nuclear warhead out of the sky with a ground-based rocket — the latest in a string of successes that have the idea of a nuclear "umbrella" edging closer to approval by the Clinton administration. For TIME Pentagon correspondent Mark Thompson, it’s a dubious triumph of lowered expectations. "It’s not Reagan’s ‘Star Wars,' which was space-based," he says. "This is the so-called ‘thin shield,’ which consists of a smaller amount of interceptors [100] from a single site, rather than a full umbrella. Technically, it’s easier to build, but it also wouldn’t defend against a full-scale assault."

And then there’s the possibility that such an umbrella could create more diplomatic foul weather — or even, down the road, more nuclear threats — than it’s designed to shelter against. The Russians have shown absolutely no inclination to modify the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to permit such a weapon, despite a U.S. compromise position of just one ground-based interceptor site based in Alaska (the second one is slated for North Dakota). China is equally perturbed at the idea, since U.S. allies in the Pacific, like Japan, are certain to clamor for the technology. But there's considerable pressure to disregard the Cold War-imposed treaties, particularly in the Republican-controlled Congress. "There’s great political momentum for this right now," says Thompson, "to ignore the Russians, scrap the whole treaty and start building the system." And there’s a certain logic to that — when it comes to nuclear defense, all or nothing always trumps a compromise. "One site in Alaska means the system wouldn’t work as well against Iran," Thompson says. President Reagan, who rode the Iran hostage crisis to election and bluffed the Soviets with big-idea Star Wars, would have appreciated that.