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Former Cold War foes unite for missile exercises

The United States and Russia, increasingly worried about Third World countries acquiring missiles capable of delivering nuclear, biological or chemical warheads, plan to hold joint anti-ballistic missile exercises for the first time.

The three exercises, proposed for 1997, suggest a US-Russian operation under UN auspices against a hostile third party is possible in the near future.

The plans envisage co-operation in the most sensitive areas of technology and command and control, and mark the furthest shift yet away from Cold War suspicion. They indicate a radical shift in attitudes to each other's anti-missile defences and underline the change in strategic thinking away from tit-for-tat nuclear deterrence towards true defence - shooting down incoming missiles.

The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty of 1972 and 1974 places strict limits on such anti-missile defences but both countries are increasingly shedding their reservations about anti-missile systems.

The exercises will be of great interest to British experts. The Ministry of Defence is financing a pounds 5m study into ballistic missile defence for Britain, to be completed in about 18 months. The first stage will be a command post exercise at the headquarters of the US Air Force Space Command at Colorado Springs, and the second at the Missile Institute in Moscow. Joint field operations using Patriot anti-missile systems, deployed in the 1991 Gulf War, and Russian S-300Vs will be the culmination of the exercise.

The S-300V, known to Nato as the SA-12 Giant is the first purpose-built system to intercept incoming ballistic missiles.

The Giant is believed to have a range of 150km (100 miles) - double that at which Patriot can destroy incoming missiles. The Giant was probably designed to counter the US intermediate range Pershing II missile, introduced in the 1980s but now scrapped under the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.

Russian descriptions of the Giant say it belongs to the army and not the strategic air defence force. The Russian Army has 40 Giant launchers, deployed in anti-aircraft rocket brigades. It is a mobile system, mounted on a tracked chassis, which fits in with its role in defending field forces - so it does not violate the ABM treaty.

The US Star Wars plans of the early 1980s have been greatly reduced as the threat of large-scale nuclear war has diminished. Anti-missile systems are likely to rely principally on ground- and sea-based missiles to intercept a few missiles launched by a Third World or "rogue" government, not the elaborate space-based interceptors envisaged in Star Wars.

The announcement of the planned exercises came as India said it is considering mass producing its 150-mile range Prithvi ballistic missile and will proceed with its 1,500-mile range Agni ballistic missile.