The nation’s ballistic missile defense system passed a major milestone while almost no one was looking. The best national security news always seems to get lost in the noise of partisan politics. While most of the country argued over the Mueller report and a certain celebrity lawyer’s surprise arrest, the Missile Defense Agency conducted a very successful test of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system.

Monday afternoon, the MDA intercepted a test ICBM with two Ground-Based Interceptor missiles launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA. The so-called “salvo engagement test” was designed to test the ability of the training missile to determine if the first missile had done the job, look for additional targets, and engage the “next most lethal target.”

The intercept marks the third consecutive successful test of the GMD system, and the 11th of the system’s 20 total intercept tests conducted over the last 20 years.

Looking for the Next Most Lethal Object

The Air Force launched the test missile from the Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll. Both sea-and land-based radars detected and tracked the launch, feeding the data into GMD’s fire control system. More than 4,000 miles away, the Air Force launched its two interceptors about a minute apart,  according to an analysis of MDA video footage and eyewitness accounts by Ankit Panda, a senior editor at the Diplomat and an adjunct senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists.

The MDA said the first missile successfully intercepted the incoming ICBM, and the second missile “then looked at the resulting debris and remaining objects, and, not finding any other reentry vehicles, selected the next ‘most lethal object’ it could identify, and struck that, precisely as it was designed to do.” Translation: the second interceptor hit a large piece piece of debris that could have been a second warhead, or a warhead that survived the first intercept.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Samuel A. Greaves, the MDA Director, said in a statement, “This was the first GBI salvo intercept of a complex, threat-representative ICBM target, and it was a critical milestone. The system worked exactly as it was designed to do, and the results of this test provide evidence of the practicable use of the salvo doctrine within missile defense.”

Missile Defense is Critical to DENUCLEARIZATION Talks

The GMD system —a product of prime contractor Boeing and major subcontractors Northrop Grumman and Raytheon — consists of 44 interceptor missiles in permanent silos at Vandenberg and Fort Greely, AK, south of Fairbanks. Numerous ground and sea early warning radars provide detection and tracking. It is the only component of our ballistic missile defense system that can provide coverage for the entire United States, intercepting incoming missiles (as its name suggests) in the second, or midcourse, phase of their trajectory. It intercepts incoming warheads outside the atmosphere.

The Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system, by contrast, only provides “theater” coverage and intercepts warheads in the terminal (third) phase, on the edge of the atmosphere.

Forty-four interceptors are obviously not enough to withstand a full-on nuclear barrage from Russia (I had to stop myself from typing “Soviet Union”). But they are sufficient to protect against threats from rogue states like North Korea, given that denuclearization talks there have soured and the DPRK has begun rebuilding parts of the Sohae missile facility. Convincing Chairman Kim Jong-un that any missile launch would be a futile exercise is a critical negotiating tool. Why continue the program if we can shoot down anything you throw at us?

The Department of Defense is fully committed to the GMD program, consistent with the Missile Defense Review published earlier this year. Also on Monday, Boeing received a $4.1 billion modification to the GMD contract which includes money for a third silo field and two additional silos in the existing field at Fort Greely.

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Tom McCuin is a strategic communication consultant and retired Army Reserve Civil Affairs and Public Affairs officer whose career includes serving with the Malaysian Battle Group in Bosnia, two tours in Afghanistan, and three years in the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs in the Pentagon. When he’s not devouring political news, he enjoys sailboat racing and umpiring Little League games (except the ones his son plays in) in Alexandria, Va. Follow him on Twitter at @tommccuin