Intercept tests have grabbed all the attention in the Pentagon’s effort to deploy a national missile shield , but other exercises taking place on a daily basis are every bit as important, according to a senior U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) official.

The nerve center of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system is its command-and-control network, and the MDA is putting that component through intensive drills in a process that the official likened to preparing a sports team for a big game. The so-called shakedown testing must be completed before the Ground-b ased Midcourse Defense System can truly be considered operational.

The architecture of the U.S. territorial shield consists of many elements, including sensors, interceptors and command-and-control systems based on land, at sea and in space. Each of these elements must be in constant communication and have access to the same information to effectively thwart missile attacks .

That means connecting commanders with assets like the Defense Support Program missile warning satellites, radar sensors aboard Aegis ships and interceptors based in Alaska and California, the official said. Senior decision makers at the Pentagon and the White House also need to be in the loop, the official said.

In addition, military commanders must be able to monitor the status and health of their own forces, as well as those of the opposition — just like coaches of a sports team, the official said.

The shakedown exercises often are limited to one particular element of the architecture, such as a radar sensor, to ensure that it is operating properly, the official said. These smaller exercises lead up to larger scenarios where they are integrated with the other defensive components, the official said. At the top of the food chain is a fully integrated missile defense shoot-down test, the official said.

The MDA suffered setbacks in its last two attempted intercept tests in December and February, when the missile interceptor failed to launch. In both cases, however , the command-and-control functions involved in tracking the target missile and preparing for the intercept went smoothly , the MDA official said.

“Even without the booster going up, we still learned a lot about the command and control,” the official said. “We were still able to watch and track the target. While the public problems with the interceptor got all the news, the fact is that the rest of it worked like a charm.”

The testing thus far has revealed some issues with the command-and-control system that have caught the attention of the Pentagon’s independent weapons testers. David Duma, the Pentagon’s acting director of operational test and evaluation, described the command-and-control system as “rudimentary” in an unclassified excerpt of a classified report submitted to Congress in February.

Duma’s office found problems with the data being fed into systems like the Cobra Dane tracking radar in the Aleutian Islands as well as to the interceptors.

Overall, however , the command-and-control system looks like the best part of the missile defense architecture at this point, Duma told the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee during a March 15 hearing. “I think the ability to control the data, the battle management aspects of that, is ahead of the other elements” of missile defense, he said.

The MDA official agreed with the ” rudimentary” description. The agency plans to regularly upgrade all of the aspects of the missile defense system, including the command-and-control network, the official said.

“We start at rudimentary levels and each year we’re adding increasing capability,” the official said.

The Ground-based Midcourse Defense system is the first major component of the overall planned missile defense architecture, but the official said the command-and-control system by the middle of next decade will be able to work with a variety of interceptors to knock down missiles in all stages of flight.

MDA officials are looking forward to the delivery of the Sea Based X-band Radar sensor later this year, which will add another key missile-tracking component to the testing, the official said. Exercises to date have used computer simulations of data from that sensor, and having the actual system in place will help boost the realism of the testing, the official said.