On the apparent eve of a possible U.S. attack on Syria—following the Bashar Al Assad regime’s reported use of chemical weapons—America has erected a veritable wall of defenses around the civil war-torn country. Special missiles and their associated radars, installed on land and aboard ships, protect Turkey and Jordan … and potentially Israel, as well.

The U.S. missile defenses, including Patriot missile-interceptors on land and SM-3 ship-based interceptors, are controversial, to say the least. The Government Accountability Office last year claimed that some American missile defenses have “uncertain or impaired” capabilities.

Patriots were used to defend against Iraqi ballistic missiles in 1991 and 2003, but the U.S. missiles’ hit rate could be as low as 10 percent. On the other hand, in 2003 Patriots did manage to accidentally shoot down one British warplane and a U.S. Navy plane, killing their crews.

The SM-3 has never been fired in combat, but by 2012 had hit eight out of nine test targets. In any event, the practical utility of Patriots and SM-3s is actually beside the point. ‘These things tend to be tools of international politics,” Phil Coyle, a former top Pentagon weapons tester, said of missile defenses.

In other words, the statement America makes with its deployed missile shield is arguably more important than actually shooting down ballistic missiles. And as far as statement go, Washington has spoken loud and clear: it means to defend its allies against the threat of Syrian attack.

Or try, at least.

A U.S. Army Patriot battery in Turkey. Army photo

Turkey & Jordan

At Ankara’s request NATO has deployed six batteries of Patriot missiles to Turkey near the Syrian border: two each from Germany and The Netherlands in Kahramanmaras and Adana, respectively, plus two from the U.S. Army in Gaziantep.

“The soldiers are more than ready to act when called upon,” the Army stated, while also stressing that the Patriots were “to serve defensive purposes only.”

Each Patriot battery includes up to four launchers, each loaded with 16 PAC-3 missiles, with as many as 100 soldiers to operate them. A radar on the ground detects targets and helps guide an interceptor up to 15 miles away, with a smaller radar in the nose of the interceptor completing the guidance to the target missile.

The U.S. has boosted the Patriots with a special AN/TPY-2 X-band early warning radar based in Malatya in eastern Turkey. The X-band radar can detect incoming missiles up to 3,000 miles away.

Washington sent Patriots to Jordan this summer along with F-16 fighters and some ground troops—ostensibly for an exercise with Jordanian forces. But when the training wrapped in June, Amman asked for the missiles to remain behind.

The Patriots stayed “in order to enhance the defensive posture and capacity of Jordan,” said Lt. Col. T.G. Taylor, a spokesman at U.S. Central Command.

USS Mahan. Navy photo

Israel

American defenses for Israel are less obvious—in part because Jerusalem possesses its own Patriots plus other interceptor systems, and also owing to regional discomfort with America and Israel’s close relationship.

The U.S. deployed one of its AN/TPY-2 X-band radars to the Negev desert to give Israeli forces extra warning of any attack by Iran, although the sensor is also ideally placed to detect missiles launched from Syria. The 100 American soldiers who man the radar are the only foreign troops stationed in the Jewish state, according to Time.

Additional help could come from two U.S. Navy warships steaming in the Mediterranean. The USS Mahan and USS Ramage, 500-foot-long Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, have both been upgraded with new software and hardware making them compatible with the SM-3 missile interceptors.

The SM-3 can hit missiles up to 270 miles away, guided by the ship’s SPY-1 radar plus a smaller sensor in the warhead. Granted, the physics of striking a missile moving laterally to the launching vessel are probably more complicated than for intercepting a missile coming straight at the launcher. But in theory Mahan and Ramage could sail in international waters off the Israeli coast and still offer some degree of protection to Israeli cities.

Washington is undoubtedly hoping Syria won’t test these defenses, even in the event of a U.S. raid. But the whole point is to show Turkey, Jordan and Israel that America cares, even if the missile shield it has built for its friends is not impenetrable.

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