Shipping Out to Destroy Syria’s Chemical Weapons

Photograph by Brian J. Clark/The Virginian-Pilot/AP Photo

The MV Cape Ray, a retired cargo ship, docked at a private shipyard in Portsmouth, Va., on Dec. 4, 2013.

The Cape Ray sits in Portsmouth, Virginia, ship-shape and ready to turn Syria’s most deadly chemical weapons into what amounts to Drano.

But its mission to destroy 700 tons of Syria’s bulk chemical weapons can’t begin until Russian trucks can transport the weapons to the Syrian port of Latakia to the Norwegian and Danish tankers that will ferry them to the Cape Ray.

That was supposed to be Dec. 31, so it’s late. Pentagon officials say they expect the ship to depart in the next two weeks.

This couldn’t have happened a year ago, says Frank Kendall, undersecretary for defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.

“There was a recognition that something was going to happen in Syria…that was going to require us to do something with those chemical materials that were known to be there,” he said.

The U.S. has been destroying its own chemical-weapon arsenal for decades, but had no way to do this in the field.

Civilian officials at the Defense Department realized the U.S. might be called on to destroy Syria’s weapons and designed the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS), which dilutes agents such as mustard gas and DF (a Sarin precursor) into caustic liquid waste safe enough to store.

Each of these units costs the U.S. government about $5 million.

The project’s funding was fast-tracked last February and the first unit was finished in July. Originally designed for land, the Defense Department adapted it to sea use after it became difficult to find a country willing to host the weapons.

The biggest danger, according to Cape Ray Captain Rick Jordan, is weather.

“If the seas become unmanageable, then we have to shut down production,” Jordan said. Since he has no fixed destination, he said he expects to be able to position the ship to avoid rough seas.

Jordan, who works for Keystone Shipping, was allowed to hand-pick his crew of 35. They’ll be joined by roughly 63 staffers from the Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, who will operate the system, while the Navy provides security.

Destroying the chemical weapons should take about 45 days, but another 45 have been built into the schedule to account for weather delays.

Photograph by Judy Lyons/Bloomberg

The Field Deployable Hydrolysis System uses heat and reagents to degrade chemical weapons.

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