PORTSMOUTH, Va. - Long before forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad launched a massive chemical weapons strike that nearly dragged the U.S. into Syria's civil war, the American government was trying to figure out a way to neutralize Assad's stockpile of nerve gas and other illicit weapons. No country seemed inclined to allow the work to be done on its own soil, and breaking them down in Syria in the middle of an ongoing civil war seemed fraught with potential nightmares.
The world is about to see a possible solution: In the next few weeks, the United States expects to deploy the 648-foot, 22,000-ton MV Cape Ray with technology aboard that can break down the chemical agents used to make sarin and mustard gases. The steel-gray ship's personnel will pick up the chemicals in a port somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea -- reportedly in Italy -- and then process them in international waters, where there are far fewer diplomatic and political issues than doing the work on land. The ship will carry about 35 merchant mariners, who will operate the ship, and more than 60 engineers and other personnel who will handle the chemicals.
"Departure will depend on a number of factors, but we expect within two weeks the ship will depart," said Frank Kendall, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. "We expect to deal with about 700 tons [of chemical weapons], and we have the capacity to deal with that."
Kendall spoke at a press conference Thursday on a pier in Portsmouth, Va., in the shadow of the Cape Ray, as the Pentagon, U.S. Maritime Administration and Department of Transportation demonstrated the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System that will break down the chemicals aboard the ship. Two of the $5 million systems will be deployed aboard the Cape Ray, processing mustard and methylphosphonyl diflouride, or "DF," a precursor component of sarin.
The chemicals will be neutralized under white, ventilated tents on the ship's sprawling internal trailer deck, and then filtered through pipes and hoses to a series of tanks for additional processing and storage, said Adam Baker, an engineer with the U.S. Army's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center. The organization has worked to destroy the United States' own stockpile of chemical weapons for years in three locations: Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.; Pine Bluff, Ark.; and Rock Island, Ill. The new hydrolysis systems aboard the Cape Ray incorporates similar technology, heating and mixing with water, sodium hydroxide and sodium hypochlorite to break down the chemical weapons into waste that is about as hazardous as many household cleaners.
The key difference is the new system will be floating on open seas, facing bad weather, potential attacks and any other threat that may emerge while underway. Kendall and other defense officials declined to comment on what kind of security the Cape Ray will have, but said the United States is planning to protect it with naval forces.
The Cape Ray's mariners and the chemical weapons processing crew have been training for months to handle worst-case situations that could arise, including fires and spills, said Capt. Richard Jordan, a 40-year mariner who runs the ship. But he said that bad weather is the single biggest danger they expect to face. Since they don't have a destination until the processing of the weapons is complete, however, he said he will frequently be able to steer the Cape Ray around storms. A security team and personnel with U.S. European Command also will be aboard, he said.
"If the seas become unmanageable, then we have to shut down production," Jordan said.
The ship's crew expects to be deployed up to four months -- about 90 days to handle the chemicals, plus time to travel to and from Virginia. Left unsaid in Portsmouth, however, was what will happen if the Syrians continue to delay in delivering the chemicals to their port in Latakia, where they will be picked up by Danish and Norwegian ships. As of Thursday, they remained across 12 military bases in the country, according to The Guardian newspaper, threatening a timeline the United Nations set.
U.S. officials in Portsmouth on Thursday declined to comment on what that could mean. In fact, a senior public affairs official, Bryan Whitman, warned reporters present at the outset of the event in Virginia that those questions wouldn't be addressed on Thursday. Kendall, however, made it clear that the Obama administration continues to expect that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime will adhere to the deal they reached in September, preventing U.S. military strikes there.
"That's a Syrian responsibility," Kendall said. "That's their obligation on the agreement we have with them, and we expect them to fulfill that obligation."
Dan Lamothe/ Foreign Policy