The Cape Ray is a roll-on/roll-off ship assigned to Military Sealift Command. (Christopher P. Cavas/Staff)
WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials said Thursday that the US government has offered to send about 100 Defense Department civilians and a merchant ship to the Mediterranean to assist in the destruction of the “hundreds of tons” of chemical weapons precursor materials in Syria, but that discussions about how to do so are ongoing.
Last winter, recently departed Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was tasked with looking for ways that DoD could help destroy Syrian chemical weapons stocks, which resulted in a rapid acquisition effort to build a mobile platform that could destroy the materials without having to ship them overseas.
The result was the construction of three field deployable hydrolysis systems (FDHS) the Pentagon plans on mounting in the hold of the Military Sealift Command ship Cape Ray, in order to destroy the chemical weapons at sea.
The FDHS is capable of breaking down the mustard gas and sarin precursor materials, transferring them into an inert liquid, a senior defense official said.
“We think this is a relatively low-risk operation” another senior Pentagon official told reporters on Thursday, adding that “absolutely nothing will be dumped at sea.” Instead, the liquids will be stored and kept on the ship until they can take them to a commercial waste-treatment facility.
There is much uncertainty over how to get the liquids on the Cape Ray, however.
Officials were careful to point out that the US ship will not dock at a Syrian port. The plan is for another internationally-flagged ship to dock at the Syrian port of Latakia, load the liquids, and then sail to a port in another country where the materials will be loaded onto the Cape Ray.
Ultimately, the effort will require about 150 commercial shipping containers to bring the liquid components that make up the mustard and sarin gas to the port and ship them out.
Officials would not comment on further security measures, which would include military escort ships to protect Cape Ray while it’s at sea destroying the materials, which would take about 45 to 90 days.
“There is a robust international outreach” to put together a protection package for the ship, one official said. “In terms of after the chemicals were loaded onto the Cape Ray, the planners are doing an assessment now of the security risks and an appropriate security envelope with contributions from international partners,” a second Pentagon official added.
Getting the materials to the port is an issue unto itself, but US Air Force and Navy assets will not be used to protect convoys traveling inside Syria. ■