Preparing for Syrian Chemicals: Frank Kendall, left, US undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, and Acting Maritime Administrator Paul Jaenichen answer questions before a media tour of the MV Cape Ray. (Mike Morones/Staff)
PORTSMOUTH, VA. — In preparation for heading to the Mediterranean in two weeks to begin destroying Syrian chemical weapons stocks, the American Merchant Marine ship MV Cape Ray will conduct its first sea trials this week of a decontamination system.
But despite the confidence of Pentagon officials in the ability of the two mobile hydrolysis systems — built at a cost of $5 million apiece — fitted on the ship to destroy an estimated 700 metric tons of chemical agents, the systems have yet to be tested at sea.
“This is not new technology,” top Pentagon weapons-buyer Frank Kendall assured reporters here Jan. 2. “This is not a high-risk thing that hasn’t been done before. This technology has been used for the past 10 years to destroy our own chemical weapons.”
The US government has been working on shrinking the size of the current hydrolysis systems for the past year, having tasked the Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in December 2012 to find a way to neutralize the Syrian stocks.
By June, engineers had developed and successfully tested the hydrolysis systems on land, said Rob Malone, the DoD’s joint project manager for elimination.
He also said that the 700 tons of chemical agents, once neutralized by a mixture of concentrated bleach several times stronger than that used for household cleaning, mixed with water, will produce about 1.5 million gallons of highly caustic effluent, which will then have to be disposed of on land. The international community has yet to find a company to do this but is looking at candidates, he said.
The current plan is for Norwegian and Dutch naval vessels to pick up the chemical weapons at the Syrian port of Latakia, then take them to an unidentified port in the region where they will be transferred to the Cape Ray. The transfer is expected to take about two days.
The Cape Ray will set sail with a crew of 35 augmented by 63 engineers from Edgewood, and will spend 45 to 90 days at sea, working 24 hours a day as long as sea conditions allow.
The ship will be protected by an international naval force, as well as US military personnel from the European Command who will be aboard the vessel, though Pentagon officials declined to elaborate on how many or what capabilities they will have.
While still awaiting final sea trials, the ship’s captain, Rick Jordan, said that even though “weather is the single most important factor” in the operations, the ship’s Gyrofin stabilizers will help it stay steady in heavy weather.
“The other good thing about this trip is I don’t have a destination,” which means that after picking up the chemicals from the as-yet unidentified port, he will be able to sail around rough weather in the Mediterranean.
But not everyone is convinced this is the best process.
“The system in question is a neutralization system.It is both more expensive and less reliable than incineration due to the need to deal with the millions of gallons of waste product,” said one US government official critical of the shipboard solution.
“Bottom line: Can it be done safely and securely on a ship?” the official asked. “Sure, but not without a high cost, and it won’t be done on schedule.”
The program has already fallen behind its initial ambitious plan of having all of the chemical agents out of Syria by Dec. 31, and the Syrian government still needs to be prodded to move the chemicals to the port for loading.
Despite this, a Norwegian-Danish task group made up of four ships were scheduled to set sail for the Syrian coast from its base in Cyprus on Jan. 4.
“The four ships have now set a course toward a holding area in international waters outside Syria, so we are most ready to enter the port of Latakia when the order arrives,” Norwegian spokesman Lars Magne Hovtun said in a Jan. 3 statement.
The task force has been in the Mediterranean for several weeks, and Capt. Per Rostad of the Norwegian frigate Helge Ingstad added, “the task group is well prepared for this mission. Last week, we trained in order to be able to handle all thinkable small and large challenges related to the mission.” ■