PORTSMOUTH, Va. — A new, portable chemical weapons disposal system has been installed on the cargo ship MV Cape Ray, and it will soon deploy to the Mediterranean Sea to destroy Syria’s deadly arsenal of mustard gas and components of VX and sarin nerve agents.
The mission is part of an international disarmament effort led by the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which began when the Syrian government agreed to give up its stockpile under threat of U.S. military force after chemical weapons were used against Syrian civilians this summer.
The Cape Ray now houses the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System, a transportable system designed to neutralize chemical warfare agents and their precursors by heating and mixing them with reagents, such as water and bleach. These reagents degrade the chemicals into compounds that can’t be used as weapons, according to a Defense Department fact sheet.
The FDHS acquisition process was fast-tracked a year ago by senior DOD officials as international concern about Syria’s chemical weapons mounted.
“There was a recognition that something was going to happen in Syria in all likelihood that would require us to do something with those chemical materials that were known to be there,” Frank Kendall, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, told reporters at the NASSCO-Earl Shipyard in Portsmouth, Va. where the Cape Ray is docked. “But a year ago we were not in a position to do this. A year ago we did not have the kind of capacity that was needed to go and remotely, in some other location, destroy chemical materials that are used in chemical weapons. We recognized that shortfall.”
The FDHS development project was green-lighted in January 2013 and the first unit was delivered July 1 — warp-speed in the DOD acquisition world where military systems often take years or decades to produce, test and deliver.
The system can be up and running anywhere in the world within 10 days of arriving on site. Designed to be set up and operated quickly, it can neutralize five to 25 metric tons of chemical materials per day, depending on the type of material being degraded, according to the DOD fact sheet.
The neutralization technology itself is not new. It has already been used at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., and elsewhere to destroy American chemical weapons in the post-Cold War era.
“This is a proven technology. It’s been used for a decade now in destroying our own materials. We’re not doing something new here, or novel. This is something we know how to do,” Kendall said.
What’s new about the FDHS is its mobility.
“We’ve used this proven technology and then designed it in a way that it would be transportable … We designed it to be geography independent, user independent,” a senior defense official told reporters condition of anonymity during a Dec. 5 briefing at the Pentagon.
Darryl Kimball, the director of the Arms Control Association, said having the capability to neutralize the chemicals at sea is what made the mission politically feasible.
“One reason why they’re doing it at sea is because no country stepped up to the task of taking these precursor chemicals and the mustard [gas] for disposal,” he said in an interview with Stars and Stripes. “So this really is, you know, Plan B … Any concern that may have arisen in a third county from local governments or populations is just not going to be as much of a factor, if at all, in this kind of operation.”
DOD considered about a dozen ships before deciding that the Cape Ray was the best option for deploying the FDHP. The Cape Ray was chosen because it has so much empty space below deck to store large amounts of equipment and containers, according to Robert Malone, an engineer from the office of the Joint Program Manager for Elimination.
DOD officials allowed media to tour the Cape Ray and see the FDHS on Thursday.
The main deck where the FDHS has been installed looks like a large warehouse filled with storage drums, containers and hoses. The actual FDHS units are housed in a large white tent. The inside of the tent, which contains a large vat and control modules that will be operated by personnel wearing HAZMAT suits, looks like the set of a ‘Breaking Bad’ episode.
The disposal begins with the chemical agents being pumped from drums and tanks into the tents where they are mixed with reagents and neutralized in the vat. The resulting liquid waste is then pumped to interim holding tanks for cooling and Ph level adjustment. Samples of the effluent are also taken and transported to an analytical laboratory on another deck for testing. It is then pumped into another set of containers for interim storage on decks above and below the main deck.
The Cape Ray is owned by the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration but is temporarily under the operational control of Military Sealift Command. The Cape Ray is part of the Maritime Administration’s Ready Reserve Force Fleet that can serve as a naval auxiliary during times of war or national crisis.
During the Cape Ray’s upcoming mission, two FDHS units — the first ones built — with accompanying filtration systems and an analytical laboratory, will be deployed below deck to carry out the chemical neutralization. Sixty-three DOD civilians will be on board the vessel operating the FDHS. The DOD civilians will come from the Department of the Army, the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and the Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center, all of which were involved in the FDHS design, production, testing and training process. There will also be 35 hand-picked crew members from the Keystone Shipping Company that will operate the ship but will not be directly involved with the FDHS, officials said.
A DOD official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Stars and Stripes that there will be 10 to 12 military personnel task force from U.S. European Command onboard the ship, including a task force commander. The task force will be responsible for the overall mission, including security, communications, and progress reporting, the official said.
A Navy official told Stars and Stripes that a “standard” Navy security team will be onboard, but would not provide details.
The start date for the Cape Ray’s mission is yet to be determined because the OPCW missed the Dec. 31 deadline for removing the chemical weapons from Syria.
“I have not gotten my sail orders yet,” Cape Ray captain Rick Jordan said.
Although details are being worked out, the framework for the destruction and disposal process has already been established.
According to DOD and the OPCW, Danish and Norwegian ships will receive the Syrian chemical containers at the port of Latakia. Those vessels will then take the chemicals to an unidentified port in Italy where they will be off-loaded and transferred to the Cape Ray.
After the transfer is complete, the Cape Ray will sail into international waters where the neutralization will occur. It will take 45 to 90 days for the FDHS operators to destroy the stockpile, which consists of 700 metric tons of mustard gas and components of VX and sarin nerve agents. Bad weather at sea could force suspension of disposal operations. Jordan said he would try to maneuver the ship to mitigate any weather problems and avoid delays.
Once the chemicals have been neutralized, they will be stored in special hazardous waste containers onboard the Cape Ray until they are off-loaded to a commercial waste treatment facility which the OPCW has yet to identify, officials said.
U.S. Navy ships will provide force protection during the Cape Ray’s mission, Kendall said. He did not say which ships would be involved.
Although the Syrian chemicals are dangerous, the neutralization and storage processes are relatively safe, according to DOD.
“The risks from the neutralization operations are very low. This is a well-understood process [and] we have very well-trained personnel,” the anonymous senior defense official told reporters.
Still, Kendall said there is danger involved in this kind of operation.
“We are dealing with hazardous materials. There’s no question about that,” he said. “There’s risk whenever one does that.”
The price tag of the effort is unclear.
“In terms of cost of the overall mission, I don’t think we have a good figure yet,” a DOD official told Stars and Stripes on condition of anonymity. But each FDHS unit produced costs U.S. taxpayers $5 million. Three have been built thus far. The third is at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
“This [deployment of the Cape Ray and the FDHS units] would be an in-kind contribution from the government of the United States,” the anonymous defense official said
Once the mission is complete, the FDHS units will be removed from the Cape Ray and the ship will be returned to the Maritime Administration in its original condition, according to officials.
Malone said the FDHS could be deployed overseas again in the future for chemical disposal operations or potentially for neutralization of biological agents.
But Kimball doesn’t envision this kind of at-sea chemical disposal operation ever happening again.
“The Syrian situation is unique on several different levels. I mean, the main reason why this [neutralization and disposal] is not being done in Syria, which would be the normal course of action under the Chemical Weapons Convention, is because the country is still in the middle of a brutal civil war, and it is simply not possible, not safe, it’s not practical,” he said. “I don’t think this is going to set a future precedent for chemical disarmament, mainly because there are very few countries that have chemical arsenals left … Other countries [besides the U.S. and Russia] where CW destruction is going on have old ordnance that simply can’t be moved and transported — they have to be destroyed in situ. So for all those reasons, I think this is going to be a unique situation that’s not repeated again.”