By Barbara Starr
The U.S. plans to begin sea trials by the end of the month of a merchant marine ship with special equipment on board that can destroy much of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, according to a U.S. Defense Department official who briefed reporters.
The ship, the M/V Cape Ray, is now in port in the Norfolk area of Virginia being outfitted with a chemical weapons "neutralization" system developed by the Pentagon. If the trials go well and the Pentagon plan is accepted by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the ship could head to the region in January. The official, along with two others who briefed reporters, declined to be identified because the plan has not been approved by those international organizations.
The neutralization technology is called the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System. It mixes chemical agents with water and other chemicals to significantly lower any toxicity. The remaining material will then be destroyed in a commercial waste disposal site. "Absolutely nothing will be dumped at sea," the official said, adding that the technology is "safe and environmentally sound."
While the system has been used in a limited fashion in the past, what is new is the ability to put it on a mobile platform like a ship. Two of the units are now being installed on the Cape Ray.
Although no final decisions have been made, the concept calls for Syria's chemical agents to be brought to the port of Latakia in Syria in secure containers and then put aboard a still-to-be-determined ship. That ship will take the containers to another port, where the Cape Ray will pick up the containers and head out to sea for the neutralization process. The official said there is no final decision about where the pickup point will be.
However, there has been widespread understanding the operation is most likely to take place in the Mediterranean.
Under the OPCW program for Syria's weapons, the first shipments will be mustard gas, and liquid elements that can be mixed to make VX and sarin.
If the plan is approved, the Cape Ray will carry a crew of about 100 personnel, including 60 Defense Department civilians to work on the neutralization. No military personnel are expected to be involved. The ship is likely to be guarded by a Navy warship alongside, a senior U.S. military official said.