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Syrian chemical weapons To be destroyed by Army specialist team

Frank Kendall, under secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, spoke outside the MV Cape Ray, in Portsmouth, Va., Jan. 2, to discuss the ship’s upcoming mission to destroy chemical weapons. Photo by C. Todd Lopez, Army News Service.

Frank Kendall, under secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, spoke outside the MV Cape Ray, in Portsmouth, Va., Jan. 2, to discuss the ship’s upcoming mission to destroy chemical weapons. Photo by C. Todd Lopez, Army News Service.

By C. Todd Lopez, Army News Service:

Portsmouth, Va. – Some 64 specialists from the Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center are expected to depart for the Mediterranean in about two weeks aboard the ship MV Cape Ray to destroy chemical weapons from Syria.

The nearly 650-foot-long ship, now in Portsmouth, will travel to a yet-to-be specified location in the Mediterranean and will take on about 700 metric tons of both mustard gas and “DF compound,” a component of the nerve agent sarin gas, and will then use two new, installed “field deployable hydrolysis systems” to neutralize the chemicals.

Onboard the Cape Ray will be 35 mariners, about 64 chemical specialists from Edgewood, Md., a security team, and a contingent from U.S. European Command. It’s expected the operational portion of the mission will take about 90 days.

Onboard the ship, an environmentally sealed tent contains two field deployable hydrolysis system units, which will operate 24 hours a day in parallel to complete the chemical warfare agent neutralization mission.

Each unit costs about $5 million and contains built-in redundancy and a titanium-lined reactor for mixing the chemical warfare agents with the chemicals that will neutralize them.

About 130 gallons of mustard gas can be neutralized at a time, over the course of about two hours, for instance, said Adam Baker, with the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center.

The FDHS systems can, depending on the material, process between 5 to 25 metric tons of material a day. With two systems, that means as much as 50 metric tons a day of chemical warfare agents can be destroyed. The mission requires disposal of 700 metric tons of material. But the plan is not to start out on the first day at full speed.

“There is a ramp-up period,” Baker said. “It’s going to be a slow start. We’re going to go very deliberately and safely.”

The operational plan includes a cycle of six days of disposal plus one day for maintenance of the equipment.

Years of experience

The U.S. has never disposed of chemical weapons aboard a ship before. But it has spent years disposing of its own chemical weapons on land, using the same process the FDHS uses. The chemical process is not new, and neither is the technology. The format, field deployable, is new, however. And the platform, aboard a ship, is also new. And these additions to the process have created challenges for the team.

“This has not been done on this platform, not been done at sea,” said Baker. “But it is taking the established operations we’ve done at several land sites domestically and internationally and is applying them here.”

In the U.S., the military has been destroying its own chemical weapons for years at places like Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., and the recently-closed Pine Bluff Arsenal, Ark. Lessons from those facilities and others were used to develop the process that will be used aboard the Cape Ray to destroy Syrian chemical weapons.

The process for disposing of mustard gas was used at APG. The process for disposing of DF compound was taken from Pine Bluff Arsenal, Baker said. The processes and technologies from those locations were scaled down to make them transportable.

“So there is no mystery about the process,” Kendall said. “It is a slightly different scale that we are doing it at here. We had fixed installations that had hydrolysis units that could do this job. But what we did not have was a ‘transportable, field deployable’ (system), the words we’re using for these systems, that could be moved somewhere else.”

Malone, who has 20 years of experience destroying chemical weapons for the United States, said doing aboard a ship what he has done on land for two decades required some additional thought and effort.

“We had to figure out on the Cape Ray how to operate in three dimensions,” he said.

The FHDS systems are inside tents inside the ship, for example. But the chemical weapons may be loaded on the ship on the deck above, and additional materials will be a deck below the FDHS equipment. On land, everything is spread out and on one level, he said.

“That’s been the significant challenge and things we’ve had to overcome to get the Cape Ray ready for deployment,” he said.

Additionally, vibration studies were done to learn how lab equipment would operate on board a ship, he said. And the equipment had to be modified to anchor it into the ship using chains.

Jordan said he has not yet received sailing orders, but estimated the time to sail to the center of the Mediterranean Sea at about 10 days. The mission will last 90 days.

He said the ship is equipped with stabilizers to dampen any roll. He also said that because the ship really has no destination, but is rather meant to serve as a platform, he can navigate around weather if need be.

Sea trials for the mission have already begun, and the Cape Ray will do more sea trials before it departs on its mission in about two weeks. It’s expected the mission will include the neutralization of about 700 metric tons of chemical weapon agents. Those agents will be transferred to the Cape Ray from both Danish and Norwegian ships in a process expected to take about one or two days.

Additionally, U.S. Navy assets will provide security for the ship while it conducts operations, Kendall said.

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