The Washington Post

At long last, the Pentagon’s chemical weapons-eating ship jumps into action


The container ship MV Cape Ray departs Portsmouth, Va., on Jan. 10 to test the systems that will be used to destroy chemical agents from Syria. The vessel has been sitting for months at a port in Rota, Spain, but will soon pick up the chemicals at a port in Italy, a Pentagon spokesman tells Checkpoint. (Petty Officer 1st Class Isaiah Sellers/U.S. Navy)

In January, the Pentagon invited dozens of journalists to Portsmouth, Va., to view the MV Cape Ray, the container ship that has been outfitted with equipment to process deadly chemical weapons coming out of Syria as part of a deal with President Bashar al-Assad that stopped the United States from launching airstrikes. It was lauded as a revolutionary effort to process the chemical agents that make up mustard and sarin gases in international waters, because no country seemed inclined to allow the work to be done on its own soil.

The Cape Ray’s crew members deployed a little later across the Atlantic Ocean to Rota, Spain, on the way to pick up the chemicals in Italy, where they were supposed to be moved. And then they waited. And waited. And waited.

The Cape Ray has been standing by ever since. Now, though, it is finally set to leave port in Spain, after international weapons inspectors announced Monday that Syria has handed over the last of its declared chemical weapons stockpile for removal and destruction.

The crew has received orders to prepare for departure and will probably depart Rota in the next few days, a Pentagon official told Checkpoint. It will sail to Gioia Tauro, Italy, where the chemicals will be loaded onto the Cape Ray from a Danish ship that transported them from Syria, the official said. It’s likely to be a two-day process.

“The United States and our international partners will now work to destroy these materials so they never again pose a threat to the Syrian people or America’s allies in the region —an outcome that was hard to imagine a year ago,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Monday. “I want to commend the U.S. and allied personnel who have been, and will continue to be, involved in this important and painstaking work.”

The long delay from January to June underscores the unpredictability of the mission. The Cape Ray’s crew still faces a variety of complications in processing the chemicals, including the possibility of bad weather and attacks at sea. Pentagon officials have declined to comment on what kind security the Cape Ray will have but said the United States plans to protect it with naval forces.

The ship has been equipped with two $5 million Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems that will process mustard and methylphosphonyl difluoride, or “DF,” a precursor component of sarin. The work will be done under ventilated, white tents on the 648-foot ship’s cavernous trailer deck and then filtered through pipes and hoses to a series of tanks for additional processing and storage. The systems incorporate technology that the military has used for years, heating and mixing water, sodium hydroxide and sodium hypochlorite to break down the chemicals into waste products.

The byproduct from the chemical weapons will be delivered to facilities in Germany and Finland to be further processed, a Pentagon official said. None will be delivered to the United States.

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.

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