America’s Giant Chemical Weapons-Destroying Ship Is On Its Way To Syria

CREDIT: U.S. Navy/Petty Officer 2nd Class Jared Walker

The M/V Cape Ray

The Department of Defense announced on Monday that the centerpiece in the plan to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons — a 32,000-ton ship assigned to breakdown the toxic stockpile at sea — left its berth in route for the Mediterranean.

Monday’s deployment of the M/V Cape Ray from port in Portsmouth, VA is the latest development in a process agreed to last fall, designed to rid Syria of its chemical arsenal once and for all. Usually used to deploy military vehicles into combat zones, the Cape Ray earlier this month was fitted with two Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems, able to break down the deadly components that make up the 560 metric tonnes of weapons meant to be destroyed on-board the vessel. The ship and its crew provide the United States’ primary contribution to the international effort to facilitate the joint Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and United Nations mission currently underway.

Once the chemicals are neutralized, the Cape Ray will deliver the byproduct to one or several of the 14 commercial facilities that have submitted bids to the OPCW for the job. “All waste from the hydrolysis process on M/V Cape Ray will be safely and properly disposed of at commercial facilities to be determined by the OPCW,” the Pentagon said in a statement announcing the vessel’s launch. “No hydrolysis byproducts will be released into the sea or air. M/V Cape Ray will comply with all applicable international laws, regulations, and treaties.”

“You are about to accomplish something no one has tried,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said in a statement to the Cape Ray’s crew, released to the press. “You will be destroying, at sea, one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons and helping make a safer world.”

That challenge was not one that was expected when the Pentagon began procuring the systems needed back in February of 2013, anticipating that the U.S. may need to step in to help destroy Syria’s stockpile. When that prediction came true following a period where military engagement with Syria was halted in the face of an agreement between the United States and Russia, the military stepped up its testing to make sure the equipment could handle “vibrations, the sloshing of liquids, and other potential problems.”

“As you all know, your task will not be easy,” Hagel continued. “Your days will be long and rigorous. But your hard work, preparation and dedication will make the difference. You are ready. We all have complete confidence in each of you. You represent the best of our nation, not only because of your expertise and commitment, but because of your willingness to serve when called upon. On behalf of our country and the American people, I wish you much success.”

There will be about 135 U.S. personnel involved in the mission, “including commercial mariners manning the ship, chemical engineers operating the FDHS, a Navy security team, and other support personnel.” Another dozen U.S. naval vessels will be rendezvousing with the Cape Ray and providing security ward off any potential attacks, Col. Steve Warren told Stars and Stripes.

The Cape Ray will have plenty to do once it arrives in two to three weeks for its 90-day mission. The OPCW announced on Monday that a second shipment of chemical materials was loaded from the Syrian port city Lattakia onto Danish and Norweigian cargo vessels bound for Italy, where they will await destruction at the hands of the Cape Ray’s crew. The cargo ships were escorted by an small-scale international armada including the Chinese frigate Yan Cheng, the Russian missile cruiser Peter the Great, Norwegian frigate Helge Ingstad, and the Danish Esbern Snare.

Destruction of Damascus’ chemical weapons remains a bright spot among an otherwise dismaying situation in Syria. Nine million Syrians are in need of humanitarian aid as a result of the three year conflict, which shows no signs of diminishing in the near future. The Syrian government — while cooperating on removal of its weaponry — has shown to be less amenable towards working with aid agencies, cutting off assistance to sections of the country that have displeased it. Meanwhile, the government and opposition are currently meeting in Geneva to discuss a possible political transition, even as the civil war continues to rage on throughout the country.