The Pentagon is preparing for a mission to destroy Syria's chemical weapons stockpile on board a U.S. ship, using a system that has not yet been tested at sea.
The operation would be part of an agreement struck in September by Syria, the U.S. and Russia to eliminate Syria's deadly chemical weapons stockpile by mid-2014. The U.S. is still waiting on the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international group leading the destruction efforts, to formally approve the U.S. mission.
U.S. defense officials who briefed reporters at the Pentagon Thursday morning say the Motor Vessel Cape Ray, a ship owned by the Department of Transportation, is currently being outfitted in Norfolk, Va., with a Field Deployable Hydrolysis System, designed to dilute the chemical weapons stockpile.
These officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, say the FDHS was designed to be portable and will be tested at sea for the first time later this month, only weeks before it's planning to embark.
Despite the limited time allowed for testing these officials say they are "comfortable" with the system, which has been successfully tested on land at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
The system can fit into two standard-sized shipping containers and works by mixing the chemicals with water and bleach, and storing that inert waste on board. All cleansing operations will happen below deck and according to these officials "absolutely nothing will be dumped at sea."
Syria has hundreds of tons of so-called "priority one" chemicals weapons, mostly comprising the nerve agents mustard and sarin as well as their component parts. "Priority two" chemicals will be removed by other international partners.
The plan, these official say, is to have a third party, most likely the Norwegians, remove the stockpiles from Syria and meet the Cape Ray at a location outside Syria to transfer the material. It has not yet been decided where that meeting will take place, or where the Cape Ray will be when it begins the process of destroying the weapons.
The Cape Ray will be outfitted with about 100 U.S. personnel, mostly DoD civilians and contractors, including some security. These officials emphasized that at no point with the Cape Ray enter a Syrian port.