Monster Machines: The Ship That Will Destroy Syria’s Deadliest Chemical Weapons

Monster Machines: The Ship That Will Destroy Syria’s Deadliest Chemical Weapons

Syria’s agreement with the UN to eradicate its stockpiles of chemical warfare agents in exchange for the US not curb-stomping its Air Force is going about as well as you’d expect. That is, it’s woefully behind schedule with little hope of actually being completed. But, if and when the Assad regime does finally turn over its chemical munitions, they’ll be neutralized aboard this ship.

Christened the MV Cape Ray, this 200m long, 30,000-tonne vessel was originally built in 1977 and spent its first two decades in commercial service to Saudi Arabia’s National Ship Company before being purchased by the US government in 1993, when it was converted into a military vessel. Late last year, the US Navy installed a pair of Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems — equipment designed specifically to destroy the active compounds in both sarin and mustard gas — as part of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international effort to disarm Syria of its chemical stockpiles.

These FDH systems cost $US5 million apiece and work by heating and mixing the chemical agents with water, sodium hydroxide and sodium hypochlorite in a 8300-litre titanium reactor to break them down into smaller, less dangerous chemical components. At the end of processing, 99.9 per cent of the chemical agent has been destroyed and rendered about as harmful as most household cleaners. These systems can process up to 18 tonnes of chemical agents daily.

The destruction process will be conducted below deck under a 5600cfm chemical agent filtration system, containing multiple layers of HEPA filtration, just in case something goes wrong. And to avoid violating international treaties regarding weapons of mass destruction, the Cape Ray will accept the chemical weapons from an undisclosed Italian port, then sail out to international waters in the Mediterranean, where some 40 engineers and technical staff will perform the actual processing.

In all, the entire voyage should take around four months to complete. That’s 90 days of processing plus travel time, though the timetable depends on both the prevailing weather in the Mediterranean — the process can’t take place in violently rolling seas — and the Assad regime’s cooperation in actually handing over the weapons. And so far, the Syrians don’t seem to be in much of a hurry to comply. [Foreign PolicyNavy SiteDTRA]

Pictures: AP Images