WASHINGTON - The U.S. ship that will serve as the lynchpin for the destruction of Syria's most toxic chemical weapons is preparing to leave Virginia in about two weeks for what will be an unprecedented, complex mission.
The MV Cape Ray, which is pierside in Portsmouth, is expected to run through sea trials in the coming days and could leave for Italy as early as Jan. 3, according to officials familiar with the plans. The officials were not authorized to discuss the plans by name and requested anonymity.
Two high-tech machines - they are designed to reduce the chemicals to inert material - have been bolted to the ship, the officials say, and parts for a third machine are also on board to be used for any repairs needed.
"The fitting out of the Cape Ray is progressing apace and the ship is due to depart early next year," Pentagon press secretary Adm. John Kirby said Thursday.
A number of questions remain about how Syria's chemical weapons arsenal will be destroyed, including what will be done with the material once it is rendered harmless.
The confirmed use of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Aug. 21, which killed 1,400 people according to the U.S. government, led to a U.S.-Russian agreement to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons by mid-2014.
Perhaps the most dangerous part of the mission will be the transportation of the chemicals from 12 storage sites in Syria to the port of Latakia.
According to officials, Russian trucks that will be used to transport the chemicals to Latakia are now arriving in Syria. The shipments will be monitored through GPS locators provided by the U.S. as well as surveillance cameras provided by the Chinese.
The most highly toxic chemicals, including materials used to make mustard gas and sarin, will be dealt with first. They will be transferred from the trucks onto Danish and Norwegian cargo ships, which will carry the cargo to an Italian port, where it will be loaded onto the Cape Ray.
Ahmet Uzumcu, director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, has warned that there may be delays, including possible heavy fighting near a major highway linking Damascus and the city of Homs.
Under the current timeline, the most toxic chemicals are to be removed from the country by Dec. 31. All other chemicals declared by Syria are to be removed from the country by Feb. 5, with the exception of around 100 tons of isopropanol, which are to be destroyed in Syria by March 1. All chemicals are to be destroyed by June 30.
In total, around 1,300 tons of chemicals have to be destroyed.
The 700-foot Cape Ray, which is owned by the Transportation Department's Maritime Administration, will be turned over to the U.S. Navy's Sealift Command once it leaves Virginia. It will need about 10 days to get to the Italian port, which officials have not yet identified.
The special machines aboard are called Field Deployable Hydrolysis Systems. They were developed by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which is an arm of the Pentagon, and have not yet been used in the field, except for testing. The titanium reactor uses heated water and other chemicals to make the chemical warfare material inert.