PORTSMOUTH, Va. -- A massive luminescent tent sits in the dimly lit main cargo bay of the Cape Ray. It encases the sensitive instruments slated to turn Syrian President Bashar Assad's deadly chemical weapons stores into the equivalent of a common household solvent, like Drano.
At least, that's the plan.
This 22,000-ton transport ship docked here in Virginia, under the authority of the U.S. Department of Transportation, currently is undergoing modifications in order to enact an agreement brokered between the U.S. and the Russian government. If completed, the Cape Ray will take on as much as 700 tons of the most deadly chemical weapons in Syria and ultimately destroy them.
The ship's captain, 40-year merchant shipping veteran Rick Jordan, says he's been able to cherry-pick the best crew for this job, in support of a team of more than 60 government chemists and engineers on board who will actually oversee this dangerous work. Yet Jordan does not have his shipping orders for when he will leave the U.S., nor any knowledge of where his final destination will be.
A team of yet undetermined military forces will provide security aboard the ship, as will troops from U.S. European Command. Roughly 100 people will be on board in total, on a ship that usually requires a crew of about half that amount.
"The housing conditions are austere," jokes one of the civilian engineers overseeing preparations for the mission.
The U.S. Navy will provide a ring of security around the Cape Ray, which is expected to perform its work somewhere in international waters in the Mediterranean Sea. Frank Kendall, U.S. undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, says those details have not yet been finalized.
The mission will take on the most deadly of Assad's chemical stores, including mustard gas and DF, one of the precursor chemicals for making sarin. Government chemists have been destroying such substances routinely since the 1970s, but that was always in land-based labs. Such work has never before been performed at sea.
Many obstacles remain in the way of completing the new mission. The Syrian government has missed the original Dec. 31 deadline set by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to transport all of its chemical stockpiles across an active battleground to the port city of Latakia -- a task that experts believe is incredibly challenging amid ongoing violence, and perhaps impossible.
"That's a Syrian responsibility," Kendall said Thursday, speaking with reporters dockside and next to the Cape Ray. "That's their obligation under the agreement we have with them, and we expect them to fulfill that responsibility."
The Defense Department first started planning almost exactly a year ago for disposing of Assad's chemical weapons at sea. It expected the Syrian situation would deteriorate to a point that would require U.S. involvement.
From Latakia, Danish and Norwegian ships will deliver the sensitive cargo to a second port yet to be determined, where the Cape Ray will pick it up and begin its work.