News | Aug. 30, 2021

Defense Threat Reduction Agency Historic and Unique Chemical Weapons Elimination Mission in Syria

By Andrea Chaney Defense Threat Reduction Agency

FORT BELVOIR, Va.—Throughout 2021, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s (DTRA) Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program is celebrating 30 years of collaboration with foreign partners to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by securing and eliminating chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) material, infrastructure, and expertise.

To commemorate CTR’s milestone, DTRA will highlight significant contributions from CTR’s many programs, among them the Chemical Security and Elimination (CSE) program. The CSE program, formerly known as the Chemical Weapons Elimination (CWE) program and Chemical Weapons Destruction (CWD) program, started in 1992 to assist the states of the Former Soviet Union (FSU) to reduce the threat from chemical weapons (CW) by securing and eliminating CW stockpiles, chemical research capabilities, and production facilities, while also redirecting scientists to peaceful purposes.

In 2006, the National Defense Authorization Act expanded the authorities of the then-CWD program to beyond the FSU in order to support a chemical weapons elimination project in Albania.

In 2013, Syria acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and submitted a plan to destroy its CW. Secretary of Defense at the time, Chuck Hagel, determined that having the U.S. Government assist Syria in destroying its stockpile would support DoD’s longstanding nonproliferation goals.

Scott Crow, current DTRA Program Manager overseeing CSE and former project officer for the Syria effort, said the most remarkable thing about the project was the number of times the plan changed and the responsiveness from all players involved.

“We all had to be very agile and adaptive when the changes came,” he said. “We did incredibly well rolling with the punches that came and getting the job done and out of there so quickly.”

“Plan A was to put a destruction facility on the Syrian side of the Syria-Jordan border, to allow the operations to occur on Syrian territory but be supported logistically from Jordan. This was to comply with the CWC which prohibits transferring chemical weapons from member state to member state” Crow said. “But politically that plan was deemed unpalatable. Plan B was to get a partner nation to permit the CW destruction on their territory but that required relief from the CWC prohibition on CW transfer,” he said.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) then went to the United Nations (UN) Security Council and received a UN Security Council Resolution to supersede OPCW’s policies, allowing the US to receive the CW from Syria and destroy the stockpile outside Syrian territory.

“That alone was remarkable work between OSD in coordination with Department of State,” Crow said. “That allowed us to increase the number of options to get the job done, but we still needed to determine where,” he said.

The interagency initially deferred the suggestion to outfit a ship to receive and destroy the CW.

“Some key leaders dismissed the idea as not realistic, but after several failed attempts at traditional options Interagency and OSD asked us to dust off the ship option,” Crow said.

DTRA’s program provided containers to the OPCW, who in turn worked with Syria to prepare CW agents for shipment out of Syria. The variations from plan A to B to C happened in a matter of months.

“We got the order to execute the ship option in November of 2013,” Crow said. “The ship was outfitted with the destruction capability, the team was trained, aboard, and underway to the Mediterranean by the end of January 2014,” he said.

In the meantime, CSE leveraged earlier investments in elimination technologies to install a Field-Deployable Hydrolysis System (FDHS) on the now-designated Motor Vessel Cape Ray, a U.S. Navy reserve ship selected for the mission. After a few months in Rota, Spain in anticipation of the mission, the ship received the chemical agents in late June 2014.

On June 23, 2014, the OPCW announced the last of Syria’s CW had been shipped out of the country for destruction. By August 16, 2014, CSE eliminated the chemicals, including mustard agent and sarin precursors, aboard the Cape Ray.

Crow is proud of the work DTRA did and the recognition received for their efforts, but emphasized the huge team effort necessary for such a project.

“DTRA got a lot of credit for that effort, but the people involved, the Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center (ECBC), the civilians that built up and operated the FDHS, and the contract support aboard the ship,” Crow said. “These people were on the ship, subjected to the dangers of being close to the destruction operations and they deserve the credit.”

Crow said he wanted to take the opportunity to recognize Parsons and their committed employees who were critical in the process and success of the operation overall.

“They, along with the government employees, are proud Americans doing important work and I cherish the partnership and relationships it took to successfully execute this mission,” Crow said.

As international CW stockpiles have decreased due to effective elimination campaigns, CSE has shifted some of its focus to support its partners with the security of toxic industrial chemicals (TICs), while still maintaining a high level of preparedness to react quickly to potential contingency elimination operations.

CSE has found an appropriate balance between building partner nations’ capacities to effectively secure toxic industrial chemicals, and increasing the United States’ preparedness to respond to future elimination missions. This versatility and agility positions CSE to support the evolving threat landscape.

For more information on the Chemical Security and Elimination program and other DTRA programs, visit www.dtra.mil.