An Inflection Point in History
Bodies wrapped in white shrouds line the floor of an unknown location in Syria. Shirtless men convulsing and foaming at the mouth have eyes that are open yet unresponsive. A five-year-old boy lay limp in the arms of an older man. It is unclear whether the child is still breathing. The bodies of other children dressed in brightly colored clothing lay lifeless on a white-tiled floor. These were some of the startling images and videos that surfaced in the wake of a chemical weapons attack in Syria on Aug. 21, 2013, killing more than 1,400 people. The event marked an inflection point in global history.
The tremor of this significant tragedy was felt around the world, changing the geopolitical terrain and challenging the connectedness of international relationships. The international community responded with a momentous decision to directly address the chemical weapons attack and the United States offered to work with others like the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations to eliminate the threat from occurring again.
ECBC Innovates in a New Era of Chem-Bio Defense
With an Army known for traditional “boots on the ground” defense, the Department of Defense pivoted its strategy to include a more agile, flexible approach to solve a pressing problem. It called on the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center and other organizations located at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., for inter-disciplinary teamwork that could solve the right problem through corrective framing: a new chemical weapons disposal capability.
“There was a recognition that something was going to happen in Syria, in all likelihood that would require us to do something with those chemical materials that were known to be there,” said Frank Kendall, undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics during a DoD media event on Jan. 2.
ECBC has specialized expertise in chemical demilitarization and field operations. It’s Chemical Biological Application and Risk Reduction Business Unit is comprised of 200 highly trained and experienced scientists, technicians and operators that have been safely conducting chemical demilitarization missions for decades in an environmentally responsible manner, including the successful destruction of chemical agent stockpiles at U.S. site locations and countries around the world.
In December 2012, the DoD had identified a capability gap in such operations, noting that a destruction technology for bulk agents did not exist in a portable platform. DoD tasked ECBC and the Joint Project Manager for Elimination, a component of the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense, to come up with a solution that could be deployable to a remote location. The interagency team received funding from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and within six months developed the Field Deployable Hydrolysis System , known as FDHS.
“The FDHS experience proves that given the opportunity and urgency, the right people collaborating with the right tools can produce incredibly effective technology on time and on budget,” said ECBC Technical Director Joseph Wienand.
The FDHS is a transportable, high throughput neutralization system designed to convert chemical warfare material into compounds not usable as weapons. It neutralized bulks amounts of chemical warfare agents and their precursors through chemical reactions involving reagents that are mixed and heated. The FDHS meets the 99.9 percent destruction efficiency standard set by the OPCW in the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997.
“The FDHS demonstrates the talent and dedication of ECBC’s workforce who understand the organization’s nearly one hundred-year history and experience handling the world’s most hazardous substances. These men and women have proven their world-leading ability in chem-bio defense, and are dedicated to work with others to solve some of the most complex problems,” Wienand said.
ECBC led the FDHS effort through full lifecycle development, from design, fabrication, engineering and test evaluation of the system. Project management responsibilities included chemistry, engineering, operations/maintenance, procurement, logistics and safety analysis.
“The most difficult aspect of designing a system in such a short time period was the need to concurrently perform tasks that would normally be performed sequentially,” said Adam Baker, chemist with ECBC’s CBARR Business Unit. “Equipment was already being procured while reaction chemistry and skid design were still being finalized. To overcome this challenge, ECBC and JPM-E incorporated proven technology to the greatest extent possible, which helped keep late design changes to a minimum.”
More than 50 ECBC operators, maintenance and safety experts accounted for 13,000 hours of work in order to ensure the FDHS could be safely transported and perform in expected operational environments. As a result of the 20-week collaborative design phase with JPM-E, the FDHS is a self-sufficient system that includes power generators and a laboratory that is fully capable onsite, needing only consumable materials such as water, reagents and fuel to operate. Redundancy systems are built throughout the units to ensure there is no disruption of operations should equipment break or a line gets clog. Operators are able to isolate the issue and conduct repairs while continuing operations through the other process line.
“The process was a rare opportunity for CBARR to work collaboratively with a large number of organizations within and outside of ECBC. One lesson learned from this project is that ECBC can greatly enhance its capabilities by working collaboratively with other organizations with complementary skill sets,” Baker said.
ECBC and DTRA signed a technology transfer agreement June 27, 2013 with the JPEO-CBD. The official transition took place upon completion of an FDHS operational demonstration for DoD stakeholders, and signified a transition for advanced development and future integration into the Chemical Biological Defense Program Portfolio.
Ready to Serve When Called Upon
The integrated teamwork from ECBC and its partners across the DoD have enabled the U.S. to embark on an unprecedented mission in the global chem-bio defense narrative. Through rigorous discovery and formulation phases, these government organizations have recognized an opportunity to architect a vision that will spare all nations the hazards of neutralizing some of the world’s deadliest agents on their own soil. Two FDHS units have been installed on the MV Cape Ray, a container ship that departed from Portsmouth, Va. on Jan. 27 as the DoD’s primary contribution toward international efforts to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. Some 64 specialists from ECBC and JPM-E are supporting the mission aboard the Cape Ray.
“You are about to accomplish something no one has tried. You will be destroying, at sea, one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons and helping make a safer world,” wrote Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to the crew of the MV Cape Ray. “Your task will not be easy. Your days will be long and rigorous. But your hard work, preparation and dedication will make the difference.”
The U.S. is part of an international effort to meet milestones set forth by the OPCW, including the June 30 target date for the total destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons materials. The 90-day mission will include the neutralization of about 700 metric tons of chemical weapons agents, which will be transferred to the Cape Ray from both Danish and Norwegian ships.
As part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, ECBC consistently bands together with other organizations to develop powerful solutions for the world’s most complex challenges. That means staying ahead of the technology curve, harnessing the necessary expertise and building collaborative relationships that accelerate information sharing and promote innovation. Addressing the capability gap in chemical disposal operations was no different.
Now, the FDHS is a game changer in chem-bio defense. The DoD has offered the OPCW and UN a new value proposition that can benefit the world at large and dilute the threat of chemical weapon use in countries around the world. A solution like this is both ground breaking as it is rooted in the everyday leadership of the participating organizations. Still, it is transformative, and as the national defense community reflects back on its experiences, the mission to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile will become another defining moment in history.
About Edgewood Chemical Biological Center
ECBC is the Army’s principal research and development center for chemical and biological defense technology, engineering and field operations. ECBC has achieved major technological advances for the warfighter and for our national defense, with a long and distinguished history of providing the Armed Forces with quality systems and outstanding customer service. ECBC is a U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command laboratory located at the Edgewood Area of Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.
ECBC is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to develop technology and engineering solutions for America’s Soldiers.
RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command. AMC is the Army’s premier provider of materiel readiness — technology, acquisition support, materiel development, logistics power projection, and sustainment — to the total force, across the spectrum of joint military operations. If a Soldier shoots it, drives it, flies it, wears it, eats it or communicates with it, AMC provides it.