By David Alexander and Roberta Rampton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government has begun outfitting a ship in its reserve ready force with equipment to enable it to destroy some of Syria's chemical weapons at sea in the event Washington is asked to assist in the effort, a defense official said on Sunday.
The Maritime Administration vessel MV Cape Ray is being equipped with the newly developed Field Deployable Hydrolysis System, which was designed by the Defense Department to neutralize components used in chemical weapons, a defense official said on condition of anonymity.
The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which supervising the disposal of Syria's chemical arms, said last week the United States had offered to destroy some of the components on a U.S. ship and was looking for a Mediterranean port where the work could be carried out.
"The United States is committed to supporting the international community's efforts to destroy Syria's chemical weapons in the safest, most efficient and effective means possible," Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said in an email on Sunday.
"We have offered and are currently outfitting a U.S. vessel with field deployable hydrolysis system technology to support the OPCW's efforts," she said, adding the U.S. remained "confident that we can meet the milestones for destruction set out by the OPCW."
The OPCW aims to remove the most critical chemicals out of Syria by the end of December, with the remainder due out by February 5.
The Cape Ray, a 648-foot (198-meter) vessel with built-in ramps to enable cargo to be efficiently rolled on and rolled off, is part of the Maritime Administration's ready reserve force of 46 ships.
The force was organized to provide strategic sealift for U.S. military forces, but it is part of the Transportation Department. The Pentagon would lease the Cape Ray if it participates in the Syrian chemical weapons destruction, the defense official said.
The OPCW said last week 35 firms had expressed an interest in bidding for commercial contracts to dispose of some 800 tons (1 ton = 1.102 metric tons) of bulk industrial chemicals that are safe to destroy in commercial incinerators.
Another 500 tons of chemicals, including nerve agents, were seen as too dangerous to import into a country or to process commercially. The OPCW was considering the U.S. offer to neutralize those chemical agents on a vessel at sea.
The Field Deployable Hydrolysis System was built by the U.S. military and went through final testing this summer. It is designed to be portable and can be deployed and begin operations anywhere in the world within 10 days.
It neutralizes bulk amounts of chemical warfare agents and their precursors using reagents like water, sodium hydroxide and sodium hypochlorite, according to the U.S. Army's Edgewood Chemical Biological Center.
"The Department of Defense designed the FDHS to fully comply with U.S. environmental laws and regulations," the defense official said, adding that the United States had used the approach of neutralizing chemical warfare agents in destroying its own stockpiles.
The system, which requires a crew of 15 trained personnel, is self-sufficient and includes its own power generators and laboratory. It only needs materials like water, reagents and fuel to operate.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)