The Sarin Sweepstakes

Is the Pentagon holding a contest to make Syria's chemical weapons disappear?

U.S. Army Chemical Materials Activity
U.S. Army Chemical Materials Activity

On May 24, an anonymous party posted a curious challenge online, offering $50,000 to anyone who can destroy or neutralize large amounts of chemical munitions. The proposal, made on the crowdsourcing website InnoCentive, was odd in a number of ways. First, Innocentive usually asks for ideas on how to solve technical problems, not military ones. Second, the wording of the offer strongly suggests that it was made by someone in the U.S. government who is looking for ways to deal with the Syrian chemical weapons program.

In the InnoCentive challenge, an unnamed “Seeker” asks for ideas on novel approaches to tackling the “demilitarization, destruction, or neutralization of a hypothetical stockpile of chemical warfare agents.” The approximate size of this stockpile: 1,500 tons, which roughly correlates to the U.S. government’s estimates of the Bashar al-Assad regime’s chemical arsenal. “This size and mobility issues makes it exceedingly difficult to rapidly treat … without either having to build a dedicated facility at the location of the agents (a slow, difficult, and very costly option using current designs) or having to transport the agents to an existing remediation facility (creating the possibility for release of the agents in transport),” the proposal notes. 

In November 2012, Pentagon officials estimated that 75,000 troops would be required to deal with those weapons. No details were given as to those service members’ duties, but they would almost certainly involve inspecting and reinforcing physical security measures such as bunkers and perimeter fences, in addition to carrying out the actual destruction of the chemical agents themselves. By point of comparison, the United States only has 68,000 troops in Afghanistan as of this June.

According to specifications given, the solution must be mobile and transportable on C-17 Globemaster aircraft. International C-17 users include Britain, Australia, Canada, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and India. Of those, Qatar has garnered attention recently for its involvement in supplying weapons to certain Syrian rebel groups via C-17 aircraft.

If the problem presented is destruction of the post-Assad chemical weapons stockpile, then the InnoCentive challenge might be a tacit admission that Syria’s exotic arsenal may be even more difficult to control than President Barack Obama’s administration has stated. By its own calculations, the Defense Department sees a required deployment of forces greater than their current commitment in Afghanistan, and a technical look at existing chemical agent disposal techniques shows three options, each more nerve-wracking than the last. One option requires the building of large custom-designed incinerators on-site in Syria — necessitating the movement of massive amounts of equipment and personnel to build and operate. A second involves mixing massive quantities of nerve agent precursors with lye and water, producing toxic gases that could easily kill the people doing the mixing. The third would tie up the entire inventory of U.S. Air Force heavy-lift aircraft for a significant period of time and possibly more plastic explosives than America has on hand.

And those are just the best-case scenarios.

It raises the question as to whether American politicians are being completely forthright about the scope and scale of what they foresee needing to do in Syria and what that would require of U.S. taxpayers.

The Anonymous Seeker

InnoCentive’s headquarters declined to identify the challenge sponsor (referring to it only as someone “vetted and legitimate”), but a nearly identical posting on a Duke University website identifies the proponent as the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). That’s the Pentagon division tasked with countering weapons of mass destruction.

DTRA may be working in conjunction with the U.S. Army’s Chemical Materials Activity (CMA), which a March 19, 2013, brief identified as having the lead for weapons of mass destruction elimination, specifically to render foreign chemical and biological stockpiles useless.

An additional item that appears to link the U.S. government to this effort is a particular photo of bunkered U.S. chemical weapons shown in the InnoCentive post. It is identical to one listed on CMA’s website.

On June 13 of this year, the White House released a statement proclaiming that the United States is “prepared for all contingencies” regarding Syrian use of chemical weapons. “Any future action … must advance our objectives,” the statement added, including “securing unconventional and advanced conventional weapons; and countering terrorist activity.”

If the United States is the anonymous Seeker, this statement of national assets would appear to be inconsistent with the capability sought via InnoCentive. If the government has everything it needs to deal with the problem, why troll for solutions on an open website?

This isn’t the first time the U.S. government has attempted to crowdsource particularly nettlesome problems. DARPA, the Pentagon’s extreme research arm, has relied on the method to get new designs for amphibious vehicles and autonomous cars. DTRA posted a million-dollar challenge in December 2012 to determine different organisms through DNA analysis.

Recently, the U.S. Air Force has used InnoCentive to find ways to airdrop pallets of humanitarian relief aid over populated areas that won’t endanger those on the ground. And its Tec^Edge Innovation Pavilion has posted numerous challenges, including a 2011 effort that looked for a FAST rope descent device (something that diminishes the simplicity of that insertion technique in the first place).

The U.S. Agency for International Development used InnoCentive to find better ways of communicating securely during crises and documenting evidence of atrocities. The U.S. State Department used it to find better ways of tracking illicit arms transfers.

All those issues are hard ones to solve. None compare to the challenge of Syria’s chemical arsenal.

The 3 Million Pound Problem from Hell

As of now, the United States has just two publicly known, officially sanctioned methods for disposing of chemical and biological weapons. The first involves fixed-site facilities relying on either incineration or chemical neutralization. The second is a field-expedient method used by explosive ordnance disposal technicians that involves “thermally treating” (read: blowing up) a liquid agent at a 10- or 20-to-1 ratio of C4 plastic explosive to agent. (A third option, which involves mixing the chemical precursors for nerve agents with massive amounts of lye and water, is considered even more risky than the first two.)

Prior to 1972, the United States commonly disposed of chemical munitions by burial on land or by loading them onto ships that were intentionally sunk out to sea. Both of those methods proved highly ineffective, as the residents of the Spring Valley neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and coastal Delaware residents well know. During World War I, the U.S. Army conducted extensive tests with chemical weapons at a facility on the campus of American University in Washington, D.C., and buried many of those munitions in pits nearby. With the land later sold for development, the munitions have a habit of turning up when new homes are built. Chemical weapons dumped at sea have found their way to shore, as detailed in a recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report detailing three incidents from 2004 to 2012 in which clam fishermen and dredging operations turned up chemical weapons later destroyed by the military.

The U.S. Army’s Chemical Demilitarization Program has four fixed-site disposal sites. They’re located at Anniston, Ala.; Pine Bluff, Ark.; Tooele, Utah; and Umatilla, Ore. Disposal by incineration involves physically deconstructing each munition into its component parts and burning them separately in different incinerators. Exhaust from each furnace is filtered and monitored for any residual contamination before being released into the atmosphere. Some metal parts can be recycled, while other products can only be sent to special hazardous-waste landfills. But, of course, American forces aren’t about to bring Syria’s chemical stockpile back home. And constructing such a facility over there would be difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. (Of the nine sites built for such work in the United States, three are closed, four are in closure, and two are under construction.) 

That leaves one other option: destroying these munitions with explosives.

To do the job right, you typically need 10 to 20 times more explosives than chemical agent. With an estimated 1,500 tons of chemical weapons in the Syrian arsenal — 3 million pounds, in other words — that would require at least 30 million pounds of C4 explosive to accomplish the task. That’s no less than 24 million blocks of C4, which typically come in 1.25-pound bricks, known as M112s. It could be as much as 48 million such blocks.

With M112s packed 30 to a box (and that box weighs 48 pounds), those 24 million blocks would be packaged in 800,000 boxes, and that would equal 38.4 million pounds of cargo.

The 48 million blocks needed for the higher-end estimate would require 1.6 million boxes, weighing 76.8 million pounds total.

C-17 cargo planes have a maximum payload of 107,900 pounds, so transporting that much explosive cargo would require between 356 flights and 712 flights to get to Syria.

There are 220 C-17s in the U.S. inventory, so each would have to make three to four trips into Syria. And that’s assuming that C-17 loadmasters and pilots would be comfortable flying more than 100,000 pounds of “bang” at one time in their aircraft. (By comparison, the B-52 can carry 70,000 pounds of weapons.)

And that doesn’t include all the needed detonation cord and blasting caps to carry out those disposal shots. M112 blocks (NSN 1375-00-724-7040) cost $10.28 each in the stock system, so the cost of just the explosives would run between $250 million and $500 million dollars, to say nothing of the cost of transportation.

American Ordnance LLC, which makes M112 blocks at the Milan Army Ammunition Plant, would likely have to run its lines overtime to keep up with the demand.

Gross Contamination

To safely dispose of chemical munitions by detonation, a strong inverse temperature gradient (where the temperature decreases with altitude) is desired. This allows particulate matter and resulting vapor to rise up and away from the site. Wind speed and direction (two wholly unpredictable variables) have to be favorable for disposal as well.

When done poorly, disposal of chemical munitions by detonation can create situations like the al-Khamisiyah incident during Operation Desert Storm. Located in the southeast of Iraq, the al-Khamisiyah facility was a massive complex of a hundred ammunition bunkers spread over 40 square kilometers. In these bunkers was a mix of conventional and chemical munitions, and from March 3 to April 6, 1991, teams of U.S. Army engineers and explosive ordnance disposal technicians destroyed them with plastic explosives. Just a few years later, federal investigators looked at the disposal operations there — and the resultant plume of chemical agent released — as a possible explanation for the illnesses widely termed Gulf War syndrome.

Any factory in Syria built to demilitarize chemicals agents could cause gross contamination of groundwater and soil, which would have to be remediated to reduce hazards to the local population. Similarly, disposal by detonation would contaminate the immediate area and require extensive remediation or long-term quarantine. Needless to say, neither of these options is ideal. And that probably explains why someone is willing to give 50 grand to anyone who can come up with a better idea.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola