Time Magazine Notes Difficulty, High Cost of Destroying Chemical Weapons

One does not simply destroy a nation's cache of chemical weapons. It's actually a rather complicated and expensive endeavor, despite how neat and simple the president's acolytes seem to be making it out to be. In fact, the United States government is decades into the process of eliminating American chemical weapons. What's more, the U.S. government is six years past its previous 2007 deadline -- not to mention 19 years past the initial 1994 deadline -- for 100 percent compliance.

Mark Thompson of Time magazine has a great piece today on "How To Destroy Syria’s Chemical Weapons" in which he looks at the painstakingly detailed logistical and cost considerations of eliminating a nation's stockpile of chemical weapons. Here's an excerpt (emphases mine):

Hunting down Syria’s chemical weapons — assuming the Russian-brokered deal to avert a U.S. strike pans out — is going to be a challenge. Destroying them after they are located, assuming that is the path to be followed, will be no day at the incinerator, either.

No one knows that better than the Pentagon.

Chemical weapons are so deadly and volatile that any deal calling for their elimination would likely require them to be burned in place. “I’ve spoken to the leaders of two of our closest allies — France and the United Kingdom,” President Obama said in his speech to the nation Tuesday night. “We will work together in consultation with Russia and China to put forward a resolution at the U.N. Security Council requiring [Syrian strongman Bashar] Assad to give up his chemical weapons and to ultimately destroy them under international control.”

When Congress ordered the U.S. military to get rid of its chemical weapons nearly 30 years ago, it ordered it to do so in the safest way possible to calm nervous neighbors. According to the Army, there have been no confirmed reports of poisoning resulting from the destruction of the U.S. chemical-weapons stockpile.

It’s impossible right now to know just how much any Syrian operation would follow the U.S. path, which is taking place amid peace, not war. "That, of course, would be the ultimate way to degrade and deter Assad’s arsenal,” Secretary of State John Kerry told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. “It is the ideal way to take this weapon away from him."


As a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, along with more than 150 other nations, the U.S. planned to eliminate its stockpile by the 2007 deadline. Under the convention, the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has eliminated nearly 80,000 tons of chemical weapons from the arsenals of seven nations. The O.P.C.W. also could be tasked with the Syrian assignment.

It has taken the Pentagon far longer (the original completion date was 1994), and cost far more money (the original estimate was between $1 billion and $3 billion), to destroy its chemical weapons. To date, the U.S. has destroyed, primarily by burning, 89.75% of the arsenal at seven of those nine sites: Johnston Island in the Pacific; Anniston, Ala.; Pine Bluff, Ark.; Aberdeen, Md.; Umatilla, Ore.; Newport, Tenn.; and Tooele, Utah.

The remaining 10% is slated to be neutralized using non-burn techniques. Current plans call for the 8% of the original stockpile remaining at Pueblo, Colo., to be rendered safe using a biotechnological process by 2019, while the 2% at the Blue Grass, Ky., is scheduled to be to be neutralized using what the Pentagon calls “super-critical water oxidation” by 2023.

As the program’s schedule has slipped by some 30 years, its price tag has ballooned by an order of magnitude. Remember that original estimate that it would cost between $1 billion and $3 billion to destroy the U.S. chemical-weapons arsenal?

It now stands at $35 billion. That works out to roughly $1 million to get rid of each ton of chemical agent, or about $5,000 a pound.

So to review: the U.S. government is years behind schedule and woefully over budget, and we don't have the additional logistical nightmare of a civil war raging across the country. It's incredibly naive to think that, if actually and honestly pursued, the Russian-Syrian plan to dispose of Syrian chemical weapons would conclude anytime in the near future, and most certainly not in Obama's presidency.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is a writer living in New Carrollton, Md.