By Emelie Rutherford

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he is optimistic he will receive long-sought congressional approval to modernize the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between the United States and Russia, which a Senate panel weighed yesterday, along with the Pentagon’s new Nuclear Posture Review, support a new warhead life-extension effort.

President Barack Obama requested from Congress increased funding next year to improve the nuclear stockpile, and wants to transfer $4.6 billion from the Defense Department to the Energy Department in the new few years for nuclear-weapon life-extension and infrastructure-modernization efforts.

Congress would never approve the former Bush administration’s proposal for a Reliable Replacement Warhead, an effort intended to improve the nuclear stockpile for safety, reliability, and environmental reasons. Some lawmakers feared the program would amount to the creation of a new nuclear weapon and work against nonproliferation efforts.

Gates said yesterday the New START treaty, which will not be ratified without Senate approval, would aid efforts to modernize the nuclear stockpile.

“I’m confident that the new START treaty will…in no way compromise America’s nuclear deterrent,” Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).

“Maintaining a credible deterrent requires an adequate stockpile of safe, secure, and reliable nuclear warheads,” he said. “This calls for a reinvigoration of our nuclear- weapons complex–that is, our infrastructure and our science, technology, and engineering base. And I might just add, I’ve been up here for the last four springs trying to get money for this, and this is the first time I think I’ve got a fair shot of actually getting money for our nuclear arsenal.”

Gates noted the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, led by former defense secretaries William Perry and James Schlesinger, recently reported to Congress on negative consequences of not modernizing the nuclear stockpile. The report detailed impacts on the nuclear components themselves and on the workforce.

“So this is a long-term need on the part of the nation,” Gates said. “We’ve needed it for quite some time. The Congress voted down…the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, and there has been no progress toward providing any additional funding for our nuclear weapons modernization programs since that time….Frankly, and just basically realistically, I see this (New START) treaty as a vehicle to finally be able to get what we need in the way of modernization that we have been unable to get otherwise.”

SASC member Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I/D-Conn.) linked the fate of the New START treaty, which would reduce the number of deployed strategic warheads, to the administration’s new warhead modernization proposal.

“Ultimately, I think that whether or not the new START treaty is ratified will depend on members of the Senate of both parties having the confidence that the administration is committed to modernizing…our current nuclear stockpile,” Lieberman said.

The senator told Gates that, “in an interesting way and kind of a twist of fate, the ratification of this arms-control treaty may actually enable you and the administration and the last administration to receive the funding from Congress that you have been asking for to modernize our current nuclear stockpile.”

Energy Secretary Steven Chu, also testifying before the SASC on the New START treaty, said he has finished a Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan. It “provides a multi- decade investment strategy needed to extend the life of key nuclear weapon systems, rebuild and modernize our facilities, and provide for the necessary physical and intellectual infrastructure,” he said.

Chu, sitting next to Gates, insisted the administration is not seeking to add more military capability to the weapons and only wants to improve their safety, security, and reliability.

“That means we are replacing old electronics that we can’t even buy any more–tubes with integrated circuits,” Chu said. “We’re going to insensitive high explosives, so that they could be safer. So it’s much less likely that an accident, a fire, something of that nature, could set these weapons off. We’re increasing the surety, so that should any terrorists or anybody get hold of these, that it would be impossible for them to set it off.”

Though the administration has no plans to build a replacement warhead, Chu noted language in the New START treaty and the Nuclear Posture Review would allow scientists at the national labs to consider designs for new weapons, which potentially could be sought in the future.

The New START treaty, which Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed April 8, needs the approval of 67 senators to be ratified.

The agreement would set aggregate limits of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads for the United States and Russia, down from 2,200 now. It also calls for lowering the number of allowed launchers to 800 and total nuclear missiles and heavy bombers to 700.