By Emelie Rutherford

A senior lawmaker said yesterday he expects the Pentagon to garner support from Congress this year to modernize the nation’s nuclear weapons and emphasized the current proposal differs from President George W. Bush’s thwarted warhead-upgrade plan.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said Defense Secretary Robert Gates “is right to be optimistic” that lawmakers will approve the Obama administration’s proposal for improving the nuclear stockpile.

That’s because, Levin said, “there’s no replacement warhead involved, quite the opposite.”

“What they’re asking for is the funding to make sure that they have the capabilities in terms of how many scientists they’re able to hire, in terms of their research development capabilities on keeping the stockpile safe, secure without new weapons,” he told reporters in Washington. “So, they’ll get support on that.”

President Barack Obama 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. Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently finished a Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan that lays out an investment strategy for extending the life of key nuclear weapon systems, modernizing facilities, and supporting needed scientists.

Congress rejected the Bush administration’s proposal for a Reliable Replacement Warhead, which was intended to improve the nuclear stockpile for safety, reliability, and environmental reasons. Skeptical lawmakers charged the effort in reality would create a new nuclear weapon.

Gates said this month he is hopeful Congress will approve the proposal for what he called “a reinvigoration of our nuclear-weapons complex.”

“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 told the SASC on June 17 (Defense Daily, June 18).

Levin, speaking at a Defense Writers Group breakfast, said in Congress the fate of the nuclear-modernization proposal is tied to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between the United States and Russia. The treaty, signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April, must secure support of two-thirds of the Senate to be ratified. The treaty would reduce the number of deployed strategic warheads.

“I think a number of Republicans are connecting those two votes,” Levin said. The nuclear-modernization effort, he said, is “a particularly important feature for a number of people who may vote for the START treaty who otherwise might not.”

Levin, meanwhile, reiterated that he does not believe Obama would follow through on threats from his advisers to veto the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill if the final version calls for continuing the second engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. He pointed to how the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office found continuing development of the alternate engine, developed by General Electric [GE] and Rolls-Royce, would cost roughly the same as pursing one engine.

“By their own assessment, it comes out a wash,” the senator said. “Now is the president of the United States going to veto a bill because it has a second engine in it…where the assessment dollars wise–with the sort-term cost, the long-term cost–comes out 50-50?”

When the Senate takes up the defense authorization bill, Republicans upset with provisions in it, including a change to the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy on gays serving in the military, could try to stall its movement by filibustering it, he said. Levin predicted the Senate will take up the legislation after lawmakers return from the Fourth of July recess.

As for the Pentagon’s efforts to save money, Levin said, “if anyone can do it, Gates can.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), speaking yesterday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, reiterated his call for tightening defense spending because of the deficit.

“It’s time to stop talking about fiscal discipline and national security threats as if they were separate topics,” Hoyer said. “Debt is a national security threat. Unsustainable debt has a long history of toppling world powers.”

At the breakfast, Levin did not delve deeply into potential weapon-system cuts, but said the future of the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) is “problematical.” The challenge for the EFV, he said, “is not based on not having a need for it, it’s based on not yet being able to figure out how to build it at reasonable price.”

The Marine Corps is now receiving new redesigned prototypes of the developmental amphibious vehicle from General Dynamics [GD].