WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned on Tuesday that America's aging nuclear weapons stockpile faces a bleak future of decline just as rival nations including Russia and China are modernizing their nuclear arsenals.
Nearly two decades after the end of the Cold War, Gates said the U.S. nuclear program is suffering from an exodus of qualified designers and technicians, the stockpile has not been modernized and no weapons have been tested since 1992.
"Let me first say very clearly that our weapons are safe, secure and reliable. The problem is the long-term prognosis -- which I would characterize as bleak," Gates said in a speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank.
Gates used the warning to urge Congress to fund a modernization effort by the Pentagon and the Energy Department to create new weapons designs that he said could be used to create a safer and more secure stockpile without abandoning the 16-year-old unilateral U.S. ban on new weapons tests.
Russia has begun to rely increasingly on its nuclear force by developing new land- and sea-based missiles while maintaining the ability to manufacture new warheads, Gates told his audience.
He said China has also expanded the number of missiles and pursued new land, sea and air systems that can deliver nuclear warheads.
"Currently, the United States is the only declared nuclear power that is neither modernizing its nuclear arsenal nor has the capability to produce a new nuclear warhead," Gates said.
"To be blunt, there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program."
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has taken a series of weapons systems including the Peacekeeper ballistic missile out of service and plans to reduce the U.S. nuclear warhead stockpile by two-thirds to between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2010 under an agreement with Moscow.
The credibility of U.S. nuclear deterrence became a source of special concern for Gates after revelations that an Air Force bomber mistakenly flew six weapons across the country last year and that the Air Force inadvertently sent nuclear weapons fuses to Taiwan.
Those revelations prompted the U.S. defense chief to take the unprecedented step of firing the Air Force's top civilian official and military officer earlier this year.
Gates said a credible U.S. nuclear deterrent was not only necessary to prevent attacks on the United States with nuclear arms or other weapons of mass destruction but also to prevent friendly nations that now rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella from pursuing their own nuclear programs.
"There is no way to ignore efforts by rogue states such as North Korea and Iran to develop and deploy nuclear weapons, or Russian or Chinese strategic modernization programs," Gates said.
"As long as other states have or seek nuclear weapons -- and potentially can threaten us, our allies and our friends, then we must have a deterrent," he added.
"Try as we might, and hope as we will, the power of nuclear weapons and their strategic impact is a genie that cannot be put back in the bottle -- at least for a very long time."
Gates told the audience that he was not advocating renewed U.S. testing of nuclear weapons but rather a program sought by the Pentagon and Energy Department that would allow for safe and reliable new weapons designs without the need for actual underground testing.
He said Congress has refused to fund the program because of concern among lawmakers that the plan -- known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead program -- would lower the threshold for using the weapons.
"Let me be clear: The program we propose is not about new capabilities -- suitcase bombs or bunker-busters or tactical nukes. It is about safety, security and reliability. It is about the future credibility of our strategic deterrent," Gates said.
"We must take steps to transform from an aging Cold War nuclear weapons complex that is too large and too expensive, to a smaller, less costly, but modern enterprise that can meet our nation's nuclear security needs for the future."
Editing by Cynthia Osterman