By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
May 6, 2009 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today called the mentorship that U.S. forces are providing the Saudi Arabian military a key factor in maintaining stability in the region and an example of the capacity-building efforts he'd like to see more of elsewhere in the world. Gates held a town hall session with a few hundred residents of this complex south of Riyadh that's served since 1996 as the base for U.S. forces assigned to the U.S. Military Training Mission to Saudi Arabia and the Office of the Program Manager-Saudi Arabian National Guard.
With about 800 U.S. members total, about 500 of them military advisors, the organizations focus on helping to build and modernize capability within the Saudi armed forces and Saudi national guard, explained Air Force Maj. Gen. Paul M. "Dutch" Van Sickle, USMTM-SA commander. The troops lend expertise in training, supply, maintenance, operations, medical, construction, equipment fielding and other related activities.
Gates emphasized the importance of what these troops -- many of whom have served in Iraq or Afghanistan -- do in the big Middle East security picture.
"I want to tell you that although you do not work in a direct combat zone, your mission remains essential to America's security," he told a crowd of several hundred servicemembers and Defense Department civilian employees who packed an auditorium here. "Multiple administrations of both parties, including all eight presidents I have worked for, have believed that America's prosperity and security is closely tied to the prosperity and security of this part of the world."
Gates, who arrived here yesterday to discuss mutual security issues with the Saudi leadership, said the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia "has been one of the mainstays of stability in the Middle East for more than 60 years."
The U.S. security mission in Saudi Arabia dates back to the 1940s, he noted, with Saudi Arabia remaining an important partner on a broad range of security issues.
Gates praised the role of the U.S. Military Training Mission to Saudi Arabia and the Office of the Program Manager-Saudi Arabian National Guard -- known as OPM-SANG -- in increasing Saudi military capabilities.
Army Brig. Gen. Christopher Tucker, the program manager, said the mentors bring combat experience from Iraq and Afghanistan and important lessons learned to the mission that they, in turn, share with the Saudi military.
"The Saudi armed forces have become a more professional and effective organization, due to the work of the U.S. military training mission," Gates said, noting its planning, organizational, training and equipment support.
In addition, the OPM-SANG mission is helping to modernize the Saudi national guard as it develops into "a more full-spectrum force," he said.
Gates cited a new development within OPM-SANG, in which it will help to train and equip a new Saudi security assistance force to focus specifically on protecting the country's oil, water, electricity and other infrastructure. These forces, to be assigned to the Saudi Interior Ministry, are projected to grow from about 5,000 to about 35,000 – "an ambitious and impressive effort," Gates said.
Meanwhile, Gates credited the 64th Air Expeditionary Group based here, which, building on work started a generation ago, "has built a formidable Saudi air force and forged close military-to-military ties between our two air services."
"Your work here is ... an example of the kind of capacity -building effort that we would like to see more of by the U.S. military in other parts of the world," Gates told the group. "The United States will increasingly look to rely more on the capabilities of our partners than direct U.S. military action to deal with the diverse array of security challenges."
Those threats, he said, range from the transition of responsibility to Iraqi forces to the ramp-up of military forces, as well as civilian initiatives in Afghanistan, the "potential perils posed by Iran's nuclear program" and the broader campaign against violent terrorist networks.
"All of those challenges, to varying degrees, are affected by the work you do here to sustain and strengthen our partnership with Saudi Arabia and build their security capabilities," Gates told the group. "They provide a crucial measure of stability and deterrence in the Gulf."
Gates cited changes ahead in the training and mentoring missions here: the change of Saudi Arabia from a combat to a noncombat duty area designation, the opportunity for adult family members to accompany servicemembers assigned here and the possibility of building a new training compound.
Also on the horizon is the potential sale of more U.S. military equipment to Saudi Arabia.
Gates told reporters after the town hall meeting that he shares the Saudis' frustration about the sluggish pace of the foreign military sales program. "It's not just a problem here in Saudi Arabia," he said. "It's a problem in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and anywhere we want to sell systems."
Gates said he intends to get to the bottom of that question to find out what regulatory, policy or bureaucratic obstacles stand in the way of "getting weapons into the hands of our friends and allies far faster than we are able to do now."
"And I have some suggestions," he said.
Gates said he also talked with the Saudis about Pakistan, and "what more we can all do together to strengthen the support to the civilian government" there. He also encouraged more Saudi diplomatic engagement with Iraq, including assigning a Saudi ambassador there.
The discussions with the Saudis also touched on the possibility of transferring Yemeni detainees at Guantanamo Bay to Saudi repatriation programs, but Gates said the talks were general in nature and no decisions were made. "I didn't ask them to do anything, and they didn't volunteer," he said.
Troops at Eskan Village said they were gratified that Gates took time to see their operation firsthand.
"It shows the value of the mission and the importance of it," said Army Maj. Michael Elliott, a medical advisor who has been training and advising Saudi military medical forces for the past year. "It reinforces that this mission is important and a key element in the fight on terrorism."
Army Maj. Eric Fowler, a mentor here who has deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, said the mission underscores U.S. interest in helping partner militaries build capacity. "We want to raise their capabilities so they're better able to provide for their own security," he said. "We want them to be capable and competent."
Wes Farmer, a Department of the Army civilian who serves as executive officer for OPM-SANG, said Gates' visit helps bring visibility to a mission that has gone relatively overlooked in the shadow of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We've been here for 36 years as a moderating force for stability in the region," he said. "It's always great to have the senior leadership come show they appreciate the work we're doing here."
Air Force Staff Sgt. Jonathan Fernandez, a communicator assigned to knowledge operations here, said he hopes Gates takes home from his visit here one key message. "We are doing our job out here, and doing it right," he said.