SEC. GATES: (In progress) -- and then take some questions.
Most of all, it's good to be here and to have a chance to spend some time with the men and women of U.S. Military Training Mission, OPM Saudi Arabian National Guard, OPM Facilities Security Forces, and the 64th Air Expeditionary Group.
First, I want to thank you for your service and for volunteering to serve. For a number of you who are veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom, this is not your first tour of duty in this part of the world. Whether you are military or civilian, I appreciate the sacrifices that you make, including long separation from friends and family.
There are a number of changes under way affecting your mission here -- the change of Saudi Arabia from a combat to a non-combat designation, the return of the Gulf dependents, the possibility of building a new compound, and potential sales of more U.S. military equipment to Saudi Arabia. I want to tell you that although you do not work in a direct combat zone, your mission remains essential to America's security. 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.
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. A regional leader in the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia continues to be an important partner for the U.S. on counterterrorism and a range of other issues.
U.S. Security Assistance Mission in Saudi Arabia dates back to the 1940s, and continues to grow. Saudi armed forces have a become more professional and effective organization due to the work of the U.S. Military Training Mission -- (inaudible) -- (plans, organizations, training and equipment.
The modernization program conducted by OPM SANG -- (inaudible) -- command and control, logistics, training, medicine, and with the LMB (ph) brigades, are helping the Saudi National Guard develop into a more full-spectrum force.
As you know, in the last several years, we have begun an initiative to train Saudi Arabia's interior forces so they can better protect the kingdom's energy infrastructure and vital installations. I'm told that the facility forces -- security forces are projected to increase from 5,000 to 35,000, an ambitious and impressive effort.
And the 64th Air Expeditionary Group continues the work going back more than a generation, has built a formidable Saudi Air Force, and forged close military-to-military ties between our two air services.
I should note that your work here is also 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. The United States will increasingly look to rely more on the capabilities of our partners rather than direct U.S. military action -- (inaudible) -- to deal with the diverse array of security challenges we face.
Those challenges include the transition of responsibility in Iraq, the ramp-up of military forces and civilian efforts in Afghanistan, and the potential perils posed by Iran's nuclear program, and a 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 to provide a crucial measure of stability and deterrence in the Gulf.
I have a little history here myself. My first visit to Saudi Arabia, when I was working for the NSC, was in 1977, 32 years ago, when King Khalid was still king, and to prepare a visit by President Carter. And then I was here several times in the interval, but was back again early August 1990 when then-Secretary of Defense Cheney and General Normal Schwartzkopf to tell the Saudis what we were prepared to do to help stop Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. I've been here a number of times, and always have been appreciative of the work that you all do.
And with that, I want to thank you again for your service and commitment to this important mission. One of the things I look forward to during my visit to military installations at home and abroad is to hear directly from servicemen and --women their questions and concerns. So even though this is a big group, and both military and civilian, I want to stop here, invite your questions, and ask you to speak up with what's on your minds because the truth of the matter is, sometimes when you ask a question and I don't know the answer, when you get the answer, it's probably a more positive one that you might have got otherwise -- (laughter) -- because I have a tendency to go back and ask, "Well, what is the answer to this question?" And somehow sometimes has more of an impact when I ask the question than when you ask the question. (Laughter.)
So with that, who will be the courageous soul to lead this off?
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