USA / Saudi Arabien

Gates Lauds U.S. Efforts to Boost Sau­di Mil­i­tary Capac­i­ty Amer­i­can Forces Press Ser­vice

ESKAN VILLAGE, Sau­di Ara­bia, 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.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)