MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, – Calling his past two years as defense secretary “the most gratifying experience of my life,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told about 1,000 airmen here yesterday that he shares their commitment to service and feels both compelled and honored to retain his post into the next administration.

Gates traveled here directly from Chicago, where President-elect Barack Obama announced his national defense team selections, including Gates as defense secretary.

The secretary opened his address to about 1,000 airmen gathered in a B-52H Stratofortress hangar telling them it had not been his “expectation or desire” to remain in the Pentagon post beyond the Bush administration. However, he said, Obama had persuaded him to stay “a little bit longer,” not specifying exactly how long that might be.

Gates praised the airmen’s service, including a 24/7 nuclear deterrence mission at Minot as well as more than 2,000 deployments in support on the war on terror, and said he, too, will be honored to continue serving.

Obama will be the eighth president Gates has served.

Flanked by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz and the North Dakota congressional delegation, Gates gave insight into the challenges he is likely to address during the next administration.

These include plans ranging from placing missile defenses in Eastern Europe to the need to overhaul the defense acquisition process to the issue that brought him to Minot: heightened oversight of the Air Force’s nuclear mission.

Minot is home to the 91st Missile Wing and 5th Bomb Wing, and made national headlines last year when six nuclear missiles were mistakenly loaded onto a B-52 bomber here and flown to Barksdale Air Force Base, La. Gates called past lapses in nuclear weapons handling “unacceptable,” but said he believes the Air Force is “now moving in the right direction to reclaim the standards of excellence for which it was known throughout the Cold War.”

He noted sweeping efforts under way, and said he awaits recommendations from a task force he formed to review nuclear enterprise oversight within the Air Force and the Defense Department overall. Former Energy and Defense Secretary James Schlesinger is heading the task force, which is expected to deliver its findings later this month.

Gates got a firsthand look yesterday at operations supporting the nuclear mission. He climbed into the cockpit of a B-52 bomber, one of 12 at Minot, with a second squadron of 10 more to arrive beginning late next year. He toured a B-52 weapons system trainer and simulated launch facility.

The secretary also chatted with members of the 91st Security Forces Group, which safeguards 150 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and 15 missile alert facilities scattered across more than 8,500 square miles in northern North Dakota. As he greeted the airmen, Gates reminded them that their jobs handling land- and air-based nuclear weapons are “vital to the security of our nation.”

“It’s definitely a help for morale,” Airman 1st Class Jeremiah Oswald, a member of the 5th Civil Engineer Squadron, said of Gates’ visit. “It shows that they think of us and that they’ve come here to support us.”

Staff Sgt. Marcus Thames from the 5th Maintenance Group’s weapons section called it “a privilege” that Gates took time to visit Minot and see how the base operates. “This helps the airmen realize how important our mission is to national security,” he said. “It’s very important to us and to our country.”

“Only the best come north,” Air Force Col. Joel Westa, commander of the 5th Bomb Wing, told Gates, citing Minot’s motto. “And that is absolutely true here. … We never rest.”

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