ELMENDORF AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska, June 2, 2009 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates stopped here briefly yesterday on the final leg of a week-long trip to the Asia-Pacific region. In one of the base’s new C-17 Globemaster III hangars, flanked by F-22 and F-15 fighter jets, Gates met with about 300 airmen, soldiers, Marines and even a few sailors in his trademark town-hall fashion.

Going into the meeting, the secretary predicted he might have to field some tough questions about his recent proposed cuts to some Air Force programs in the fiscal 2010 defense budget.

“Given the maintenance problems on my plane the last week, I’m really happy to be here today,” the secretary joked, referring to a mechanical delay in Singapore. “I’m confident that there was absolutely no connection between those maintenance problems and my decisions on the Air Force budget.”

On the more serious side, Gates told those gathered that he wanted to hear what they need to do their jobs that they’re not getting now, and what the Defense Department leadership can do better for families.

“What I’m here for, as I am at every military facility I visit, is for field-ground truth, as opposed to the slides that I get at the Department of Defense,” Gates said.

Before taking questions, though, the secretary praised the work of those serving in Alaska, calling the mission vital for North America and the Pacific.

“I believe that as the polar ice cap continues to melt, competition for arctic resources will intensify, potentially raising new unprecedented economic, political and perhaps even security problems,” Gates said. “I think your role here will become even more important as time goes on.”

The first question at the secretary’s town hall sessions typically comes slowly, but there was an even longer pause than usual when he opened the floor here.

“The first one’s the hardest,” the secretary joked again.

Finally, a Marine sergeant from an antiterrorism battalion opened with a question on the fighting in Pakistan and how it would effect deployments to Afghanistan.

Gates said the actions of the Pakistanis over the past few weeks have been encouraging, as they fight to regain control of ground gained recently by the Taliban.

“As is so often the case, the extremists overplayed their hand, and when they occupied a district that was only a few dozens of miles from Islamabad, I think it really got the attention of the Pakistani government,” Gates said. “So now we’re seeing the Pakistani army and its political leaders acting in harmony and really taking the fight to the enemy, and I think they’ve really made some significant progress. I’m more encouraged about he situation in Pakistan than I have been in quite a while.”

Gates said the fighting in Pakistan would not affect U.S. deployments to Afghanistan.

The wait for a second question took even longer, as many of the troops simply grinned at each other.

“Your commanders are just going to be overwhelmed to know that everything here at Elmendorf and Fort Richardson is just perfect,” Gates said and laughed.

Finally, the question came out about cuts to the Air Force budget. An Air Force officer asked if the United States would be ready for a more conventional fight, as opposed to the counter-insurgency operations it is running in Iraq and Afghanistan, after the proposed cuts take effect.

Gates said that his proposed budget actually added money to some programs while cutting or stopping those that did not provide the greatest possible versatility for the greatest range of conflict.

He said that even a future conventional conflict likely would involve some kinds of asymmetric fighting, and that with the current funding programs in place, the United States will remain dominant in the air for at least the next two decades.

“In 2020, the United states will have roughly 1,200 fifth-generation combat aircraft. The Chinese will have zero,” Gates said. “In 2025, the Chinese will have a few hundred. We will have 1,700, … plus another 1,000 fourth-generation aircraft. So both our numerical and our technological edge will remain extremely strong and far superior to that of any potential competitor for at least the next 15 to 20 years.

“I’m confident we will have the country protected and prevail wherever along that spectrum of conflict we end up fighting,” Gates said.

Only a few other questions were asked about a tactical transport system, the fielding of improved personal weapons and the need for predictability in returning from deployments. Gates then finished the town hall by shaking hands, presenting coins and having his photo taken by every troop there.

Before the town hall session, Gates lunched privately, as is customary, with about a dozen airmen and soldiers.

After the brief stop, the secretary flew from here by C-17 to Fort Greely, about 100 miles into the Alaskan interior from Fairbanks, and home to one of two ground-based midcourse defense units housing missile interceptors on the West Coast.

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ELMENDORF AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska, June 2, 2009 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates…