A fighter pilot who made a cameo appearance as a Tom Cruise foe in "Top Gun" has taken over as the top U.S. military commander in Asia and the Pacific.
Adm. Robert F. Willard assumed control of the U.S. Pacific Command in a Monday ceremony presided over by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who stopped in Hawaii en route to meetings in Japan and South Korea.
The F-14 fighter pilot spent the last two years heading the U.S. Pacific Fleet and its 180 ships, 1,500 aircraft and 125,000 military personnel.
At the Pacific Command, he'll lead all branches of the military in the Asia-Pacific, from California to the Indian Ocean, and will be in charge of some 325,000 personnel.
Willard will also be responsible for managing military relationships with the 36 nations in the region, which include allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia. The area also encompasses China, whose armed forces are rapidly growing and modernizing; and North Korea, which is developing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
"This half of the world has undergone immense evolution in just my 36 years of military service. And it's changing still," Willard told the crowd of several hundred gathered for the ceremony in the hills above Pearl Harbor.
"Yet constant throughout that time was a recognition of the vast and growing importance of Asia to the rest of the world," Willard said.
Willard succeeds Adm. Timothy Keating, who is retiring.
In the 1980s, Willard was the executive officer at the Navy Fighter Weapons School, also known as "TOPGUN."
Willard was a consultant and flight choreographer on the 1986 film "Top Gun." He also portrayed a Soviet MiG-28 pilot who wore a black helmet and took on Cruise, who famously gave Willard's character "the bird" while flying upside-down above him.
Shortly after Monday's ceremony, Gates and Willard were due to head to South Korea for annual meetings with Seoul's military. Gates was also due to stop in Tokyo.
Willard comes to the job with a full set of challenges awaiting.
Japan's newly elected government, led by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, recently announced it would withdraw two naval ships from the Indian Ocean that had been refueling allies en route to Afghanistan.
He must also manage the U.S. military's relationship with China's military.
Last year, China broke off military talks with the U.S. after the Bush administration approved a major arms sale to Taiwan, the self-governing island Beijing considers a renegade province.
Relations have improved slightly since, leading China to send its second-highest ranking officer, General Xu Caihou, to the U.S. for a visit at the end of this month. Xu's stops will include the Pacific Command.
U.S. commanders have said it's important to boost exchanges with China's military so the two sides can become better acquainted and reduce the risk of a misunderstanding blowing up into an unwanted confrontation.
As China's military has grown, its ships have repeatedly harassed U.S. Navy surveillance vessels collecting intelligence off China's southeastern coast and Chinese submarines have aggressively pursued aircraft carrier battle groups.
In a blog post from last month while he was still at the Pacific Fleet, Willard wrote that engaging China has been difficult "and at times our encounters with Chinese military forces have been less than constructive in nature." But he also said both sides needed to seek out areas of common interest.
"At a point we need to understand who our counterparts are," Willard said. "We have to get to know one another."