LIELVARDE, Latvia - Maj. Kaspars Skudrovs looks across the flight line's expanse of gray concrete, the walls of the air traffic control tower behind him breaking the November chill.

"Next year will open new areas for us," he says. "In the beginning, we started to develop each piece of this airfield individually, like air traffic control and firefighting capability; now we are looking to not only make it one huge project, but we are also extending the partnership to neighboring countries and maybe even further into Europe."

Skudrovs, commander of the communication support flight at Lielvarde Air Base, Latvia, is talking about his organization's cooperation with the Michigan Air National Guard, which has helped drive a transformation of the airbase the past decade.

Skudrovs and his team met with partners from the Michigan Air National Guard representing airfield management, fire protection, emergency management, plans and force protection to outline key objectives for their work together in the coming year.

Maj. Lucas Freudenburg, Wing Plans officer, 110th Wing, Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, Michigan, stands next to Skudrovs. Freudenburg, also an MQ-9 "Reaper" pilot, is part of the initiative to take the Michigan-Latvia collaboration to its next phase. He is advising his Latvian counterparts on coordination for remotely piloted aircraft to participate in future multinational exercises from Lielv�rde. A remotely piloted MQ-1 "Predator" was first employed at the airfield in 2015.

"This is the first time I've been able to come to Latvia and there have been open arms all week long," said Freudenburg. "I've always known that the State Partnership Program was a big thing, but I didn't realize how much potential it has until I got here."

Opened in 1969 as a hub for Soviet air operations, Lielvarde Air Base was transferred to the authority of the newly independent Latvian government in 1994. A major overhaul of the facility infrastructure began in the late 2000s, with the airfield's massive, state-of-the-art control tower and headquarters complex a focal point. These investments have morphed Lielvarde into a major hub of NATO air operations for the Baltic region.

To staff the refurbished base, the Latvian National Armed Forces drew upon its partnership with the Michigan National Guard since 1993 under the U.S. National Guard Bureau's State Partnership Program. The SPP links National Guard units of U.S. states with partner countries around the world to support the security cooperation objectives of geographic combatant commands and the U.S. State Department.

Ongoing exchanges of personnel have increased proficiency for both sides of the partnership. The Michigan Air National Guard has improved interoperability with its NATO partners, and the Latvians have proven their skill multiple times. In 2017, during an emergency wheels-up landing of an A-10 Thunderbolt II at Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center in Michigan, Latvian firefighters were among the first to respond and extinguish a fire.

Now, members of the Michigan Air National Guard and Latvian Air Force seek to share the lessons of their partnership with neighboring countries by establishing a regional base for knowledge and skills enhancement. For three days in November, team members from Michigan and Latvia visited Ӓmari Air Base in nearby Estonia to explore new areas of cooperation with their Baltic counterparts, building on Estonia's participation in airbase operations and fire department activities alongside Latvia during Michigan's Northern Strike exercise the past two years.

"Talking about regional cooperation between the Baltic States, the relationships we built up there [with our Estonian partners] are great," said Freudenburg. "With Latvia being the most central location in the Baltic region, I can't wait to see what this will look like in the future."

It is a promising concept, with a multinational HAZMAT handling course for firefighters planned at Lielvarde Air Base in early 2020. Participants from Estonia, Hungary and Ohio are expected to attend. The Latvian Air Force will also work with the Michigan Air National Guard in the Winter Strike 20 exercise at Alpena in January.

"The winter operations exercise will give us new ways to go in terms of nighttime operations and winter operations," Skudrovs said.

"Last year we celebrated the 25th anniversary of our collaboration between Michigan and Latvia, so thank you to all Michiganders for such a long and wonderful cooperation. I believe it will just continue as we find new ways to cooperate together like we are doing now."