ARLINGTON, Va. – With the recent additions of the Vermont National Guard partnership with Austria and New Hampshire National Guard with Cabo Verde, the State Partnership Program now includes just under half the world's nations.
The Department of Defense program pairs National Guard elements with the armed forces of partner countries in a cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship.
"The National Guard's State Partnership Program is a key pillar to the DOD's focus on alliances and partnerships," said Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau. "Through the SPP, the National Guard maintains long-term relationships that strengthen alliances, enhance interoperability, reassure allies and deter our adversaries."
It now includes 85 partnerships with 92 countries, but it all began in 1993 with the delivery of a tuba to the Latvian Army.
"We delivered that tuba to the Latvian band, and they were amazed to get it," said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Conaway, who oversaw the creation of the SPP during his tenure as the 22nd chief of the NGB. "That started the program with the first initial visit."
That first visit was the result of a simple directive from Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, then-supreme allied commander in Europe with NATO, and who would be appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993.
"He called me up and said, 'We've got to help these new emerging democracies [in the Baltics],'" said Conaway. After additional planning with Pentagon officials, Conaway formed a small team and started working with the State Department. That led to meeting with the presidents of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia and military officials in those countries.
The initial concept was to assist those countries emerging from behind the Iron Curtain, said Conaway. Most of the earliest SPP partner countries in Europe have now become U.S. allies in NATO, and many of them credit the SPP and their National Guard partners with helping make that possible.
"It looked like they wanted our help, and we started talking about putting liaison officers from the National Guard on orders with them," said Conaway. "Our role was to help make the transition [to democracy] as smooth as we could."
When Conaway retired in November 1993, the SPP had 13 partnerships, primarily with former Eastern Bloc countries in Europe.
The program remains essential in Europe and Africa today, according to Maj. Gen. Joe Jarrard, U.S. Army Europe and Africa's deputy commanding general for the Army National Guard.
"Partnerships are essential to the security and stability of Europe and Africa, and the role the National Guard plays in that stability is significant," said Jarrard. "Thirty-seven European and African nations participate in the State Partnership Program. These National Guard Soldiers work, train, and even mobilize together with their partners – building mutual trust and enduring relationships that significantly improve security cooperation."
To maintain these relationships, the SPP conducts about 1,000 events globally each year. The events can include anything from strategic planning conferences, such as Hawaii National Guard members working in Jakarta, Indonesia, with Indonesian partners to prepare for multinational Exercise Gema Bhakti, to tactical events like a platoon exchange the Pennsylvania Army National Guard recently hosted with their Lithuanian counterparts.
"This exchange is important because it shows our partners and our adversaries we can operate in any environment safely and effectively," said Sgt. 1st Class John Nebzydoski, Security Cooperation Division SPP coordinator with the Pennsylvania National Guard. "It's not one-sided; Lithuanians are very focused, motivated and driven people. We've grown out of teaching tactics and now we focus on strategic level engagement."
However, no matter the focus of the specific event, building relationships is the key focus of the program.
"Our approach makes the National Guard a force other nations are eager to partner with," said Hokanson, adding that the program grows by an average of two partnerships each year.
The program's success is no surprise, said Hokanson.
"Building enduring partnerships at the international, federal, state and local levels contributes to our nation's strength and readiness," he said. "Through 85 State Partnership Program relationships, the National Guard is engaged with 45% of the world's nations, and ensures the Department of Defense has capable, trusted and interoperable partners at our side."