DENVER – A three-decade security cooperation program with almost half the world’s nations is critical to America’s national security, the National Guard’s most senior general said last week.
Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told an annual gathering of Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program leaders that the program founded in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse enhances interoperability with our partners and allies and supports the National Defense Strategy.
The multiday SPP meeting also featured the award of the first SPP Partnership of the Year. Discussion topics included the program’s future, senior leader perspectives, and enlisted military development.
“You don’t have to look far to see the impact of the SPP,” Hokanson said. “The conflict in Ukraine highlights the interconnectedness of the security environment.”
An SPP charter member partnered with the California National Guard, Ukraine relied on the program as one of the primary ways to strengthen forces and build interoperability, Hokanson said.
Today, the Ukrainian Air Force is demonstrating the competence California Air National Guard pilots have for years said it possesses, he said.
Hundreds of California Guard trainers helped Ukraine enhance infantry tactics, establish and build a noncommissioned officer corps, improve cyber operations and develop command and control capabilities in the years following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Since the recent Russian invasion, California has helped Ukrainians communicate with the combatant command — U.S. European Command — and Defense Department leaders.
“They trust us because they know us,” Hokanson said, quoting California’s adjutant general, Army Maj. Gen. David Baldwin.
Individual relationships built over years — sometimes decades — might be the SPP’s unique magic ingredient: The National Guard was chosen as the military organization to lead the program in part because of the continuity offered by Guard members serving in the same unit for longer durations than their active-duty counterparts, said Army Maj. Gen. Reginald Neal, deputy commanding general, U.S. Army Pacific.
“These partnerships are all about trust and familiarity,” he said. “Guard members are an invaluable resource in providing a persistent and continual presence.”
The SPP pairs the National Guard in the states, territories and the District of Columbia with nations worldwide. What began with 13 partnerships in 1993 is now up to 87 partnerships with 93 countries. SPP administrators plan to add about two partnerships each of the next 15 years.
Administered by the National Guard Bureau, the SPP is guided by State Department foreign policy goals and executed by the adjutants general. The SPP supports combatant commander and chief of mission security cooperation objectives and DOD policy goals.
Key leader and subject matter expert exchanges; whole-of-government interaction; academic inclusion; and how program administrators used budgeted money were among the criteria judges considered to decide this year’s first-ever Partnership of the Year Award.
The Delaware National Guard’s partnership with the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force took the top award.
Delaware Guard leaders say their program is a partnership of partnerships that includes their governor, state agencies, U.S. Southern Command, the National Guard Bureau, and other Joint Force components.
COVID-19 affected the state’s ability to execute partnership events. Delaware adapted with virtual meetings and still managed some in-person exchanges.
The pandemic challenged the SPP across the National Guard.
“We had a slow couple of years … because of COVID, but it’s really coming back, and it’s going to be more focused than ever,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Randolph Staudenraus, the director of NGB’s strategic plans, policy and international affairs, which administers the SPP. “We’ve been very concentrated on training with our partners in the past. That will continue, but we also want to address the issues of tomorrow now.”
While the pandemic forced a pause on many activities, engagements have bounced back in 2022, Staudenraus said.
U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s area of responsibility is one of the regions eyed for growth. There are 13 partnerships in USINDOPACOM, and Neal, the U.S. Army Pacific deputy commander, said there might be growth opportunities.
Africa also might offer expansion opportunities, said Ambassador Andrew Young, U.S. Africa Command’s deputy to the commander for civil-military engagement.
Young lauded the SPP’s success with African partner nations.
“We are most effective when we synchronize diplomacy, development and defense,” he said. “National Guard state partnerships build on these fundamental values. The priceless network of these relationships is based on the most powerful tool that we have: trust.
“Our motto at U.S. Africa Command is to accomplish our objectives by, with and through our partners,” he said. “That is such a good fit for the State Partnership Program. To achieve sustainable outcomes, we must enable our partners — and the National Guard does this through the SPP.”
The SPP now includes 16 partnerships with African nations, and Young emphasized the continent’s strategic importance. “America cannot ignore Africa,” he said. “Africa is linked to American interests, and our competitors see the advantage of Africa.”
The State Partnership Program started in Europe in 1993 with partnerships between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with the Maryland, Michigan and Pennsylvania National Guard, respectively. Now, 23 European nations are in the SPP.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Neely, Illinois adjutant general, said modernization is a key component of all partnerships, and cited his state’s mature partnership with Poland, which also began in 1993.
“We’re very proud of our modernization initiatives with Poland,” Neely said. “We helped deliver their first F-16s. We helped deliver their first C-130s. We were flying these aircraft, and now they are too. We helped them set up a noncommissioned officer corps.
“We have operated on the backs of the NCOs,” he said. “We take it for granted sometimes. They’re out there making decisions to move a squad forward. Not everywhere in the world is it like that. It takes time and relationships to help our partners see the value in establishing and effectively utilizing an NCO corps.”
A panel discussion, led by National Guard enlisted leaders, focused on this concept of enlisted and NCO development with partner nations.
“What the Guard brings to our partners as far as enlisted development is invaluable,” said Senior Enlisted Advisor Tony Whitehead, senior enlisted advisor to the chief of the National Guard Bureau. “We have set a precedent and a foundation that can encourage our partner nations to educate and empower their enlisted corps.”
Young concluded his remarks by saying the State Partnership Program delivers substantial returns on modest investments through enduring partnerships and long-term relationships.
“We need to tell the story of the SPP,” Young said, “and continue to expand from those military-to-military engagements and include more military-to-civilian and civilian-to-civilian engagements. With this, the SPP will continue to be a two-way street where both partners win.”
Air Force Lt. Col. Allison Stephens contributed to this story.