MONS, Belgium – Standing in a city twice liberated from enemy occupation in the last century, the two senior enlisted military leaders of Moldova and Ukraine conversed in Russian — a common language in the neighboring former Soviet Republics.
They were here among a group of NATO alliance chief of defense-level command senior enlisted leaders for the International CSEL Conference hosted at NATO’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, or SHAPE, along with U.S. European Command, last week.
Their spontaneous discussion centered on the importance of a strong NCO corps to each nation’s security and military structure, a main theme of the conference.
“We spoke about the war in Ukraine and how it connects with our NCO corps and the future of Moldova’s NCO development,” said Ukrainian Chief Master Sgt. Oleksandr Kosynskyi, the command senior enlisted leader of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. “NCOs have been a crucial part of our defensive response.”
NCO development in partner nations is a key initiative of NATO and the U.S. National Guard. Twenty-three European nations, including Moldova and Ukraine, are aligned with Guard elements in the Defense Department National Guard Bureau State Partnership Program. The program encompasses the National Guard of every U.S. state and territory and 93 partner nations worldwide.
Ukraine was paired with the California National Guard in 1993 as one of the program’s charter members. Through the SPP, the National Guard conducts military-to-military engagements to support global defense and security goals.
Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Armed Forces of Ukraine evolved, recognizing the need for a professionalized NCO cohort. The AFU began working with its California Guard partners and NATO to develop a competent and effective NCO corps.
“In this war, it doesn’t matter which kind of technique or technology we use; people are still critical …crucial,” Kosynskyi said. “Modern warfare needs responsible, competent and motivated NCOs. We have a huge history of cooperation with the California National Guard, which has given us good help.”
Help, specifically in building a professional NCO force that the U.S. military’s most senior enlisted leader said has fueled Ukraine’s strong response throughout Russia’s unprovoked invasion this year.
“One thing that took the Russians by surprise was the effectiveness and autonomy of the Ukrainian NCO corps,” Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman Ramón Colón-López said. “That wasn’t by accident because the State Partnership Program has been there since 1993.
“That success is in the DNA of the partnership between the California National Guard and Ukraine and their NCO development initiatives,” the SEAC said.
Senior Enlisted Advisor Tony Whitehead, the National Guard’s top enlisted leader, said Ukraine has also worked closely with rotational Guard units from other states within the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine. JMTG-U was relocated from western Ukraine to the Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany earlier this year.
Whitehead cited his visit to Grafenwoehr with Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, in June. There, they met with 7th Army Training Command personnel and the Florida Guardsmen who were reunited and training again with some of their Ukrainian partners.
“It was so valuable to see that magic ingredient that makes the SPP special: relationships,” Whitehead said of the close ties between the Florida Guard’s 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team and AFU members. The 53rd IBCT transferred command of JMTG-U to the New York Guard’s 27th IBCT last month.
It is simply a continuation of the strong ties Guardsmen have built with their Ukrainian counterparts, he said.
“Aleks [Kosynskyi] was appreciative of Ukraine’s partnerships with the Guard,” Whitehead said. “He said it was very much a cornerstone of their confidence.”
Since the inception of the SPP, partner nations and their Guard counterparts have trained together to build security capacity. They have also participated shoulder-to-shoulder in NATO missions and contingency operations across the globe.
“The State Partnership Program is a great opportunity to work together to improve skills and readiness and gain experience at the individual level as well as unit level,” said Croatian Command Sgt. Maj. Dražen Klanjec, the Croatian Armed Forces command senior enlisted leader. “Our partnership with the Minnesota National Guard evolves every year and covers many areas, including infantry, air force operations, and cybersecurity.
“The official name is State Partnership Program,” he added, “but at the enlisted level, this is really a ‘soldier friendship program’.”
The city of Mons, and its rich history, provided the backdrop for the conference. The CSELs were led on a guided walking tour through the city that was liberated from German occupation by Canadian forces in 1918, effectively ending World War I.
It’s fitting that Chief Warrant Officer Kevin Mathers, the command senior enlisted leader for Allied Command Operations at SHAPE, is a member of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Mathers said the work of NATO’s Partnership Directorate and the Guard’s SPP are “game changers” in NCO development in European partner nations and beyond.
“[NCO development] is not something you can bottle up and take two before battle,” he said. “It must be done over time. Partner nations work together and experience other ways of operating.
“That way, they end up with a seasoned version of leadership,” he added, “that is more lethal and intimidating.”