DENVER — The Department of Defense National Guard Bureau State Partnership Program — built on enduring relationships, common interests and trust — is stable, steadfast and growing, the Guard’s top leader said Thursday.
The program started with 13 partnerships in 1993. It now boasts 100 nations paired with National Guard elements from every state, territory and the District of Columbia, with more to come.
The program will be refined and expanded in the coming months and years, said Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, National Guard Bureau chief.
“We’re looking at streamlining processes, ensuring funding and expanding existing partnerships, while selectively looking at where we add additional partnerships,” Hokanson told the Guard’s annual SPP conference.
In the last year alone, the Guard added seven SPP security cooperation agreements — Austria and Vermont, Norway and Minnesota, Samoa and Nevada, and most recently, Oman and Arizona. Three nations are awaiting partner announcements.
The State Partnership Program began 30 years ago after the breakup of the Soviet Union to help countries emerging from behind the Iron Curtain. Now, 25 European nations are partnered with National Guard elements, with partner nations in every geographic combatant command area of responsibility.
The program is administered by the National Guard Bureau and guided by State Department foreign policy goals. It is executed by the adjutants general in support of combatant commanders, U.S. Chief of Mission security cooperation objectives and Department of Defense policy goals.
Guardsmen, who often serve in the same state for an entire career, offer the continuity to build lasting relationships with foreign military counterparts. These relationships also provide the DOD with regional access, as evidenced by Russia’s ongoing unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
“We never want to see another Ukraine,” Hokanson said. “We never want to see another country’s borders violated. As our Guardsmen work with their counterparts in different countries, we can help identify and hopefully prevent these things from happening in the future.”
The 2022 National Defense Strategy names partnerships with foreign allies as a key strategic advantage: “Mutually-beneficial alliances and partnerships are an enduring strength — and will be all the more critical in the years ahead.”
In support of that NDS goal, Hokanson said the Guard is postured to grow the SPP in the next decade.
Partnerships start at the military-to-military level, with Guardsmen training side-by-side with foreign counterparts at home and abroad. They often evolve into whole-of-society relationships between states and nations.
Hokanson said the Guard executes 20%-30% of the nation’s security cooperation engagements that are SPP-related or enabled, with 1% of the U.S. security cooperation budget.
“I don’t think you can find a better value than the State Partnership Program,” he said.
Retired Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, a conference keynote speaker, said value, flexibility and persistence are three characteristics exemplified by the SPP.
“In my view, these three features embody state partnerships and are the reason why SPP is so useful both to our combatant commanders and our National Guard,” Townsend said.
In his final assignment as the commander of U.S. Africa Command, Townsend said he saw the value of the SPP firsthand.
“I know this because it was always a talking point during my visits to Africa,” he said. “It wasn’t just service chiefs or chiefs of defense asking me about the partnership program. It was the presidents and ministers.
“If they didn’t have an SPP, they wanted one,” he said. “If they had an SPP, they wanted more of it.”
There are 17 African nations in the SPP. The Utah Guard was one of the first state partnerships established in Africa, pairing with the Kingdom of Morocco in 2003. Townsend lauded the effectiveness of this partnership.
“I designated African Lion as AFRICOM’s priority joint and multinational exercise in 2019,” he said. “The Utah National Guard has really stepped up to the plate with everything from self-propelled howitzers to special forces, military bands and KC-135 tankers.”
Townsend said the special sauce of the SPP is the extended relationship reach.
“It’s not just a program for the Guard; it’s a partnership for the whole of state government,” Townsend said, citing Iowa and Kosovo’s close ties, with foundations in the SPP.
The Iowa Guard and Kosovo were paired in the SPP in 2003, and shortly after that, Iowa designated Kosovo as a sister state. Kosovo has since established a consulate in Iowa, the first foreign diplomatic representation in that state.
The global environment is changing and the Guard’s efforts and relationships with state partners are paramount, Hokanson said. As partnerships mature, an increased emphasis on multidomain operations has emerged, including cyber and space-related deterrence.
“Space is big, and we need our partners and our allies to make sure that we are resilient in this domain,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Michael Bruno, chief of staff, Colorado Air National Guard. “Strengthening our relationships with our partners is crucial to maintaining a secure, safe and sustainable space environment.”
Bruno said highlighting the importance of the space domain begins with education. He added that including partners in space-related exercises, like U.S. Space Command’s Global Sentinel, can increase global space situational awareness and enable Guardsmen to learn from partners.
“That’s the great thing about the SPP,” he said. “It’s not one-sided; we learn from each other and we grow from each other’s knowledge.”
Hokanson said the SPP is intended to be mutually beneficial.
“We are all trying to do the same things, ensure the safety and security of our citizens, and preserve our borders and sovereignty,” he said. “It is an incredible two-way exchange of information.”
Air Force Lt. Col. Allison Stephens contributed to this story.