This is part two of the five part series "State Partnership Program turns 30."
WASHINGTON, D.C. – On the eve of its 30th anniversary, the Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program has matured into thriving security cooperation relationships with 100 nations.
“The utility of the SPP is something you can’t put a price on,” says Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, 29th Chief of the National Guard Bureau. “The Department of Defense, and the State Department, and – particularly – the geographic combatant commanders see the value it provides.”
The SPP pairs the National Guard of every state, territory, and the District of Columbia with nations around the world. Current and former senior leaders say it is equally beneficial to both partners.
“The value to the state is, No. 1, it gives our Guardsmen the experience of operating in a unique environment,” Hokanson says. “It gets them out there to give them a better picture of the globe and some of the issues other nations face. And, for our military leaders, it’s one-on-one training and learning from our partners, because each partner has unique capabilities and specialties, as we do.
“By sharing what we’re good at, we both become better.”
This May, Army Staff Sgt. Josh Lynch was one of the Maryland National Guardsmen who traveled to SPP partner Estonia for Spring Storm, the Estonian Defence Force’s largest annual military exercise.
“This is my first time going out of the country,” Lynch says. “When we get to work with other NATO forces, we get an idea of how to work with each other, how we operate. We are more alike than I initially thought, and it has been an awesome experience working out here.”
SEA Tony Whitehead, the 6th Senior Enlisted Advisor to the CNGB, says the State Partnership Program provides enlisted Airmen and Soldiers the unique opportunity to broaden their understanding of the world while simultaneously increasing their readiness.
“By working with foreign counterparts and exchanging valuable experience and knowledge,” Whitehead says, “participants can significantly enhance the capabilities of our military while fostering long-term connections that extend beyond just the days and weeks of training together and span over decades and entire careers. Those long-term relationships are the bread and butter of the program."
The SPP also supports America’s National Defense Strategy, which highlights the significance of allies and partners in maintaining national security, emphasizing the importance of strengthening alliances and building partnerships to address shared challenges and promote global stability.
“Our real superpower as a nation is our allies and partners,” says retired Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, 28th Chief of the National Guard Bureau. “That’s what differentiates us. That’s our asymmetric advantage. In the global security environment, our superpower is our relationships with so many partners who trust us, who know us, who understand us.”
Alliances and partnerships help nations deter adversaries, enhance military capabilities, foster cooperation and grow together: 11 European nations ascended to both NATO and European Union membership after their SPP partnerships were formed.
Some aspects of the SPP can be measured: At a cost to the U.S. of about $42 million per year, the SPP averages about 1,000 engagements, exchanges and training exercises worldwide annually.
These events can be complex, like African Lion: U.S. Africa Command's largest annual combined, joint exercise, which brings thousands of multinational service members and hundreds of Guardsmen to the continent to work together with African partners. Focus areas include field training; chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear response; and humanitarian and civilian assistance events.
Army Command Sgt. Maj. Spencer Nielsen, senior enlisted advisor, Utah National Guard, took part in African Lion 2021 with the state’s SPP partner, Morocco.
“Our ability to work with our Moroccan partners to provide humanitarian assistance is one of the most rewarding parts of African Lion and the relationship with the Kingdom of Morocco,” Nielsen says. “Seeing Moroccan and U.S. forces together, particularly Utah National Guard, makes us very proud, and it is humbling to see that we can have that much effect on the local populace.”
State Partnership Program events can also be small: a handful of Guard participants exchanging best practices with foreign counterparts in medical response, small-arms proficiency, professional development or other specialties.
A small group of West Virginia Guardsmen conducted a virtual information exchange on best vaccine practices during the COVID-19 pandemic early last year.
“This engagement shows the true benefit of the SPP, allowing life-saving knowledge and experiences to flow through open dialogue between Peru and West Virginia,” says Army Command Sgt. Maj. Dusty Jones, the state’s senior enlisted leader. “Our years of existing partnership have established levels of trust and respect that are invaluable in the middle of a crisis.”
Army Maj. Gen. William Zana, the Guard Bureau’s director of Strategic Plans and Policy and International Affairs, says approximately 1% of the United States’ security cooperation budget across the Defense Department and State Department is allocated to the SPP. That figure, Zana estimates, funds 20% to 30% of all engagements across all geographic combatant commands.
“The State Partnership Program is truly a multiplier in enabling the geographic combatant commands and the services’ efforts,” Zana says.
Army Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Abernethy, command senior enlisted leader for U.S. European Command, explains how one geographic combatant command benefits from the SPP on the enlisted side of the house:
“All our noncommissioned officer corps across Europe are advancing at different paces,” Abernethy says. “They have different capabilities already existing inside their formations. So, we must critically analyze where they are, understand the starting point, and develop a plan to advance them.
“That is where the National Guard plays a key role since they already have those relationships. Now we can hone in on that, so we are all shooting towards the same target.”
Almost all South American nations, plus several Central American countries and Caribbean islands are active participants in the SPP.
“The National Guard’s State Partnership Program with SOUTHCOM dates from 1996 and is of tremendous value to both the command and our allies in the Western Hemisphere,” says Army Gen. Laura Richardson, commander, U.S. Southern Command. “The relationships and capabilities that are forged through ongoing military-to-military engagements with our partner nations help ensure critical interoperability with partner nation military forces and respect for democratic values throughout Central and South America and the Caribbean.”
But how do you measure trust?
“How do you put a dollar value on that?” Lengyel asks. “How do you put a value on relationships? You know that someday – not today, but someday – we may call on you. And you know we only get that service because they know you and trust you and have a relationship with you. It’s hard to assign a monetary value to that.
“The SPP builds trust for an incredibly small amount of money relative to the Defense Department’s budget or the federal budget – huge value, high-leverage dollar return, for sure.”
Air Force Lt. Gen. Marc Sasseville, 12th Vice Chief of the National Guard Bureau, says third-party validation is needed to objectively assess the impact of the SPP. “You have to be very careful in assessing the effectiveness of your own program,” Sasseville cautions.
But the success of security cooperation agreements in times of crisis is a good indicator of the SPP’s effectiveness.
“One validation of success is how well we meet challenges as a team,” Sasseville says. “That’s the real test: When you’re challenged, when you’re helping each other out, are you successful?”
The 30-year partnership between the California National Guard and Ukraine is right in the middle of such a test.
“The situation in Ukraine validates the partnership that California and Ukraine had before this recent invasion,” Sasseville says.
While much of the world guessed Ukraine would fall maybe 72 hours after the brutal, unprovoked Russian invasion, California Guardsmen who had trained shoulder-to-shoulder with their Ukrainian counterparts and were intimately familiar with their strengths and abilities begged to differ. Some of the early calls out of Ukraine in February 2022 weren’t to Washington, D.C., but to California Guardsmen in Sacramento.
The SPP is a Defense Department program managed by the National Guard Bureau in lockstep with the State Department and the combatant commanders. The National Guard in the states, territories, and District of Columbia executes the program.
Personal relationships and trust built over years are the keys to the SPP’s success, says retired Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, 25th Chief of the National Guard Bureau.
“Trust is built by the states,” Blum says. “The state partners do that. The Bureau doesn’t do that. We arrange the marriage; the states make it work – and the states do an extraordinary job. And the young men and women in the Guard who engage with our partner nations say more about America than any of our diplomats could ever do.
“Our partners see these young men and women who bring America to them. They bring the fabric of this nation, our values.”
The U.S. Congress gave the Guard Bureau chief a fourth star and added the CNGB position to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2012.
Air Force Gen. Craig McKinley, the 26th CNGB, was the first highest-ranking National Guard general to sit with the Joint Chiefs, and the SPP was one of the assets he brought to the table.
“Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, who was chairman, and Army Gen. Marty Dempsey, who followed him, were very receptive to me commenting on the value of the SPP because, in their active-duty world, while they had military-to-military relationships, they didn’t have the sustaining values that the National Guard brings to our partner countries, the friendships like the Guard’s.”
As it turned out, the Guard’s elevation to the Joint Chiefs of Staff benefitted the State Partnership Program in equal measure to the value the SPP added to America’s highest-ranking military advisory body.
That’s because now the CNGB meets with combatant commanders, U.S. ambassadors and the leaders of partner nations both as the Bureau’s chief and as one of the principal military advisors to the president, secretary of defense and National Security Council.
Hokanson, the current CNGB, reflects on recent visits to Serbia, partnered with the Ohio National Guard, and Albania, partnered with the New Jersey National Guard.
“I met with the presidents, the prime ministers, the chiefs of defense, and the ministers of defense,” Hokanson says. “They all wanted to talk to me about the importance of the SPP, and how much they value the relationships. When you have the senior leadership of countries wanting to discuss the SPP, and the challenges they face in their region, it’s an invaluable level of access.”
Hokanson also found doors wide open during recent visits in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command area of responsibility, when senior military leaders welcomed him in South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines to enhance existing partnerships and explore ways the Guard can provide additional support to U.S. Forces Korea in developing the Republic of Korea Reserves if desired.
Army Gen. Frank Grass, 27th Chief of the National Guard Bureau, says he saw similar benefits on the U.S. side of the State Partnership Program equation.
Grass says he felt better able to brief the service chiefs on their SPP asset and found visits with geographic combatant commanders and their staffs even more productive than before the elevation to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“You understand more what the combatant commanders are trying to accomplish in their area of responsibility,” he says. “You know the strategy of both the Defense Department and the State Department. And then you, as chief, can better carry their message in your annual Congressional testimony, and to the governors, through the adjutants general. It synchronizes the whole effort of the United States even better.”
In the end, though, today’s SPP boils down to the partner states who build the relationships – and the interactions of individual Soldiers and Airmen with their foreign counterparts through training exchanges and exercises.
“During my time in Croatia, I’ve developed many friendships with our foreign counterparts,“ says Army Sgt. Nathan Buck, a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter technical inspector with the Minnesota National Guard. “We’ve created an everlasting line of communication so that at any time, they can reach out for help if needed. Hopefully, in the future, we continue to work together and continue to help develop their training and maintenance programs.”
Army Maj. Gen. Greg Knight is adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard, which has three partnerships, with Austria, North Macedonia and Senegal.
Training abroad with their Senegalese counterparts earlier this year, his Soldiers and Airmen happened to be present for a mass casualty incident – a bus rollover and three-car wreck.
“Fortuitously, our folks were there,” he recalls, “bandaging people up. They actually helped out with an amputation due to a crush injury.”
Army Spc. Pitor Sowulieski, a Vermont Guard combat medic, took part in the training exchange.
“We never know where we’ll need to go next, so being able to work with our partner nations and understand the difficulties and barriers, is really important,” Sowulieski says. “Having these experiences really helps to not only prepare us for future situations but to give us the skills to work around things like language barriers and find ways to work together and learn from each other.”
During the same SPP engagement, at a medical training exchange, a Vermont Guard member working with Senegalese providers revived an infant at birth.
“It was amazing because there’s that moment of fear when that baby comes out and isn’t breathing and isn’t crying and they’re just kind of limp,” says Army Staff Sgt. Christina Fontaine, the Vermont Guard medical specialist. “And then when you hear that first cry, there’s just this sudden wash of relief that goes through your body, and everyone in the room was just smiling.”
“That Senegalese mother will always remember that it was a member of the Vermont National Guard that saved her child,” Knight says. “How do you capture that? That’s what I’m talking about by that smallest thing: a one-on-one engagement.
“We can do all the strategic stuff, and we can have key leader engagements and continue our efforts on that level, but where we really make the money with the SPP are those individual experiences and individual relationships that we’ve built over years.”
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. H. Michael Edwards and his wife, Laury, nurtured the Colorado Guard’s new relationship with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, and Colorado’s longer-standing partnership with Slovenia, when he became the state’s adjutant general in 2007.
The couple felt official engagements were extremely structured and sensed an opportunity to enhance trust by opening their own home to their partner countries.
“We wanted our partners to relax and really get to know people,” Maj. Gen. Edwards says. “We decided we would treat them like family.”
“By opening up our home,” Laury Edwards says, “we were able to bring in a lot more of our senior Colorado Guardsmen and their spouses to get to know the senior leaders from Jordan and Slovenia.”
These exchanges deepened understanding on both sides.
“The trust between you is you become like best friends,” Maj. Gen. Edwards says. “In fact, in Jordan, we refer to each other as brothers.”
After Libya devolved into revolution and civil war in 2011, Jordan volunteered its F-16 Fighting Falcon multirole fighter aircraft to assist in reestablishing stability.
Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz – Edwards’ U.S. Air Force Academy classmate – was chief of staff of the Air Force at the time.
“I got a phone call in my office,” Edwards recalls. “And he says, ‘Hey, Mike, can you send liaisons to support the Jordanians? Because they want Colorado Guardsmen.”
Edwards dispatched Colorado National Guard maintenance and operations specialists to support the Jordanian mission.
“That the Jordanians were willing to come out of the Middle East and support a NATO operation, and that subsequently they also volunteered to become a part of the rapid deployment force that is on call for any NATO-type event, I connect with being able to build such a close relationship with Colorado, which led to closer relationships with the United States and our NATO allies.”
Also stemming from the Edwards’ choice to invite their partners into their home was Jordan’s invitation to Laury Edwards to visit to share the successes of the Colorado Guard’s family support program as the Kingdom stood up its own, similar initiative.
Every one of America’s 54 National Guards has enough similar stories of building enduring partnerships one person and one action at a time to fill a book.
The Iowa National Guard’s security cooperation agreement with Kosovo offers just one example of how far today’s SPP has evolved from the initial, exploratory military-to-military outreach in the Baltic States in 1993 that started the program.
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Timothy Orr, now the CNGB’s intergovernmental affairs advisor, was Iowa’s adjutant general when, in 2011, the state partnered with Kosovo, a nation rebuilding in the wake of conflict in the Balkans.
“As a former educator, I knew that the military can only do so much,” Orr says. “I took a larger approach of ‘the whole of Kosovo, the whole of Iowa’ with the intent to bring together all sectors of our state and the country of Kosovo to help both of us be better.”
With the blessing of the geographic combatant commander, Orr and his leadership team nurtured statewide engagement with Iowa’s new partner.
“If you were, in 2011, to ask most Iowans – other than a Guardsman or woman or active-duty service member who served in Kosovo – where the country was, they had no idea,” Orr says. “Now, in 2023, most everyone in Iowa has heard of and knows where Kosovo is.”
Beyond the military-to-military cooperation – including co-deployments to combat zones, one of the early goals for the partnership – businesses have sprung up, exchange students have completed degrees, Iowa professors have spent summers conducting research in Kosovo, and the state’s governor has made multiple visits partly aimed at boosting trade. All among numerous examples of civilian cooperation between the two: whole of society possibilities unlocked by the SPP.
Kosovo and Iowa’s relationship has blossomed further to include sister state designation, with sister cities continually springing up. And when Kosovo opened its first foreign consulate, it picked downtown Des Moines as the location, while most foreign consulates are in more populous metropolitan centers and diplomatic hubs.
“These are not one-way relationships,” says Sasseville, the NGB vice-chief. “They are really exchanges, whether you’re talking about military tactics or domestic response to natural or manmade disasters, whether you’re talking about understanding the environments each partner operates in.
“It’s a two-way street. Everyone is treated with respect, on an equal basis.”
Sasseville, who previously served as the senior U.S. defense official and defense attaché in Turkey, says, “The world is small and getting smaller, and the more you understand about it, the more effective you are on the world stage. We work with our partners to integrate the environments that we all want to enjoy for economic prosperity, freedom, and security.
“And we can’t get there without these partnerships and relationships.”
– Craig Schwed and Army Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Pena, National Guard Bureau; Army Spc. Joshua Whitaker, Maryland National Guard; Army Staff Sgt. Sydney Mariette, Minnesota National Guard; Air Force Tech. Sgt. Colton Elliott, Utah National Guard; Army Sgt. 1st Class Jason Alvarez, Vermont National Guard; Air Force Maj. Holli Nelson, West Virginia National Guard; and WCAX CBS 3 Vermont contributed.
State Partnership Program turns 30
A Five-Part Series By Master Sgt. Jim Greenhill and Sgt. 1st Class Zach Sheely, National Guard Bureau