WASHINGTON, D.C. (7/14/23) – Talk with senior leaders – with some of the National Guard’s most passionate advocates – and they’ll tell you something about the Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program that will likely surprise you.
It’s not a National Guard program.
“This is a Department of Defense program,” says Army Maj. Gen. William Zana, the National Guard Bureau’s strategic plans and policy and international affairs director. “It’s best when you’re looking at the SPP to understand the different roles of the stakeholders.”
The Defense Department program is closely coordinated with the geographic combatant commands, the Department of State, the U.S. embassies and their chiefs of mission, each partner nation and the National Guard in the partner state, territory or District of Columbia.
“The National Guard Bureau administers, resources and serves as the integrator of the program,” Zana says. “So there are a lot of stakeholders, and – from my perspective – that’s a feature, not a bug, because everyone has a shared interest in the success of the program in establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships.
“It truly is a team sport.”
A potential new partner nation first has to be aware of and learn about the SPP, then submit a formal request to their U.S. ambassador, who coordinates with the relevant U.S. geographic combatant command whose area of responsibility the nation falls into.
Assuming all that goes well, the request heads to the secretary of defense, and then to the National Guard Bureau.
“Throughout the process, the Department of State and Department of Defense work closely to understand the request and what things that country is asking for,” Zana says, “what things are most important to them? Those things they want to focus their training and readiness on which might be related to specific equipment, types of forces, types of missions.”
The team of agencies, including the NGB, then scrutinizes broader considerations: Is there a strong diaspora anywhere in the U.S.? Are there economic, political, or academic connections?
“We get this information out to the states, identifying what this nation is looking for in a security cooperation agreement, and asking how we find the best partner,” Zana says.
Interested states, territories or D.C. in turn submit requests to be the designated partner.
“It strictly is a by-choice and voluntary process at each stage,” Zana says.
An objective board process at the national level – involving all stakeholders – then assesses the candidates and rank orders the most suitable applicants.
The foreign policy advisor to the CNGB is an integral player in this process, helping him or her master the complexities of foreign engagements and ensuring the CNGB has a deep understanding of Department of State equities. This critical staff position creates a bridge between the chief and other stakeholders in navigating the geopolitical terrain.
“Ultimately, the chief of the National Guard Bureau makes a recommendation back to the secretary of defense,” Zana says. “The secretary of defense, in coordination with the Department of State, approves.”
After an official announcement to the partner nation, signing ceremonies typically take place on both sides, both in the nation and in the home state of its National Guard partner.
Sometimes, partnerships form rapidly.
It was quick the first year: 13 partnerships were up and running in former Soviet Bloc countries within a year of the SPP’s birth.
And, where appropriate, pairings have sometimes happened quickly since.
Tasked by U.S. Southern Command, Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, 25th Chief of the National Guard Bureau, had partnerships established with the seven Caribbean islands that are members of the Regional Security System in a matter of months, a repetition of a feat his staff had previously pulled off, in only three months, when U.S. Central Command had asked for a National Guard partner for the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
“The agility of the program is amazing,” says Blum, now retired.
On the other hand, sometimes official SPP pairings can take years to come to fruition.
Norway’s recent SPP entry with the Minnesota Guard was almost a half-century in the making, as the Nordic nation and its upper-Midwest counterpart held 50 years of training exchanges, dubbed NOREX, short for U.S./Norway Reciprocal Troop Exchange.
Army 2nd Lt. Matthew Michels led one of the Minnesota National Guard teams supporting Norwegian service members at this year’s NOREX.
“We are here to support the Norwegians as they train,” Michels says. “But we’re also here to learn from them and with them. As allies, our nations build each other up.”
Norway and Minnesota’s close ties were cemented with the stroke of a pen earlier this year, as leaders on both sides signed an accord for the two to officially enter the State Partnership Program together – adding a world-class foreign military to the Guard’s growing constellation of partners.
“It was my honor to meet with members of the Minnesota National Guard and Norwegian Home Guard and hear firsthand how critical this military exchange is to building trust, partnership, and mutual understanding with our Norwegian partners,” says Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, who attended the signing event. “I am proud to make this historic partnership official and look forward to working together to advance our shared values and security interests.”
Once the ink dries on partnership accords, exchanges begin and relationships mature, though partner nation needs can fluctuate.
Army Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, California’s adjutant general, explains the importance of the California Guard’s collective determination to maintain relationships with Ukraine, even during the inevitable ebbs and flows 30 years of political turnover can bring.
“We never gave up on it,” Beevers says, “never gave up. We never quit on them. And I think that in and of itself is the relationships, all the preparatory work, because you never know when these conflicts are going to kick off. And if we can get people to maintain the relationships with their state partners, over time, it will pay dividends as it is paying today.
“Ukrainians are fighting and winning. And in large measure, they were not defeated in the first 72 hours based on the work that members of the California Army and Air National Guard did in the years preceding the conflict. It was that work that we did ahead of time that saved them from the decapitation strike that the Russians were attempting.”
“Sometimes it takes a while for countries to see the value in the SPP and understand how it really works,” says retired Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, 28th Chief of the National Guard Bureau. “We’re giving you a key to the kingdom here by setting you up with a state, and then you can go anywhere inside the Department of Defense and the other United States: This is just your entry door.”
Like other CNGBs, Lengyel stressed to partner nations that access to a National Guard state is access to the entire Guard.
“I told them, ‘Welcome to the team,’” Lengyel recalls. “Your key is through this state partner right here. If they have an asset or capability, they will share and grow and help you with it. If they don’t have it themselves, they will go to another state and find it for you.”
Having served as the senior U.S. military official in Egypt before he became the CNGB, Lengyel was eager to see the nation with the largest Army on the African Continent join the SPP.
“I saw right away how having more formal ties, more regular connections with Egypt’s armed forces would have been beneficial to me as a defense attaché,” he recalls.
The Texas National Guard turned out to be the perfect partner: Both partners have armored units, AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and F-16 Fighting Falcon multirole fighter aircraft among their military capabilities. And they found other common ground, including that Texas is the top cotton-producing state in the United States, while Egypt is one of the top cotton producers in Africa.
It was the last new partnership formed during Lengyel’s time in the National Guard’s top job before he retired in 2020.
But, recently, Air Force Maj. Mike Lengyel, an F-16 instructor pilot with the Texas National Guard’s 149th Fighter Wing and the son of the former chief, found himself working with Egyptian counterparts, learning from each other, under the SPP.
And so the State Partnership Program grows and thrives, building and sustaining enduring partnerships, the baton passing from generation to generation.
– Army Sgt. Mahsima Alkamooneh, Minnesota National Guard, contributed.
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