NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Senior military, diplomatic and defense officials converged to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Department of Defense and National Guard State Partnership Program Conference at National Harbor, Maryland, July 17-18.
Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, said the program, which pairs National Guard elements with partner nations worldwide, enhances readiness and interoperability among its participants. This is critical – he emphasized to the more than 600 attendees at the event – to supporting the 2022 National Defense Strategy.
“The strategy is clear in this respect – mutually beneficial alliances and partnerships, like the State Partnership Program, are an enduring strength,” Hokanson said in his opening remarks at the event. “And they will be more critical in the years ahead.”
To date, the SPP has 88 partnerships comprised of 100 nations. As it charts a course for the future, challenges to the rules-based, international order are growing, said Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“That order is under threat,” said Milley, who was an honored speaker at the dinner reception portion of the conference. “It has suffered a frontal attack from Vladimir Putin and is under stress from a rising and assertive China.”
Partnerships like the SPP that are built on democracy and sovereignty will become even more critical with rapid developments in technology, he added.
“Advancing technologies, including robotics, artificial intelligence, quantum computing – all of that and more – is fundamentally changing the battlefield of the future,” Milley explained. “And not every nation will have the resources or abilities to develop the high-end militaries that are going to be required.”
But with the SPP, Milley said, all partners can benefit from a robust security cooperation program.
“Together, everyone in this room and the countries we represent, we can maximize the capabilities that each of us has within the scope of our nation's capabilities,” he said.
Warfare basics, however, should never take second billing.
“The ability to see and shoot, move, protect sustained communicate command and control even as the fight moves to high-end combat, the basics will remain,” he said. “These foundational skills are trained in this very program, the State Partnership Program.”
Convention attendees represented a diverse range of global military and diplomatic leaders, with over 50 percent of the world's nations represented within the program.
“And we're looking to grow by another 30 in the next 10 to 15 years. We're issuing recommendations this summer, working in concert with the State Department and the combatant commands,” said Hokanson, adding the program is a “strategic imperative in a hyper-connected, competitive world.”
But in the early 1990s, the strategy that formed the basis of the SPP merely sought to grow professional and personal bonds with those who had been isolated behind the Iron Curtain, said Dr. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, homeland security advisor to the White House and keynote speaker.
“As an example, my home state of California was paired with Ukraine, and we knew then that this work to strengthen our ties and their capabilities would be critical to ensuring that the end of the Soviet Union would be irreversible,” Sherwood-Randall said.
The Ukraine and California National Guard pairing was one of the first partnerships that would later go on to help repel the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine last year.
“The California Guard has played a critical role in responding to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Within 24 hours, a fusion cell was set up to support the Ukrainian armed forces,” she said. “Equipment and body armor, medical supplies and other material essential to the fight have been provided since then, and training has continued between the state and the Ukrainian armed forces.”
Their partnership, Sherwood-Randall told attendees, exemplifies the program’s relevance.
“Born in the aftermath of the Cold War, the State Partnership Program has been a beacon of hope from the start,” she said.
Yet creating the SPP, said Air Force Gen. Marc Sasseville, vice chief of the NGB, is only the first chapter of the story.
By 2001, the program would grow to 30 partner nations in a “new millennium that would introduce a fresh set of challenges: the rise of terrorism, historic natural disasters and regional conflicts,” he said.
Most of the coalition forces supporting Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom came from SPP partners, Sasseville said, pointing to the partnership between Poland’s armed forces and the Illinois National Guard –deploying with each other on several rotations.
“These co-deployments not only demonstrated the united international front, they helped our partners build combat capacity, experiences, and military confidence,” he said.
Rounding out the 2000s, the SPP sealed its importance, Sasseville told attendees.
“When the Department of Defense formally recognized the SPP as a program of record in 2009, it gave us the ability to enhance and grow our programs with stability and transparency,” he added. “The Defense Department recognized the program's enduring value and contributions to security and international stability.”
Ultimately, legislative efforts expanded the SPP’s capacity to continue a whole-of-society approach to security cooperation. This authorized National Guard elements to engage in activities with partner countries' militaries, security forces, and civilian emergency response organizations.
With formal recognition from the Defense Department in 2009, the SPP would be enshrined in federal law by 2016, paving the way for more dedicated funding and facilitating new partnerships.
But reinforcing the SPP, Sasseville added, requires a “continued commitment” from Guard elements and its partners.
“Our world is dynamic, as you know, and the security environment is volatile,” he said. “There are undoubtedly changes before us.”
Many of those changes were discussed in panels during the convention, ranging from cyber and information warfare to climate change and resiliency.
“This is a journey we will take together, and your voice is integral to the program's future,” said Sasseville. “Your ideas and your efforts will determine its success.”
Chief Master Sgt. Gilcerio Busmeon, command sergeant major of the Philippine Army Reserve Command, said the SPP shed new light on his role in developing a “highly competent reserve force.”
“I learned so many things from the State Partnership Program [conference], and I will be sharing [what I’ve learned] when I return to the Philippines,” Busmeon said. “We learn by sharing ideas among allied nations.” The Armed Forces of the Philippines are strategically paired with the Guam National Guard through the program.
In his closing remarks, Hokanson reflected on how the “greatest security cooperation program in the world” is needed now more than ever.
“This decade will be decisive in setting the terms of our competition with the People's Republic of China, managing the acute threat posed by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and then our efforts to deal with shared challenges, particularly climate change, pandemics, and economic turbulence,” he said.
The general said that failure to maintain the SPP’s long-term investments in mutual and global security could have devastating consequences.
“If all of us do not act with urgency and creativity, our window of opportunity to shape the future of international order and tackle shared challenges will close,” Hokanson said.
The National Guard’s top officer credited one intangible element as key to propelling the program forward since 1993: friendship.
“As I look around this room, I'm honored to be your partner and your friend,” Hokanson said. “And I hope that whether your partnership is 30 years or 30 days old, that you feel the same.