VIENNA, Austria – The Republic of Austria and Vermont share historical and cultural roots based on common values, economic collaboration, winter sports, mountaineering, and, more recently, security cooperation.
The National Guard’s top general met with Austrian Armed Forces leaders last week and saw how the security cooperation agreement Austria and the Vermont Guard signed in 2022 under the Defense Department National Guard State Partnership Program is already expanding.
“This partnership is off to a great start and will be a model for current and future partnerships to emulate,” Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief, National Guard Bureau, told Gen. Rudolf Striedinger, Austria’s chief of defense, during a roundtable discussion with joint Austrian Armed Forces and Vermont Guard leaders.
“The future of this partnership is bright,” he said.
In the 20 or so months since pen to paper cemented this partnership, Vermont Guardsmen have held exchanges with their Austrian counterparts focused on cyber defense, peacekeeping operations, humanitarian aid, disaster response and — of course — mountain warfare.
When Jericho, Vermont, was selected to be the home of the U.S. Army Mountain Warfare School in 1983, its leaders reached out to the Austrian army for expertise and guidance.
Fast forward to April 2023: Vermont sent 16 Guardsmen to compete in two teams in the biennial Edelweiss Raid — a grueling military mountaineering competition in the Austrian Alps. One Vermont Guard team placed in the top 10 in this competition where merely finishing is considered an achievement.
Vermont and Austrian units regularly train together in mountain tactics in both countries, trading best practices and building lasting relationships.
A few months later in June, to mark the first anniversary of the SPP signing, the Vermont Air National Guard landed U.S.-based F-35 Lightning stealth multirole fighters in Austria for the first time to fly training sorties with Austrian Eurofighter Typhoons. Air Force 1st Lt. Kelsey Flannery drew wide Austrian interest and awe as the first female F-35 pilot in the Air National Guard and a symbol of U.S. military diversity.
At that event, Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Austria, lauded the SPP as a huge success based on common security interests.
Last week, she told Hokanson the partnership is beyond transactional.
“Through the State Partnership Program, we are building stronger and deeper relationships between Austria and the United States, at both government-to-government and people-to-people levels,” Kennedy said. “Common values and shared goals are the foundation of this strong relationship and will continue to lead to even more connections in the future.”
The State Partnership Program was established in 1993 as a way for the Defense Department to help former Soviet states emerge from behind the Iron Curtain. What started with 13 countries now features 100 partner nations paired with the National Guard of every state, territory and the District of Columbia.
The program links a state’s National Guard with a partner nation’s military, security forces and disaster response organizations in a cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship to support combatant commands, U.S. embassies and partner nation objectives.
Hokanson called the SPP one of America’s most cost-effective security cooperation tools.
Vermont is one of a few states with three SPP partner nations and looks to build on its more established partnerships with North Macedonia and Senegal in Austria.
Army Maj. Gen. Gregory Knight, Vermont’s adjutant general, sees the SPP as the entry point for deeper societal collaboration beyond military-to-military engagements.
“This partnership is an opportunity for trust building at the user level, and the prospects to grow outside mil-to-mil are vast,” he said.
Just one example: As part of the Vermont delegation visit last week, Knight and Army Brig. Gen. Tracy Poirier, director of the Vermont Guard’s joint staff, signed a memorandum to endorse the creation of a student exchange program between Vermont’s Norwich University and Austria’s Theresan Military Academy.
Vermont and Austria are also closely tied through music. Austrian naval Capt. Georg von Trapp and his family’s exploits were famously — though somewhat inaccurately — portrayed in the 1965 film, “The Sound of Music.” One thing is certain, the Trapp family ultimately settled in Stowe, Vermont.
During the annual Austrian Officer’s Ball, held at Vienna’s historic Hofburg Palace, the Vermont National Guard and the United States were the guests of honor, demonstrating the value Austria places on the partnership.
The Vermont Guard’s 40th Army Band joined the U.S. Army Europe and Africa Band and Chorus, the Austrian Armed Forces Guards Band Vienna and other Austrian bands to play to the more than 3,400 people gathered for the 75th anniversary of the gala under the theme: “The Sounds of Music.”
The CNGB also toured the Langenlebarn Air Base UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter facility, where Vermont Guard maintainers will soon work with Austrian counterparts in a maintenance apprenticeship program. Like the Vermont Guard, Austria uses its rotary-wing aircraft for medical evacuation and to aid civil authorities during disaster and emergency response.
Austria enacted a permanent, constitutional neutrality in 1955 that prohibits entry into military alliances and permanent foreign military presence within Austria.
When Austria entered the SPP with Vermont, it became the first neutral European country to formally join the program. This sent a signal to other neutral nations that working with the Guard is a good fit.
Early in 2023, Norway entered the SPP, formalizing a decades-long relationship with the Minnesota Guard. Hokanson visited Switzerland last fall to explore the prospect of security cooperation exchanges with the National Guard.
“Europe has always been a close ally for us,” Hokanson said. “We work very closely with NATO partners and non-NATO partners and allies and friends because we all see the importance of maintaining the rules-based international order.”
Air Force Capt. Jon LaDue and Army Master Sgt. Jim Greenhill, National Guard Bureau; and Army Capt. Mikel Arcovitch, Air Force Master Sgt. Ryan Campbell and Army Sgt. Denis Nunez, Vermont National Guard, contributed to this story.