WASHINGTON (March 17, 2013) -- The National Guard State Partnership Program is an extraordinarily effective, enduring, low-cost tool to advance the national security objective of building partnership capacity, two veteran combatant commanders told Congress, March 15.

"You probably have the co-chairs of the State Partnership Program fan club seated here," Gen. Carter Ham, commander, U.S. Africa Command,known as AFRICOM, told the House Armed Services Committee, speaking for himself and Navy Adm. James Stavridis, commander, European Command, and supreme allied commander-Europe, who also testified.

Ham and Stavridis testified at a hearing on the posture of their commands related to the nation's defense budget for the 2014 fiscal year, which begins in October.

The more than 20-year-old program has paired the National Guard in U.S. states and territories with more than one-third of the foreign countries worldwide.

"What we tried to do was take those Eastern European nations that were formally part of the Warsaw Pact and bring them closer to the West and eventually integrate them into NATO, which we've successfully done," U.S. Rep. Bill Enyart of Illinois noted at the hearing. Enyart is the former adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard.

The program has since expanded to 65 nations around the world.

"It's a very powerful tool. It is unmatched," Stavridis testified. He has seen the State Partnership Program, or SPP, in assignments in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean. "They are, bang for the buck, one of the best things going. Anything that enhances state partnership is money in the bank for the regional combatant commanders."

AFRICOM has eight SPP pairings and Ham testified that the command is seeking to expand.

"The real benefit in the State Partnership Program is the enduring nature of the relationship, that sergeants and lieutenants and captains grow up together and have multiple engagements," he said.

In some cases, the relationships are two decades old. States with a mature relationship with an Eastern European country have considered adding second partners in other combatant commands, such as Africa. They have formed multilateral partnerships where the more mature relationship helps guide the newer one. Ham called the multilateral partnership between Michigan, Latvia and Liberia "a model for what might be possible in the future."

In other National Guard issues, Stavridis called short -- perhaps two-month -- rotations of National Guard Brigade Combat Teams in Europe "a terrific idea."

He also noted that the next peacekeeping rotation in Kosovo will be by an active-duty unit after a decade of National Guard missions there.