DOD National Guard State Partnership Program
by Master Sgt. Jim Greenhill and Sgt. 1st Class Zach Sheely
National Guard Bureau
July 25, 2023
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
“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.
June 7, 2023 - U.S. Army
Master Sgt. Joe Carson, from the 3-116th Combined Arms
Battalion, 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team, Idaho National
Guard, observes Soldiers bore sighting tanks with Master
Sgt. Aghzaf Abdelkrim, Moroccan Armed Forces in Tan Tan,
Morocco. Eighteen nations and approximately 8,000 personnel
are participating in African Lion 2023, U.S. Africa Command's
largest annual combined, joint exercise
in Ghana, Morocco, Senegal and Tunisia that started May 13
and ends June 18,
2023. (Image created by USA
Patriotism! from U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff
Sgt. Ariel J. Solomon.)
“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."
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.
Sgt. Maj. Spencer Nielsen, senior enlisted advisor, Utah National
Guard, took part in African Lion 2021 with the state’s SPP partner,
“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
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.
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.
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
“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
“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
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,”
But the success of security cooperation
agreements in times of crisis is a good indicator of the SPP’s
“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
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
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
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
“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
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.
March 9, 2023 - Oregon Army
National Guardsmen of 3-116 Cavalry unit, Charlie Company
along with a Bangladesh Army counterparts carry a local role
player on a litter during cordon and search operations
training as part of Exercise Tiger Lightning 2023 at the
Bangladesh Institute of Peace Support Operation Training
(BIPSOT) center near Dhaka, Bangladesh. Tiger Lightning
2023, a bilateral exercise sponsored by the U.S.
Indo-Pacific Command and hosted by the Bangladesh Armed
Forces, works each year to strengthen Bangladesh
peacekeeping readiness, promote interoperability, and
reinforces partnership between the Bangladesh Armed Forces
and the Oregon National Guard. (Image created by USA
Patriotism! from U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt.
“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
“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
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
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.
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.
trust between you is you become like best friends,” Maj. Gen.
Edwards says. “In fact, in Jordan, we refer to each other as
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.
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.”
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,
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.
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
“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
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.
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.”
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.”
Contributors To Article
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.
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