Spanning the Globe with Partnership– Spanning the Decades with Alliance

National Guard State Partnership Program Celebrates 25 years

In some ways, the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program – which pairs National Guard elements with partner nations worldwide – started with a tuba. 

Soldiers from the Maryland Army National Guard, 629th Expeditionary Military Intelligence Battalion work as observers and controllers as soldiers from the Estonian Defense Force’s 2nd Brigade conduct recon operations, May 6 2018, as part of Exercise Hedgehog held in Southern Estonia. This year, the Maryland National Guard and the Estonian Defense Force celebrate 25 years of partnership. Maryland Army National Guard photo by MAJ Kurt M. Rauschenberg
Soldiers from the Maryland Army National Guard, 629th Expeditionary Military Intelligence Battalion work as observers and controllers as soldiers from the Estonian Defense Force’s 2nd Brigade conduct recon operations, May 6 2018, as part of Exercise Hedgehog held in Southern Estonia. This year, the Maryland National Guard and the Estonian Defense Force celebrate 25 years of partnership. Maryland Army National Guard photo by MAJ Kurt M. Rauschenberg

“The Latvian military band needed a big tuba,” said retired Maj Gen John Conaway, the 22nd chief of the National Guard Bureau (NGB) and “father” of the State Partnership Program (SPP). “And we hauled a tuba over there.”

The trip with the tuba was part of the early planning stages for the program, which turns 25 this year. 

“We delivered that tuba to the Latvian band and they were amazed to get it,” said Conaway. “That started the program with the first, initial visit.”

SSG Ada Boyer, assigned to 1st Squadron, 150th Cavalry Regiment, West Virginia Army National Guard, and Moldovan soldiers assigned to the 22nd Reconnaissance Battalion, verify coordinates while conducting a land navigation course during the Agile Hunter 2016. The overseas deployment training exercise is part of a multi-year DoD State Partnership Program. Army National Guard photo by SSG Brendan Stephens
SSG Ada Boyer, assigned to 1st Squadron, 150th Cavalry Regiment, West Virginia Army National Guard, and Moldovan soldiers assigned to the 22nd Reconnaissance Battalion, verify coordinates while conducting a land navigation course during the Agile Hunter 2016. The overseas deployment training exercise is part of a multi-year DoD State Partnership Program. Army National Guard photo by SSG Brendan Stephens

That first visit led the way to a program that now has 74 partnerships with countries throughout the world. But it all started with three: Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. 

“We were received in grand fashion in all three places,” said Maj Gen Conaway, referring to that initial trip. Where it would go from there, he added, was then still unknown. 

“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said. “But, we had the visit. That was the start.”

That first visit was the result of a simple directive from GEN John Shalikashvili, then-commander, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers, Europe (NATO), who would subsequently be appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1993.

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“He called me up and said, ‘we’ve got to help these new emerging democracies [in the Baltics],’” said Maj Gen Conaway, adding that, after additional planning with Pentagon officials, he formed a small team and they started working with the State Department. That led to meeting with the presidents of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, as well as military officials in those countries. 

“It looked like they wanted our help, and we started talking about putting liaison officers from the National Guard on orders with them,” said Maj Gen Conaway. “Our role was to help make the transition [to democracy] as smooth as we could.”

The idea of liaison officers grew into tying specific Guard elements with specific countries. 

“The [team] and I huddled and thought, ‘we’ve got tons of Lithuanians and Lithuanian-Americans living in Pennsylvania,’” Maj Gen Conaway said. “It fit. We’ll tie Lithuania to the Pennsylvania National Guard.” 

The idea grew from there. 

“There were a lot of Latvian-Americans in Michigan, so we got with the adjutant general [of the Michigan National Guard] and tied them together with Latvia,” said Maj Gen Conaway. “There are Estonian-Americans in Baltimore, and so we tied [Estonia] together with the Maryland National Guard.”

Indiana Army National Guard COL Robert Burke strategizes a training assault with (left to right) MG Courtney P. Carr, Indiana National Guard adjutant general, Slovak Col. Roland Bartakovics and Slovak Gen. Milan Maxim, during a multinational training exercise held at Fort Polk, La., 2017. The Indiana National Guard and Slovak Armed Forces celebrate a 20-year State partnership. Indiana Army National Guard photo by MSG Jeff Lowry
Indiana Army National Guard COL Robert Burke strategizes a training assault with (left to right) MG Courtney P. Carr, Indiana National Guard adjutant general, Slovak Col. Roland Bartakovics and Slovak Gen. Milan Maxim, during a multinational training exercise held at Fort Polk, La., 2017. The Indiana National Guard and Slovak Armed Forces celebrate a 20-year State partnership. Indiana Army National Guard photo by MSG Jeff Lowry

Maj Gen Conaway added there was little precedent to follow while developing the program.

“We were doing this off the back of an envelope back then,” he said. “It was happening so fast.”

By the time Maj Gen Conaway retired in November 1993, the SPP had 13 partnerships, primarily with former Eastern Bloc countries in Europe. 

The following years saw new partnerships added from across the globe.

“It’s grown to 74 partnerships and that’s been an incremental growth of about two to three partnerships a year,” said Col Donald McGuire, chief of the International Affairs Branch at NGB. 

As the program has expanded, the process for adding new partnerships has become more refined. 

First, the country has to request to be a member of the program, said Col McGuire, adding that input from the State Department and the combatant command – the U.S. military command element overseeing specific geographic regions – goes along with that request. 

“They collectively decide that this is a good country we want to nominate for selection into the program,” said Col McGuire, adding that from there, staff work is done to determine the best course of action with pairing up elements for a partnership. 

LTC John Brady, Alaska Army National Guard flight surgeon and Sara Seeser, a Mongolian neurologist, examine local resident Batbayar Sukhbat as part of Exercise Khaan Quest 2011, a medical readiness training held in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The Alaska National Guard and the Mongolian Armed Forces celebrate 15 years of collaboration – having been State Partners since 2003. Alaska Army National Guard photo by SGT Michelle Brown
LTC John Brady, Alaska Army National Guard flight surgeon and Sara Seeser, a Mongolian neurologist, examine local resident Batbayar Sukhbat as part of Exercise Khaan Quest 2011, a medical readiness training held in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The Alaska National Guard and the Mongolian Armed Forces celebrate 15 years of collaboration – having been State Partners since 2003. Alaska Army National Guard photo by SGT Michelle Brown

“It’s very analytical what the staff here does,” said Col McGuire. “They put a lot of hard work and brain cells against making sure they’re doing a good analysis to give the chief [of the NGB] the best recommendation they can.”

The long-term success of the program has come about, in part, from that intrinsic relationship with both the State Department and the combatant command, said Col McGuire. The SPP is nested with the command’s theater security cooperation plan and the State Department’s country study plan. 

“It’s in tune with the combatant commanders; therefore, it’s in tune or synchronized with the National Defense Strategy,” Col McGuire said. 

Building relationships, said Col McGuire, is one of the hallmarks of the program. 

“This provides perhaps the most well-known and established international partnership capability the National Guard is involved with,” he said. “These are relationships that have grown over the course of time and continue to grow.”

Those relationships have not only seen partners in the program train together, but also work together in the wake of natural disasters and large-scale emergencies. 

It’s also seen co-deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and other areas. 

“You wouldn’t have these countries and units deploying together, necessarily, if they didn’t already have this relationship.”

Col McGuire added that’s a significant element. 

“That tells you a lot about the program,” he said. “These co-deployments are real-world operations – named contingencies that represent the next level of collaboration and coordination.”

Building collaboration and coordination is also key to building greater regional security, said Army BG Christopher F. Lawson, the NGB’s vice director of Strategy, Policy, Plans and International Affairs. 

“In order to promote greater peace and stability in the world long into the future, we will need a program like the SPP because it helps nations transition from security consumers to security providers,” he said. 

For Maj Gen Conaway, the continued growth of the program is more than he imagined 25 years ago. 

“It is beyond my wildest dreams and imagination that it would be this passionate and this popular, and the good the National Guard has done,” he said. “Here we are, 25 years after it started, and the National Guard is just as enthusiastic as ever.”

The pairing of the West Virginia National Guard with Qatar was announced in April and Col McGuire said additional partnerships are in the coordination phase. 

“We have a few more partnerships in the queue,” he said, adding he sees continued growth of the program over the next 25 years and beyond. 

“It really is the entry point to a lot of good things that happen,” Col McGuire said. 

74 Partnership Countries Around the World and Counting

USEUCOM – 22 Countrie

  • Albania / New Jersey (2001
  • Armenia / Kansas (2002
  • Azerbaijan / Oklahoma (2002
  • Bosnia / Maryland (2003
  • Bulgaria / Tennessee (1993
  • Croatia / Minnesota (1996
  • Czech Republic / Texas, Neb. (1993
  • Estonia / Maryland (1993
  • Georgia / Georgia (1994
  • Hungary / Ohio (1993)
  • Kosovo / Iowa (2011
  • Latvia / Michigan (1993
  • Lithuania / Pennsylvania (1993
  • Macedonia / Vermont (1993
  • Moldova / North Carolina (1996
  • Montenegro / Maine (2006
  • Poland / Illinois (1993
  • Romania / Alabama (1993
  • Serbia / Ohio (2005
  • Slovakia / Indiana (1993)
  • Slovenia / Colorado (1993
  • Ukraine / California (1993)

USCENTCOM – 6 Countries

  • Kazakhstan / Arizona (1993
  • Jordan / Colorado (2004
  • Kyrgyzstan / Montana (1996
  • Qatar / West Virginia (2018
  • Tajikistan / Virginia (2003
  • Uzbekistan / Mississippi (2012)

USAFRICOM – 13 Countries

  • Benin / North Dakota (2014
  • Botswana / North Carolina (2008
  • Djibouti / Kentucky (2015
  • Ghana / North Dakota (2004
  • Kenya / Massachusetts (2015
  • Liberia / Michigan (2009
  • Morocco / Utah (2003
  • Niger / Indiana (2017
  • Nigeria / California (2006
  • Senegal / Vermont (2008
  • South Africa / New York (2003
  • Togo / North Dakota (2014
  • Tunisia / Wyoming (2004)

USPACOM – 9 Countries

  • Bangladesh / Oregon (2008)
  • Cambodia / Idaho (2009)
  • Indonesia / Hawaii (2006)
  • Malaysia / Washington (2017)
  • Mongolia / Alaska (2003)
  • Philippines / Hawaii, Guam (2000)
  • Thailand / Washington (2002)
  • Tonga / Nevada (2014)
  • Vietnam / Oregon (2012)

USSOUTHCOM – 23 Countries

  • Argentina / Georgia (2016)
  • Belize / Louisiana (1996)
  • Bolivia / Mississippi (1999)
  • Chile / Texas (2008)
  • Colombia / South Carolina (2012)
  • Costa Rica / New Mexico (2006)
  • Dominican Rep. / Puerto Rico (2003)
  • Ecuador / Kentucky (1996)
  • El Salvador/ New Hampshire (2000)
  • Guatemala / Arkansas (2002)
  • Guyana / Florida (2003)
  • Haiti / Louisiana (2011)
  • Honduras / Puerto Rico (1998)
  • Jamaica / District of Columbia (1999)
  • Nicaragua / Wisconsin (2003)
  • Panama / Missouri (1996)
  • Paraguay / Massachusetts (2001)
  • Peru / West Virginia (1996)Regional Security System (RSS) / Florida, Virgin Is. (2006)
  • Suriname / South Dakota (2006)
  • Trinidad-Tobago / Delaware (2004)
  • Uruguay / Connecticut (2000)
  • Venezuela / Florida  (1998)

USNORTHCOM – 1 Country

  • Bahamas / Rhode Island (2005)

By Contributing Writer SFC Jon Soucy