Good Defenses Make Good Neighbors

July 2009
By Rita Boland


llinois Army National Guard soldiers conduct a room clearing demonstration while Polish Army soldiers watch.

Weekend warrior units partner with foreign militaries, organizations to exchange expertise.

Militaries around the world are partnering with the United States—with an emphasis on “states.” A National Guard Bureau program links states with countries to facilitate the exchange of ideas and practices as well as to form bonds of friendships between nations. The effort has helped countries join NATO, convinced them to participate in coalition activities and expanded into emergency management efforts. The Guard’s stable personnel structure makes it an ideal organization to undertake the task of building long-term relationships with international partners. The expertise gained by the bureau through the project is becoming more desired by the active duty and interagency communities, and now, with its first-ever line of dedicated future funding, the program can plan and expand in ways not possible before.

That National Guard Bureau’s (NGB’s) State Partnership Program (SPP) began in 1993 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The United States saw an opportunity to help the burgeoning former Soviet satellite nations with issues such as having a military subordinate to and supportive of civilian government. The program does not assist countries to go to war nor does it provide equipment. The military originally created what it called traveling contact teams that went into the various countries to advise and assist them. Guard and Reserve troops were used because they presented a smaller, less provocative footprint than active duty military. “It was very successful, very low-key engagement that led to the establishment of the State Partnership Program,” explains Lt. Col. Mark Bour, ANG, the NGB’s Europe/Africa branch chief in international affairs.

The first three partnerships linked Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia with Pennsylvania, Michigan and Maryland, respectively. Since then, 58 additional partnerships have been established with countries in five geographic combatant command’s (COCOM’s) areas of responsibility. U.S. European Command and U.S. Southern Command each has 21 participating countries in its region; U.S. Africa Command has seven; and U.S. Pacific Command and U.S Central Command have six apiece. The SPP is a joint program between the Army National Guard (ARNG) and Air National Guard (ANG), so when a state is selected to participate, its entire Guard force can be included in the effort. “Engagement focus comes through requests by the partner country,” Col. Bour says. 

The state supports its partnership with Guard resources as appropriate; however, sometimes the best-suited expert comes from a nonmilitary agency such as first responder units, universities, hospitals or local businesses. “Some of our partner countries don’t have air forces, or have a nascent capability that they don’t initially make an engagement priority,” Col. Bour states. “The SPP is set up to be both joint force and interagency in its engagement strategy.”

The goals and objectives of each partnership are different, and each state largely runs its own efforts, coming to the bureau for funding and advice. The program takes a whole-of-government approach to engagement, with states tailoring efforts for partner needs. Some nations may require military-to-military engagements while other work is more specialty related. In some cases, civilian-military engagement is the focus. Col. Bour says the program is making great strides in emergency management and disaster mitigation. “For us, [those are] considered more civilian than military,” he explains, but in partner countries, the militaries usually have the capabilities to handle the catastrophes. 

The colonel describes the state partnership as a pull program. The United States does not push efforts to find participants but rather conducts subtle advertising campaigns through its embassies. To enter the program as a nation partner involves a process of approval that begins with someone high in a country’s defense organization speaking to the U.S. ambassador to the country and asking to become involved. The ambassador sends a request to the combatant commander for the region, who decides whether a partnership with that country is in the best interest of the command’s plans for the theater. If the commander approves, the request is sent to the NGB, where personnel begin the vetting process. The bureau sends letters to the states interested in creating a partnership, reviews proposals from those states and makes a recommendation that then travels the reverse route back to the country.

When a state wants to participate, the adjutant general makes the request and then runs the program out of the state headquarters. Someone manages the program full-time for the adjutant general and looks for expertise in the ANG, the ARNG and other resources when necessary.

Pairings generally take six to 12 months, but in difficult cases, they have taken years to complete. “We have the vetting process in place as the best way to ensure that relationships will endure,” Col. Bour says. Despite the many checkpoints along the way to acceptance in the program, no country that wants to participate would receive a definite refusal to its request to join. “We would not tell a country no if they wanted to participate,” the colonel says. “I don’t think anyone up my chain and into active duty would say no. We don’t want to limit them or close the door, but there have been countries where we’ve said ‘not yet.’”

COCOM commanders have veto power over the creation of partnerships. If a country asks to become a partner and the union is not in the interests of the theater campaign plan, the nation would receive the “not yet” response and a reason why. Countries can request assistance to help them meet the requirements to participate.

Using National Guard troops in the program aids the formation of long-term relationships. Unlike active duty service members who transfer to multiple units and locations throughout their careers, National Guardsmen can remain with the same unit in the same place. This fosters deep connections and creates continuity among the personnel in the program. Guard troops also work well in the SPP because many of the interactions involve civilian opportunities, and they have skills and professions they use regularly out of uniform. Troops can bring those experiences to the program and interact with members of the partner country on different levels. For example, a member of the security forces when on drill might be a police officer in civilian life. That person could meet with a civilian police counterpart and exchange information. “It’s really anything that partner country asks for,” Col. Bour says.


Maj. Gen. Glenn K. Rieth (l), ARNG, the adjutant general of New Jersey, and Gazmend Oketa (r), minister of defense for the Republic of Albania, cut a special anniversary cake commemorating the 15-year partnership between the state and country. Oketa’s visit coincided with the anniversary of his nation’s participation in the State Partnership Program with the New Jersey National Guard. In April, Albania, assisted by the Guard, achieved its goal of membership in NATO.

Participation in the SPP offers multiple benefits to states and Guard forces. It serves as a recruiting and retention tool for the Guard because it allows states to offer more opportunities to troops with specific skills. The program also offers the chance to engage in worldwide locations in situations outside the normal weekend a month and two weeks a year, or in a war zone. In addition, the program offers advantages to the U.S. government overall. “It improves military interoperability, allows us to demonstrate our subordination to civilian authorities, allows us to assist in development of democratic institutions and open-market economies, promotes political stability and allows us to project U.S. humanitarian values,” Col. Bour explains. The program can increase coalition potential as well as open the door to a relationship with a country of interest.

The National Guard also benefits from partner countries’ expertise in some fields. “We don’t always have to be the teacher,” Col. Bour explains, citing that as an important lesson learned. For example, many European nations are leaders in areas such as earthquake preparedness and response, counterdrug activities and border security.

Advantages to partner countries include access to U.S. military capabilities, the opportunity to create enduring personal and professional relationships and the chance to see how the U.S. military, political and economic realms tie together. The program showcases how organizations in the United States work in an interagency environment, offers expertise on first responder disaster preparedness capabilities, and demonstrates the Guard’s homeland security and defense roles. For several former Iron Curtain countries, the program has assisted with acceptance into NATO.

When the program first began, the plan called for the National Guard eventually to pull out of the partnership as more civilian engagement occurred. However, personnel with the program found endings never materialized. “How do you say good-bye to a friend?” Col. Bour asks. Now, partnerships basically are indefinite. Even partnerships loosely based around a nation’s entry into NATO continue after that goal is achieved.

Partnerships evolve over time. As relationships mature, participants find niches not filled by COCOM activities. The SPP offers extra assistance with those types of requests. Also, as nations better understand what a state has to offer, partnerships might move in a different direction than originally anticipated.

Because each relationship in the SPP is unique, the requirements vary. When a particular state needs a person or resource it lacks, it can request those from partner states. The NGB maintains oversight of all the partnerships so it often can provide guidance about which states possess which capabilities. Col. Bour says the bureau is also hearing from the active duty Army and Air Force as well as interagency organizations that are looking at the SPP to find expertise to accomplish their goals.

Success in the program has as many definitions as are there are partnerships, though the colonel says the most successful programs involve Guard units and governments that take interest in the relationships. Despite the variances, Col. Bour can share examples of specific event highlights. One involves Washington State and Thailand, who have been partners since 2002. According to the colonel, their port security efforts have been particularly successful. A second highlight is the strong relationship South Dakota and Suriname have developed in civilian security and military-to-civilian relationships. “The South Dakota-Suriname relationship represents a program benchmark for how SPP civil engagement activities can enhance the bilateral relationship and augment military support,” Col. Bour explains.

A striking example of success is that of Poland agreeing to become a coalition partner in the Global War on Terrorism. Poland agreed to join the coalition on the condition that the Illinois National Guard—its state partner—worked side-by-side with Polish troops. A similar situation occurred with Mongolia; that country agreed to join the coalition if it worked with its partners from the Alaska National Guard.

As part of their relationship, Alaskan troops also helped Mongolia through a government structure transition. Guard members worked with the Mongolian Ministry of Defense as the country’s emergency management efforts broke off from the ministry. The Guard also brought in fire, police and other emergency responders to work with the new national emergency management agency.

Overcoming technology and language barriers is not generally a problem for the SPP. Col. Bour explains that engagement activity focuses more on experiences, techniques and best practices rather than on a specific technology. The hardest areas in terms of technology are emergency response and search and rescue because Guard units have the best technology available and that is not a capacity they can share.

In terms of language, the Guard cooperates with the embassies to obtain translators, or contracts services with SPP funds. “From those embassies we get great support for our states,” the colonel shares. He adds that the Guard also has many members with second or third languages. That knowledge can play a role in pairing certain states with particular countries.

The pathway to the future for the program includes room for expansion and a new budget. In the past, the program was funded through earmarks. Now, the SPP is identified as a line item activity in the 2009 president’s budget for the Army/Air National Guard. It also has become a program of record for future funding through 2015 with increases scheduled each year. According to Col. Bour, instead of just hoping for the best next year, “We can actually use projects as a model to build long-term projects with other countries.”

He states that the program has not reached its maximum potential; more than a dozen states are requesting second and even third partnerships. He also says the interagency community is looking to increase its partnership building. “I think we have lots of room for growth,” the colonel says.

National Guard Bureau:
Washington State/Thailand Partnership:
South Dakota/Suriname Partnership:


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