Michigan-Latvia partnership expands regional airfield operations
By 1st Lt. Andrew Layton, Michigan National Guard
/ Published November 25, 2019
LIELVĀRDE, Latvia -- Maj. Kaspars Skudrovs looks across the flight line’s expanse of gray concrete, the walls of the Air Traffic Control tower behind him serving as a break from the November chill.
“Next year will open new areas for us,” he says. “In the beginning, we started to develop each piece of this airfield individually, like air traffic control and firefighting capability. Now, we are looking to not only make it one huge project, but we are also extending the partnership to neighboring countries and maybe even further into Europe.”
Skudrovs, the commander of the communication support flight at Lielvārde Air Base, Latvia, is referring to his organization’s partnership with the Michigan Air National Guard, which has helped drive a transformation of the air base over the last decade.
In mid-November, Skudrovs and his team met with partners from the MI ANG’s airfield management, fire protection, emergency management, plans and force protection to outline objectives for their work together in the coming year.
Maj. Lucas Freudenburg, an MQ-9 “Reaper” pilot and the Wing Plans officer assigned to the MI ANG’s 110th Wing, advises on the Michigan-Latvia coordination for remotely piloted aircraft to participate in future multinational exercises from Lielvārde. A remotely-piloted MQ-1 “Predator” was first employed at the airfield in 2015.
“This is the first time I’ve been able to come to Latvia and there have been open arms all week long,” said Freudenburg. “I’ve always known that the State Partnership Program was a big thing, but I didn’t realize how much potential it has until I got here.”
Opened in 1969 as a hub for Soviet air operations, Lielvārde Air Base was transferred to the authority of the newly independent Latvian government in 1994. The facility began a major overhaul of infrastructure in the late 2000s, with the airfield’s state-of-the-art control tower and headquarters complex as a focal point. Today, these investments have morphed Lielvārde into a major hub of NATO air operations for the Baltic region.
To staff the refurbished base, the Latvian National Armed Forces drew upon its longstanding partnership with the MI ANG to secure training and professional development opportunities.
Michigan and Latvia have been joined since 1993 under the U.S. National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program, a program that links the National Guard units with allied partner countries for the purpose of supporting the security cooperation objectives of geographic combatant commands and the U.S. State Department.
Through ongoing international exchanges, proficiency has increased on both sides of the partnership, with MI ANG personnel experiencing increased interoperability with their NATO partners. The Latvian personnel's skills have also been proven. In 2017, an A-10 Thunderbolt II preformed an emergency landing at Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, Mich., and Latvian firefighters were among the first to respond, extinguishing a fire and ensuring the pilot’s safety.
Today, members of the MI ANG and Latvian Air Force seek to share the lessons of their partnership with neighboring countries by establishing a regional base for knowledge and skills enhancement. For three days, team members from Michigan and Latvia visited Ӓmari Air Base in Estonia to explore new areas of cooperation with their Baltic counterparts, building on Estonia’s participation in airbase operations and fire department activities alongside Latvia during Michigan’s exercise Northern Strike the past two years.
“Talking about regional cooperation between the Baltic States, the relationships we built up there [with our Estonian partners] are great,” said Freudenburg. “With Latvia being the most central location in the Baltic region, I can’t wait to see what this will look like in the future.”
In early 2020, a multinational HAZMAT handling course for firefighters is already in the planning stages for Lielvārde Air Base. Participants from Estonia, Hungary, and Ohio are expected to attend. Latvian Air Force personnel will also work alongside the MI ANG in January’s exercise Winter Strike 20 in Michigan.
“Last year we celebrated the 25th anniversary of our collaboration between Michigan and Latvia, so thank you to all Michiganders for such a long and wonderful cooperation,” says Skudrovs.