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In Central Europe, Guard Chief Sees Enduring Partnerships and Growth

  • Published
  • By Army Master Sgt. Jim Greenhill,
  • National Guard Bureau

VIENNA, Austria – In the heart of Europe, as a new security cooperation partnership takes its first steps, another prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary.

Here in Austria, Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson witnessed the Austrian Armed Forces and the Vermont National Guard cement the newest partnership in the 93-nation Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program at a signing ceremony last week.

And July 25, the chief of the National Guard Bureau wrapped up a visit to the Czech Republic, where he held talks with defense leaders of one of the founding SPP partners: The Czech Armed Forces, paired with the Nebraska and Texas National Guards since 1993.

“This two-nation trip highlighted the bedrock strength of the SPP: our enduring partnerships,” Hokanson said. “It also highlighted the vitality of the SPP: its growth as we add new partners – and the contribution the SPP is making to global security at the most challenging time since World War II.” 

In Vermont this spring, Guard and Austrian leaders signed letters of intent. Last week’s reciprocal ceremony in Vienna marked Vermont Guardsmen’s first official visit here. With the ink scarcely dry on the documents sealing their cooperation, Austrian troops and Vermont Guardsmen are readying to train together next month.

“This partnership will enhance the readiness of both our armed forces – and promote interoperability, our ability to work together,” Hokanson said.

In August, the new partners are scheduled to conduct a combined training event with North Macedonia. Joint mountain warfare training in Germany follows soon after.

“We become stronger together by working together, exchanging lessons learned, and building enduring relationships,” Hokanson said. “This partnership makes both our nations better able to address today’s complex and dangerous international security environment.”

Klaudia Tanner, Austria’s defense minister, hosted last week’s ceremony. Army Maj. Gen. Greg Knight, adjutant general, led the Vermont National Guard delegation.

“Over the coming years,” Knight said, “we hope to conduct many military exchanges to mutually improve in areas such as cyber defense, peacekeeping operations, military mountaineering, and humanitarian and disaster assistance response.”

Through its new partnership with Vermont, Austria accesses the capabilities of the entire 450,000-strong National Guard.

“Security cooperation is one of the most important things the National Guard does,” Hokanson said.

The California National Guard’s enduring pairing with Ukraine raised the profile of the State Partnership Program. But the SPP has been steadfastly strengthening security cooperation with America’s partners and allies for almost three decades.

“The National Guard has been doing security cooperation for a generation,” Hokanson said. “At a pivotal time for our common security, the SPP makes a vital contribution to maintaining and enhancing unity and cohesion in a dangerous world.”

The SPP strengthens the security of America – and NATO.

In Madrid last month, NATO leaders identified cooperative security as one of the alliance’s three core tasks. So SPP supports both America’s National Defense Strategy and NATO’s newly published Strategic Concept. 

A militarily neutral country – part of the European Union but not part of NATO – Austria has politically supported Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity since Russia’s brutal, unprovoked invasion. The country has endorsed European Union sanctions and provided humanitarian assistance to Ukrainian refugees.

Ukrainian flags and banners are ubiquitous in both Vienna and Prague. A massive Ukrainian flag adorns the side of St. Stephen’s, an iconic Austrian cathedral. Meanwhile, in the Czech Republic, tourists strolling across Prague’s central, historic Charles Bridge can’t miss the sign draped high atop a church: “Hands off Ukraine, Putin!”

SPP pairings aren’t randomly assigned; they’re intentional, rooted in shared ground: Austria and Vermont have a long history.

“When creating our Army Mountain Warfare School, the first place we reached out to for expertise and guidance was the Austrian Army,” Knight said. “We have benefited greatly from our ongoing relationship with Austrian military mountaineers since 1983.”

Like the National Guard, the Czech armed forces are modernizing — upgrading equipment, boosting readiness, and enhancing mobility — part of a wave of modernization across allied and partner armed forces. 

The Czech Republic is significantly increasing its defense budget. The Austrian government also announced its intent to increase defense spending to modernize its forces, but the initiative is still be debated. 

“As a result of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, we have allies and partners who are more ready, more interoperable and better armed,” Hokanson said.

On the first day of Hokanson’s visit, the Czech government approved the start of contract discussions for the possible purchase of F-35 Lightning multirole fighter jets. With F-35s already based in the Vermont Air National Guard and more states expected to upgrade fighter platforms, Guardsmen can be part of the training solution.

“As the National Guard has F-35s, our partners know they’ll have access to states who also have them,” Hokanson said. 

“The Euro-Atlantic area is not at peace,” NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept states. “The Russian Federation has violated the norms and principles that contributed to a stable and predictable European security order.”

The Czech Republic is a NATO member, and its armed forces are enhancing the alliance’s interoperability by contributing hundreds of troops to a new battle group being stood up in Slovakia.

With 93 partners on four continents and in all six U.S. geographic combatant commands, the National Guard contributes to global security. Its European partnerships are part of a global mosaic, and Hokanson said he expects more security cooperation agreements to follow, including in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command area of responsibility.

Hokanson last fall encouraged combatant commanders to integrate the SPP into their theater campaign plans. The National Guard maintains an annually reviewed list of 30 or so potential new partners to round out the program in future years.

“We don’t come with preconditions,” he said. “We have no hidden agenda. We’re here to advance whatever is best for both America and our allies and partners, based on shared values and common interests.”