TRONDHEIM, Norway – Celebrating a half-century of training together last week, Norway and the Minnesota National Guard strengthened ties by formally pairing in the Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program.
The addition of Norway to the 30-year-old, 100-nation security cooperation program adds a Nordic country with world-class military experience and capabilities.
“The State Partnership Program is one of the world’s best, most valuable security cooperation programs,” Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief, National Guard Bureau, said after the signing ceremony in Trondheim Feb. 15.
“The U.S.-Norwegian Reciprocal Troop Exchange, or NOREX, was already the world’s longest-running military exchange partnership,” Hokanson said. “Today signals an even deeper relationship, built on a mutual commitment to global security, economic cooperation, shared democratic values, and cultural exchange.”
Hokanson began his three-day visit to Norway in Oslo, the capital city, where he met with American Ambassador Marc Nathanson; Norway’s chief of defense, Gen. Eirik Kristoffersen; Maj. Gen. Elisabeth Michelsen, chief of Norway’s Home Guard; and other senior leaders before heading north to Trondheim.
In Trondheim, the National Guard’s senior general, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Home Guard leaders and troops, visited Norway’s 132nd Air Wing – which, like the Vermont National Guard, flies airframes that include the F-35 Lightning multirole fighter – and toured a cave where the U.S. Marine Corps pre-positions equipment in a program for which Norway pays half the cost. Per capita, Norway invests more money in defense than any other European NATO country.
Queen Sonja of Norway attended the SPP signing and a concert and banquet celebrating 50 years of NOREX, a measure of the significance one of Europe’s wealthiest countries attaches to its relationship with the United States, which senior leaders repeatedly referred to as “our most important ally.” Minnesota Guardsmen who just completed this year’s NOREX attended all three events.
For retired Norwegian Maj. Gen. Kristin Lund, attending the SPP signing and NOREX celebration was a highlight of a journey she set out on 44 years ago in Minnesota.
As a Home Guard corporal, the young Lund joined a NOREX event in Minnesota in 1979, one of the first Norwegian women to participate. The experience changed her life.
“For me, that changed my opinion, and I wanted to apply to the officer candidate school, because what I saw, and what I learned in Minnesota gave me so much motivation,” Lund said. “That gave me the kick to move on – and I ended up as a general.”
Lund became this Scandinavian country’s first female two-star officer and the first woman to lead Norway’s Home Guard.
Her journey perfectly illustrates what defense leaders say is an unmatched strength of both NOREX and the SPP: the National Guard offers unique longevity in relationships and trust built troop-to-troop over decades of interaction. Guardsmen and foreign counterparts who first meet as junior enlisted troops or officers remain friends, watch each other gain experience and rise through the ranks, and later end up in senior positions, exerting influence based on sustained, long-term trust.
Joining Hokanson throughout his visit were Senior Enlisted Advisor Tony Whitehead, senior enlisted advisor to the chief of the National Guard Bureau, and Army Maj. Gen. Shawn Manke, adjutant general, Minnesota National Guard.
A neutral country before World War II, Norway’s modern defense strategy is shaped by the experience of being invaded and occupied by the Nazis. With a vow of “Never Again!” that they honor to this day, Norwegians adopted a whole-of-government, total-defense concept that includes the civilian population. Military service is mandatory for men and women, though only motivated recruits are conscripted.
Slightly smaller than California, Norway has a maritime area six times larger than its land mass. Including its 1,700 named fjords – long, deep, narrow bodies of water extending far inland – Norway’s coastline is second in length only to Canada. Some 122 miles of its border is shared with Russia.
Norway’s Home Guard, established immediately after World War II, has similar missions to the National Guard, including being prepared for combat, responding to disasters, supporting civilian authorities and sustaining partnerships with civilian agencies. Home Guard leaders seek to inculcate a will to fight and military knowledge throughout the ranks and to tap troops’ local knowledge and diverse life experience to accomplish the mission.
Norway executes NATO air policing missions, frequently hosts or joins international exercises, and is home to NATO’s largest European training base.
Among Norway’s many defense partners, the relationship with the Minnesota National Guard is especially strong. More than 850,000 Minnesotans – more than one in every six residents – claim Norwegian roots.
“The Norwegian imprint is woven into the fabric of who Minnesota is,” Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota said. “It sends a very strong message to those who would threaten democracies.”
Manke, the Minnesota adjutant general, praised the just-concluded NOREX, which saw the state’s Guardsmen learn more about Arctic operations. Training included plunging through a hole cut in ice while dressed, scrambling out and recovering without the luxury of any warm buildings to retreat to – designed to boost troops’ confidence about thriving in an extreme climate.
“Given the challenges we might face from adversaries in a contested Arctic region, it is imperative we be able to not only survive but also operate and thrive in this environment,” Hokanson said.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Zach Sheely contributed from Oslo, Norway