ROME – Africa is fertile ground for external influence, and senior U.S. military leaders underscored the value of partnerships to building security capacity on the continent during the 2023 African Chiefs of Defense Conference last week.
The National Guard Bureau’s chief, adjutants general and representatives from 15 states and the District of Columbia Guard’s commanding general joined U.S. Africa Command and Joint Force colleagues for three days of talks with African senior defense officials about the challenges facing their countries and ways to combat them.
Collaboration between the U.S. military and government agencies and African nations was a conference theme. The Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program was the focus of one briefing. This defense cooperation program is conducted by the Guard Bureau, employed by the geographic combatant commands and executed by each state.
“I cannot overstate the importance of the State Partnership Program,” said Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, the CNGB. “This is one of the most valuable programs we have when it comes to establishing long-term relationships, supporting the stability of our countries and helping to ensure their sovereignty.”
The National Guard has been building international relationships through the SPP for 30 years, and it now includes partnerships with 100 nations around the globe. Seventeen such pairings exist between African nations and state National Guard elements, with 16 in the USAFRICOM area of responsibility. Egypt is partnered with the Texas National Guard in the U.S. Central Command’s AOR.
The SPP began in Europe in 1993, coupling states with countries emerging from the former Soviet Bloc. The New York Guard and South Africa formed the first African pairing in 2003. New Hampshire’s National Guard and the island nation of Cabo Verde officially joined together in the SPP last year, establishing the most recent partnership in Africa.
Through the SPP, Guardsmen train with their counterparts to increase security capacity and form enduring relationships. U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Michael Langley, AFRICOM’s commander, said the SPP is the foundation of U.S. military commitment on the African continent.
“The Soldiers and Airmen of the National Guard are an invaluable resource for our country and very active on the continent of Africa,” Langley said. “You are the roots to our tree of growth on the continent. You ensure strategic access. You take the first steps to partnership and understanding and continue to build on those.
“When it comes to the State Partnership Program, I simply say more of this, please,” he said.
Hokanson said alliances and partnerships are a national security priority and a key component of the DOD National Defense Strategy. The NDS defines these as the United States’ “greatest global strategic advantage.”
The NDS outlines disrupting violent extremist threats as a key priority on the African continent, adding that non-state actors pose an increasing threat to U.S. regional interests, including allies and partners, particularly in the Middle East and Africa.
In 2022 alone, Guardsmen conducted more than 160 direct engagements and exercises with African counterparts. Hokanson said these engagements are tailored to the needs and requests of the countries and coordinated to meet AFRICOM objectives.
AFRICOM’s mission is to work with partners to counter transnational threats and malign actors, strengthen security forces, and respond to crises to advance U.S. national interests and promote regional security, stability and prosperity.
The CNGB said his vision is to grow the SPP by another 30 partners over the next decade, and he sees Africa as a strategic location to add more.
“Factors for considering future partnerships include timing, the specific needs of the country and the specific needs in the region,” Hokanson said. “The African continent is dynamic, and we must remain the partner of choice for African nations.”
Langley said at any given time, 30% to 60% of all U.S. Joint Force service members on the African continent are Guardsmen.
In addition to the SPP, the Guard has a large presence in East Africa supporting Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. This includes the East African Response Force, the largest tactical unit on the continent and roughly two-thirds of the CJTF-HOA force.
Still, the State Partnership Program is the flagship platform when people think of National Guard operations overseas, said the Guard Bureau’s director of Strategic Plans and Policy and International Affairs.
“Only about 1% of the nation’s security cooperation budget across the departments of defense and state goes to the State Partnership Program,” said Army Maj. Gen. William Zana, a former CJTF-HOA commander. “When we look at the number of engagements that are done, state partnership engagements or engagements that are enabled by the SPP across our combatant commands, that’s 20% to 30%.”
Zana said there are elements of the SPP that transcend all geographic areas and partnerships. Foremost is to build trust through military-to-military engagements. Civilian-to-civilian engagements and whole-of-government relationships often follow.
“Through the SPP, we have thousands of individuals in your countries and our states that are now connected,” Zana said. “We have families that are connected, and schools and municipalities that are connected. That is what strengthens the partnerships and allows us to grow on a year-to-year basis.”
The advantages of these partnerships are hailed as reciprocal by Guard and foreign leaders. Army Maj. Gen. Gregory Knight, the Vermont Guard’s adjutant general, and his counterpart, Brig. Gen. Fulgence Ndour, the Senegalese army chief of staff, reaffirmed their commitment to a partnership that began in 2008.
Vermont is one of a handful of states partnered with three nations, including North Macedonia, Senegal, and most recently, Austria.
“From my perspective, the SPP is one of the most significant initiatives that I’ve ever been a part of,” Knight said. “At its foundation, it’s about trust. The relationships we’ve built are enduring and mutually beneficial.”
Ndour said the most valuable piece of the partnership that he sees is the civil aspect.
“That dual combination between having the civil engagements as well as the military aspect really is what makes this such an important partnership,” he said, speaking through a French translator.
The Vermont Guard recently sent a 40-person team to Senegal to work with Senegalese hospital professionals to treat patients in various medical specialties at regional hospitals.
“Mil-to-mil is the foundational element here,” Knight said. “We have that in common. But we leverage our partnership to grow that network into civilian-to-military and civilian-to-civilian relationships.”
Knight said those engagements include legislative, commerce, trade, community and economic development, food and fuel security and student exchanges.
Based in Stuttgart, Germany, USAFRICOM is one of seven joint service geographic combatant commands. The command is responsible for all U.S. military operations and activities to protect and advance U.S. national interests in Africa.