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‘A Mosaic of Opportunities’ The Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program Looks to the Future

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Jim Greenhill and Sgt. 1st Class Zach Sheely,
  • National Guard Bureau

This is part three of the five part series "State Partnership Program turns 30."

WASHINGTON, D.C.  – The National Guard’s most senior officer sees potential for about 30 more countries to enter security cooperation agreements with the Guard over the next decade or so, though no one’s fixated on an exact number.

And the 30-year-old, 100-nation Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program will inevitably evolve in other ways, just as it has over its first three decades.

“When we look at all the nations out there, 130 partnerships probably gets us to about where we need to be,” says Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, 29th Chief of the National Guard Bureau.

“The reason we’ve been so successful over the past couple of years is the geographic combatant commanders have been vocal advocates for the importance of the SPP, for funding and for leveraging it,” Hokanson says. “It’s not just us talking about the value and the importance: It is now the combatant commanders, the Joint Staff, the State Department and our nation’s ambassadors all seeing the benefits firsthand and talking about the value.”

This fiscal year, the National Guard enterprise – more than 430,000 Soldiers and Airmen, residents of almost every American ZIP code – has already completed more than 200 engagements, exercises and exchanges with partner nation counterparts in every geographic combatant command.

The Guard averages about 1,000 annual SPP engagements, and that number is expected to increase, as the program continues to expand.

Guard leaders list enhancing existing partnerships, adding new ones, making the funding that pays for the program more predictable from year to year, and experimenting with noncommissioned officer representation in U.S. embassies overseas among plans to take the SPP – which has already wildly exceeded its founders’ best hopes – to the next level.

“There are no limitations on which countries can apply,” says Army Maj. Gen. William Zana, the Guard Bureau’s strategic plans and policy and international affairs director.

The SPP began in Europe to help emerging democracies after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. It expanded in Central and South America, where almost all nations have active partnerships.

“We see expansion in Africa,” Zana says. “We see a continued expansion in Europe, and now the Indo-Pacific.

“We have good discussions going on with a variety of both geographically large and large-population nations with highly capable armed forces, and I think you’ll see that as an aspect of the program going forward.”

Leaders across the board, including in partner nations, remain concerned about reliable, predictable funding – a subject made even more complicated by the fact that the U.S. fiscal year, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 each year, sometimes differs from the fiscal years used by partners.

“Any way that we can ensure that funding year-to-year, that not only our states but our allies and partners can rely on and know that the engagements they schedule are going to be executed is fundamental,” Hokanson says. “In many cases, countries plan years in advance, and we need to be able to know that – when we’ve agreed to those training events or exercises that the partners do together – we’ve got the resources available to actually make it happen.”

Designated funding projected over years would also relieve pressure on geographic combatant commands that allocate limited resources to support the SPP, Hokanson says.

“The SPP accounts for about 1% of the Defense Department’s security cooperation budget,” Zana notes. “That 1% results in somewhere between 20% and 30% of all geographic combatant command engagements – a number even more remarkable when you think in certain countries the predominance of engagements are driven by the SPP.”

Zana says the SPP has rebounded from COVID travel restrictions that caused a decrease in engagements.

“I sense there is some pent-up demand driving an increased number of requests to support additional training, engagements, and exercises” Zana adds. 

“As combatant commands, services, and allies and partners resume focus on exercises that were previously canceled, postponed, or de-scoped,” Zana says, “we see many emergent opportunities that would add readiness and capability for us and our partners.

“I’m eager to see full and normalized funding for the program to better enable our planning and coordination with the many stakeholders and organizations involved.”

One constant cog in the wheel of SPP success is the bilateral affairs officers, Guardsmen assigned from states to the U.S. embassy in their partner country. Another is the SPP director, who works in the state headquarters back home. Both positions are key facilitators to ensure communication, collaboration and coordination between all who have stakes in the partnership and to oversee day-to-day execution.

Army Lt. Col. Christopher Markesino, who manages the Oregon National Guard’s SPP relationships, was named the SPP Director of the Year last year.

“There are so many engagements that Oregon is taking part in, and there is so much that goes on behind the scenes … passports, travel visas, declaration forms … you name it,” Markesino says. “In-person relationships are what our countries want. They want us there, we want them here, and we really want that face-to-face to exchange ideas. 

“We tell our teams going overseas on these missions: not only are you representing yourself, but the entire Oregon Guard – and they’re going to look at you as the entire U.S. military. You’re getting a chance to share your experience and expertise that the Army sent you to school for with others. It’s an incredible opportunity for our NCOs and junior officers.”

Army Maj. Angel Pastrana has served as the Virginia National Guard’s bilateral affairs officer in Colombia.

“The most important thing I’ve gained from this experience are the relationships I’ve developed here,” Pastrana says. “It’s also humbling to watch our partners learn alongside us, not just our military stuff, but to learn from their cultures and their experiences within their particular services. Understanding and seeing how they do things in their countries, having that exchange of diverse perspectives throughout the tactical, operational and strategic operations proved meaningful.”

Army Maj. Joel Johnson has been the Washington National Guard’s bilateral affairs officer in the Kingdom of Thailand.

“I am looking forward to seeing our Washington National Guard Soldiers and Airmen here more and more,” Johnson says. “I want to see our members and their Thai counterparts here training together, learning and growing together and building relationships. When I bring a delegation to the states, I like to rope my local family and friends into the mix – we host dinners and spend time together, and that makes great opportunities to share stories and life experiences. This means a lot because both sides are going to look to those relationships in the future.”

Sustaining vital positions like the state directors and bilateral affairs officers depends on reliable funding.

“From the states and territories, and from the NGB, we remain concerned about having sufficient funding, both to execute engagements, and to staff sufficient personnel in the key positions of the BAOs and the directors,” Zana said.

The former chiefs of the Bureau since the SPP’s founding echo Hokanson’s sentiment that reliable funding is critical to continued and future success.

The SPP flourishes despite that challenge.

“I’m very proud of the efforts from both the states, the combatant commands, and our folks to achieve more than 96% execution of all planned engagements last year,” Zana says. “That’s absolutely heroic work. That said, I absolutely firmly believe we can execute even a much larger budget at 100% and beyond with a more deliberate and predictable funding process.”

Zana adds that the Guard Bureau works closely with the services, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and the combatant commands to ensure the Guard is properly stewarding resources and appropriately prioritizing events to best support the National Defense Strategy. 

The SPP’s about $42 million annual budget relies in part on additional allocations from Congress each year and is also subject to the uncertainty of Congressional continuing resolutions – temporary funding measures to fund activities when appropriations bills have not been passed by the start of the fiscal year. 

“It’s a modest program when you look at the return on investment,” Zana says. “What we would like to see going forward is full funding through the Army and Air Force budgets.”

The Army and the Air Force are the National Guard’s parent services.

Adding bilateral affairs noncommissioned officers to America’s embassies in partner countries would both enhance the SPP and help the Guard further develop its best and brightest, leaders say.

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine illustrates the impact of a professionalized NCO corps. The American military model empowers noncommissioned officers and values initiative in the absence of orders at the small unit level, by contrast with other countries – such as Russia – where leadership is focused on the upper echelons alone.

Observers say Ukraine’s ability to transform its former military structure to empower its noncommissioned officers – helped by its 30-year partnership with the California National Guard – has been critical in battling Russia’s brutal, unprovoked invasion.

Many SPP nations highly value NCO-to-NCO engagements and enlisted professional development as they seek to emulate America’s proven track record of incorporating NCO and enlisted troops into the scheme of operations.

“We’re actively pursuing having bilateral affairs NCOs (BANs), in a pilot program,” Zana says. “We’re working with the combatant commanders, some of our internal funding, and also the creativity and efforts of the states. What we’d like to see is the eventual placement of BANs forward with each of our BAOs.”

With models like the Iowa National Guard’s “whole of Iowa, whole of Kosovo” approach in mind, leaders also are discussing how to broaden the SPP beyond military-to-military engagements.

“How do you keep all the great successes for the next 30 years and build that relationship to military-to-civilian and even civilian-to-civilian?” asks retired Army Gen. Frank Grass, 27th Chief of the National Guard Bureau, adding that some states have already accomplished this. “You’ve got relationships with men and women here in the United States, in our states, who are both civilians and military at the same time, so they bring that civilian background. How can you use that starting point to help build a partner capacity on the civilian-to-civilian side?”

The SPP of the future will also evolve as military capabilities and focus areas shift. Hokanson cites the cyber realm and the space domain as just two examples.

“The Guard’s ability to deal with cyber issues is really good because we’ve got a large cyber defense industry, and a lot of Guardsmen have that experience from their civilian careers and bring it to their military profession,” Hokanson says. “Many partner countries are trying to develop this capability because they see the threat every single day.

“We’re also seeing an increased demand in the space domain. And, fortunately, with our Air Guard folks who do the space mission, they can work with these partners on the future of developing space capabilities.”

The New York National Guard’s work with Brazil on developing its space program is an example. “The New York Guard has great experience there, and they’re sharing it,” Hokanson says.

“The National Guard’s demonstrated space expertise, paired with the State Partnership Program, offers a readily-available capability to strengthen the integration of the space domain into larger deterrence efforts,” says Air Force Lt. Col. Nicole David, director of the strategic initiatives group for the National Guard Bureau, Space Operations. 

The National Guard’s unique advantage is its military-focused space expertise paired with the aerospace industry context gained from service members’ positions as civilian space professionals. “About 45% of our part-time space professionals are working in the civilian aerospace industry,” David says. 

No matter the partner nation's needs, or partner state capacity, the National Guard can deliver, says Air Force Lt. Gen. Marc Sasseville, 12th Vice Chief of the National Guard Bureau.

“As the world evolves, from a geopolitical perspective, a national security perspective, an economic perspective,” Sasseville says, “we’ve realized that we ought to be able to position ourselves so all of our capacity and capability is distributable to where it needs to be the most as we essentially manage the SPP from the Pentagon.

“There are global interests that our competitors have that aren’t always apparent from the tactical level. And it’s easier to see how the themes, and the competition, and the challenges weave together to create a mosaic of opportunities at the strategic level.”

– Army Brig. Gen. Jesse Morehouse, U.S. Space Command; John Hughel, Oregon National Guard; Mike Vrabel, Virginia National Guard; and Joseph Siemandel, Washington National Guard, contributed.