For 20 years, the U.S. Army National Guard has been making friends abroad. It’s called the State Partnership Program. It pairs up National Guard units with foreign militaries for joint training and cultural exchanges.
It’s like a military version of a sister city program.
The SPP is a relatively cheap program, in theory, benefits everybody. Foreign troops get to work with American troops, while American troops get to train overseas.
And it’s not all about training. The SPP is useful in wartime, too. For instance, the Alaska National Guard and Mongolian army—SPP partners—deployed to Afghanistan together.
The Alaskan and Mongolian troops were both familiar with how the other operated. Some of them actually knew their counterparts personally before deploying.
On Oct. 22 and 23, the U.S. Army’s I Corps hosted a summit at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State to talk about increasing cooperation between active-duty military, the National Guard and the Army Reserve.
The conference took place in the looming shadow of automatic “sequestration” budget cuts. The SPP was a big topic of discussion.
Retired general Carter Ham, former head of Africa Command, singled out the partnership between the Ohio National Guard and, of all places, Serbia. NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign targeting Serbia had for years meant chilly relations between Belgrade and Washington.
But since Ohio Guardsmen and Serbian troops began training with each other in 2006, U.S.-Serbian relations have improved, Ham said—and not just from a military standpoint.
Ham explained that these partnerships start as military-to-military, but go on to be military-to-civilian as soldiers interact with local officials and civilians. Ham said that soldiers can even foster civilian-to-civilian engagement—like, for example, exchanges between colleges in the host nation and those in the Guardsmen’s home states.
Ham told the generals at the conference that their superiors in Washington might discourage them from, for example, spending the SPP’s meager budgets on seemingly non-military functions such as university exchanges. “That’s incredibly short-sighted” Ham said.
Ham said the generals should seize any opportunity to encourage peaceful engagement between former rivals.
Last year, the Oregon National Guard hosted a Vietnamese military delegation in Portland. Despite strengthening economic ties, the legacy of the Vietnam War and Hanoi’s spotty human rights record have long held back U.S.-Vietnamese relations.
But lately tensions with China have driven Vietnam closer to the United States—in part through the SPP.
The SPP is also a cheap way for the Army to boost its cultural awareness.
During the summit, Oregon National Guard major general Daniel Hokanson suggested that active-duty leaders who are about to deploy to countries where there are pre-existing state partnerships should first seek the National Guard’s advice and experience.
Maj. Gen. Timothy Kadavy from the National Guard Bureau—another panelist at the summit—said that in 2012, the budget for the entire SPP program was a mere $12 million. That’s miniscule compared to many other military programs. But he said that the money has gone a long way.
Kadavy said combatant commanders have praised the SPP’s results … and want to see the program expand.
For generations, active-duty soldiers have often regarded their National Guard counterparts with scorn. There’s a bad stereotype that part-time soldiers are lazy and inferior compared to full-timers.
Ham admitted that he once held that view. But he said that changed during an exercise he ran with the South Carolina National Guard in Germany. He said the South Carolina Guardsmen outperformed his own full-time troops. “They kicked our asses at everything we did.”
And the Guard seems to be kicking the active Army’s ass when it comes to making foreign friends, too.