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State Partnership Program Turns 30: How DOD's National Guard State Partnership Program Works

Four people sit at a table and sign documents.
Signing Documents
Officials with the state of Vermont, the National Guard and the North Macedonian government, sign documents reaffirming North Macedonia’s and the Vermont National Guard’s continued partnership in Montpelier, Vt. June 9, 2023. From left are: Army Maj. Gen. Greg Knight, adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard; Vermont Gov. Phil Scott; North Macedonian Defense Minister Slavjanka Petrovska; and North Macedonian Chief of Defense Lt. Gen. Vasko Gjurchinovski. The Vermont National Guard and North Macedonia are celebrating a 30-year partnership. Theirs was one of the original partnerships created when the State Partnership Program was established.
Photo By: Army 1st. Lt. Nathan Rivard, Vermont National Guard
VIRIN: 230609-Z-NB545-0705M

Talk with senior leaders — some of the National Guard's most passionate advocates — and they'll tell you something about the Defense Department's National Guard State Partnership Program that will likely surprise you. 
It's not a National Guard program. 
"This is a Department of Defense program," said Army Maj. Gen. William Zana, the National Guard Bureau's strategic plans and policy and international affairs director. "It's best when you're looking at the SPP to understand the different roles of the stakeholders."

A globe is centered over a muted mosaic of images.
A globe is centered over a muted mosaic of images.
Interactive Experience: Building Partnerships Around the Globe
A globe is centered over a muted mosaic of images.
Interactive Experience: Building Partnerships Around the Globe
The National Guard isn't just your response team at home. Citizen soldiers and airmen answer the call around the globe, partnering with nearly half the world's nations to advance peace and security through the Defense Department's State Partnership Program.
Photo By: DOD graphic
VIRIN: 220624-D-RB598-001
The DOD program is closely coordinated with the geographic combatant commands; the State Department; the U.S. embassies and their chiefs of mission; each partner nation; and the National Guard in the partner state, territory or District of Columbia.
"The National Guard Bureau administers, resources, and serves as the integrator of the program," Zana said. "So, there are a lot of stakeholders, and — from my perspective — that's a feature, not a bug because everyone has a shared interest in the success of the program in establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships."
"It truly is a team sport." 
A potential partner nation first has to be aware of and learn about the SPP, then submit a formal request to that nation's U.S. ambassador, who coordinates with the relevant U.S. geographic combatant command whose area of responsibility the nation falls into. 
Assuming all that goes well, the request is sent to the secretary of defense and then to the National Guard Bureau. 
"Throughout the process, the Department of State and Department of Defense work closely to understand the request and what things that country is asking for," Zana said. "What things are most important to them? Those things they want to focus their training and readiness on which might be related to specific equipment, types of forces, types of missions." 
The team of agencies, including the NGB, then scrutinizes broader considerations: Is there a strong diaspora anywhere in the U.S.? Are there economic, political or academic connections? 
"We get this information out to the states, identifying what this nation is looking for in a security cooperation agreement and asking how we find the best partner," Zana said.
Interested states, territories or the District of Columbia, in turn, submit requests to be the designated partner. 
"It strictly is a by-choice and voluntary process at each stage," Zana said. 
A board process at the national level — involving all stakeholders — then assesses the candidates and ranks the most suitable applicants. 
The foreign policy advisor to the chief of the NGB is an integral player in this process, helping him or her master the complexities of foreign engagements and ensuring the chief has a deep understanding of State Department of State. This critical staff position creates a bridge between the chief and other stakeholders in navigating the geopolitical terrain.

People look at a plane in a hangar.
Taking a Tour
Air Force Lt. Col. Robert Peel, a fighter pilot with the 134th Fighter Squadron, 158th Fighter Wing of the Vermont Air National Guard, briefs the North Macedonia defense minister’s delegation during a tour of the Vermont Air National Guard Base, South Burlington, Vt. June 8, 2023.
Photo By: Army 1st. Lt. Nathan Rivard, Vermont National Guard
VIRIN: 230608-Z-NB545-0073

"Ultimately, the chief of the National Guard Bureau makes a recommendation back to the secretary of defense," Zana said. "The secretary of defense, in coordination with the Department of State, approves." 
After an official announcement to the partner nation, signing ceremonies typically take place on both sides, both in that nation and in the home state of the National Guard partner. 
Sometimes, partnerships form rapidly. 
Thirteen partnerships were up and running in former Soviet bloc countries within a year of the SPP's birth. 
And, where appropriate, subsequent pairings have sometimes happened quickly since. 
Tasked by U.S. Southern Command, Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, 25th Chief of the National Guard Bureau, had partnerships established with the seven Caribbean islands that are members of the Regional Security System in a matter of months, repeating a feat his staff had pulled off when U.S. Central Command requested a National Guard partner for Jordan. 
"The agility of the program is amazing," said Blum, who is now retired.
On the other hand, sometimes official SPP pairings can take years to come to fruition. 
Norway's recent SPP entry with the Minnesota Guard was almost a half-century in the making, as the Nordic nation and its upper-Midwest counterpart held 50 years of training exchanges, dubbed NOREX, short for U.S.-Norway Reciprocal Troop Exchange. 
Army 2nd Lt. Matthew Michels led one of the Minnesota National Guard teams supporting Norwegian service members at this year's NOREX. 
"We are here to support the Norwegians as they train," Michels said. "But we're also here to learn from them and with them. As allies, our nations build each other up." 
Norway and Minnesota's close ties were cemented with the stroke of a pen earlier this year, as leaders on both sides signed an accord for them to officially enter the State Partnership Program — adding a world-class foreign military to the Guard's growing constellation of partners. 
"It was my honor to meet with members of the Minnesota National Guard and Norwegian Home Guard and hear firsthand how critical this military exchange is to building trust, partnership and mutual understanding with our Norwegian partners," said Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, who attended the signing event. "I am proud to make this historic partnership official and look forward to working together to advance our shared values and security interests." 
Once the ink dries on partnership accords, exchanges begin and relationships mature, though a partner nation's needs can fluctuate.

Two men and two women sit at a table.
State Partnership Program
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, left, talks to Army Maj. Gen. Greg Knight adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard, and North Macedonia Defense Minister Slavjanka Petrovska, with back to camera, before signing a state partnership agreement reaffirming the partnership between North Macedonia and the Vermont National Guard, Montpelier, Vt., June 9, 2023.
Photo By: Army 1st. Lt. Nathan Rivard, Vermont National Guard
VIRIN: 230609-Z-NB545-7009

Army Maj. Gen. Matthew Beevers, California's adjutant general, explained the importance of the California Guard's collective determination to maintain relationships with Ukraine, even during the inevitable ebb and flow 30 years of political turnover can bring. 
"We never gave up on it," Beevers said, "never gave up. We never quit on them. And I think that, in and of itself, is the relationships, all the preparatory work, because you never know when these conflicts are going to kick off. And if we can get people to maintain the relationships with their state partners, over time, it will pay dividends as it is paying today."

"Ukrainians are fighting and winning. And in large measure, they were not defeated in the first 72 hours based on the work that members of the California Army and Air National Guard did in the years preceding the conflict. It was that work that we did ahead of time that saved them from the decapitation strike that the Russians were attempting." 
"Sometimes it takes a while for countries to see the value in the SPP and understand how it really works," said retired Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, the 28th chief of the National Guard Bureau. "We're giving you a key to the kingdom here by setting you up with a state, and, then, you can go anywhere inside the Department of Defense and the other United States. This is just your entry door." 
Like other chiefs of the NGB, Lengyel stressed to partner nations that access to a National Guard state is access to the entire Guard. 
"I told them, 'Welcome to the team,'" Lengyel recalled. "Your key is through this state partner right here. If they have an asset or capability, they will share and grow and help you with it. If they don't have it themselves, they will go to another state and find it for you." 
Having served as the senior U.S. military official in Egypt before he became the chief of the NGB, Lengyel was eager to see the nation with the largest Army on the African continent join the SPP. 
"I saw right away how having more formal ties, more regular connections with Egypt's armed forces would have been beneficial to me as a defense attache," he recalled. 
The Texas National Guard turned out to be the perfect partner. Both partners had armored units, AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, and F-16 Fighting Falcon multirole fighter aircraft among their military capabilities. And they found other common ground, including that Texas is the top cotton-producing state in the United States, while Egypt is one of the top cotton producers in Africa. 
It was the last new partnership formed during Lengyel's time in the National Guard's top job before his retirement in 2020. 
Recently, Air Force Maj. Mike Lengyel, an F-16 instructor pilot with the Texas National Guard's 149th Fighter Wing and the son of the former chief, found himself working with Egyptian counterparts, learning from each other, under the SPP. 
And, so, the State Partnership Program grows and thrives, building and sustaining enduring partnerships, the baton passing from generation to generation. 
Army Sgt. Mahsima Alkamooneh, with the Minnesota National Guard, contributed to this article.

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