The California National Guard’s state partnership with Ukraine began in 1993, just two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although Ukraine is not a NATO member, the partnership has always been critical because of the country’s influence in Eastern Europe and its strategic location along Russia’s border and the Black Sea.
Though strong now, there was initial concern, “maybe even skepticism, up front about what to expect from one another,” said Lt. Col. Jon Siepmann, one of the California Guard’s State Partnership Program directors. Those serving in the military in the late 1980s vividly remembered training for a potential conflict against the Soviet Union “and then next thing you know you’re in former Soviet territory working with a new partner,” said Siepmann.
For more than two decades now California Guardsmen have worked with Ukrainians to build up trust, enhance cooperation, and further develop the country’s military and civil capabilities.
Thanks to this long-term partnership, Ukrainians “immediately knew they could come to us,” when Russia started bolstering its military forces along Ukraine’s border earlier this year, said Siepmann.
“Our perspective wasn’t in question with them. That meant we could continue down the path of what to do next because they’re approaching it … without the skepticism you might have if you were doing something for the first time,” he said.
The Army National Guard and Air National Guard have partnered with Ukraine on five to 10 exchanges each year. The activities ranged from small-scale swapping of legal or chaplain personnel to larger exercises such as Safe Skies 2011, where seven F-16s and more than 40 support personnel from five states took the lead in a multinational air superiority exercise. Nearly 200 Ukrainian airmen participated.
Safe Skies featured more than 60 mock air intercepts using Ukrainian Su-27s and MiG-29s, as well as US and Polish F-16s, according to the California National Guard website. The exercise took two years to plan and is still the largest exchange in the partnership’s history.
But the engagement plan for 2014 was put on hold earlier this year due to ongoing security concerns, said Siepmann.
The California Guard, as a result, is taking a deep look at Ukraine’s requirements and using them as a basis for determining future engagements, he said. “I don’t know what the next fiscal year is going to look like for us. It will be interesting for sure. I suspect we’ll have significant engagements, but we’ll have to wait and see how the process comes out.”
The California Guard’s relationship with Ukraine is just one example of many the National Guard has built across the globe through its State Partnership Program.
The National Guard Bureau allocates just $14 million a year for the SPP, supporting 65 partnerships in more than 74 nations (several states are partnered with more than one nation). Although the bureau is not the sole funding source for SPP events, the program is often touted on Capitol Hill and in the Department of Defense as a cost-effective way to provide consistent engagement with countries around the world.
SPP launched in 1993, just after the end of the Cold War, when many militaries wanted to retool and reform. The Latvian government, which wanted to step away from its former Soviet-style military, sought US help as it looked to move toward a citizen-soldier model, similar to the US National Guard.
At the same time, the US government also was looking for a way to expand military-to-military cooperation with former Soviet bloc countries in central and Eastern Europe without threatening the new Russian Federation. The National Guard seemed like the obvious choice, Air National Guard Lt. Col. Andrew J. Roberts, then bilateral affairs officer in the Office of Defense Cooperation at the US Embassy in Riga, Latvia, told Air Force Magazine in June. Roberts is now commander of the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center in Michigan.
The Guard was also a logical choice because the US was able to match states with countries of a similar size. Another benefit was that guardsmen typically stay in the same unit longer than Active Duty service members, a model similar to some European assignment systems. This enabled the same forces to train together for years, said Roberts.
A proposal to pair National Guard units from Michigan, Maryland, and Pennsylvania with the Baltic countries of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, respectively, officially began the program in 1993. Since then, SPP has grown significantly and continues to evolve to meet national security demands.
In Fiscal 2013, the National Guard conducted 739 SPP events, including 233 in US Southern Command, 229 in US European Command, and 115 in US Africa Command, as well as events in US Central Command, US Pacific Command, and US Northern Command.
Since SPP’s beginnings, these events have included a range of activities, such as training in disaster preparedness, humanitarian assistance, and cyber defense, to the stand-up of a US certified joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) unit in Latvia. From 2003 to 2013, 28 SPP partners participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, including 16 that deployed alongside their state partners, according to the Fiscal 2013 SPP annual report. During that same time period, the co-deployed forces participated in a total of 87 troop rotations, ranging from NATO military assistance teams to embedded support teams.
“Sometimes a country falls off the priority list, but we still engage with them. When things ramp up, we are able to engage at an even faster pace,” Air National Guard Col. Pierre B. Oury said in an interview in Latvia in June. Oury serves as the Air National Guard advisor to the commander of US Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa. “That’s priceless,” he said. “It’s the marriage between the two states. You don’t just divorce them.”
Latvian defense chief Lt. Gen. Raimonds Graube said his country’s state partnership with Michigan was a vital part of the rebuilding process once Latvia gained its independence in 1991, following 50 years of Soviet rule.
“We started [our] defense system from scratch. I mean from very scratch,” Graube told Air Force Magazine in June during an interview in Riga. “Our goal was to turn toward a Western-type of approach [to defense] and Michigan played a role in that from the very beginning.”
Graube said the partnership was a “crucial start,” and exchanges covered the full “spectrum of defense matters,” including personnel, planning, and training. Over the years, however, the partnership has “become more sophisticated and more selective.”
The highlight of the 22-year partnership, he said, is the stand-up and certification of Latvia’s joint terminal attack controller program. In 2007, the NATO International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan was looking for more countries to get involved in operations. Latvia wanted to help fill that role, “but there were certain skills they didn’t have,” said Roberts, an ANG pilot who was serving as commander of the Grayling Air Gunnery Range in Michigan at the time.
A year later, the National Guard Bureau endorsed a proposal, initiated by the Latvians, to send a joint team of Michigan National Guard members and Latvian soldiers to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. They would become the first SPP partners to deploy as an operational and mentoring team, according to a 2013 DOD release about the program’s 20-year anniversary.
But first, Latvia needed to develop JTAC capabilities so it could effectively direct close air support and indirect fire downrange.
That was a fairly tall order for a country that doesn’t have its own Air Force. So, the US team first set up a “precourse” to familiarize interested JTAC candidates with the close air support world, said Latvian tactical air control party commander Maj. Dans Jansons.
After the walk-through, the US team selected the first two Latvians to travel to the US for further training.
Jansons said he attended a two-week academic course at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center at NAS Fallon, Nev. From there, he went to the Grayling Air Gunnery Range, where Michigan Guardsmen helped him through the initial JTAC qualification process. “Then I went to Afghanistan,” he said.
The Latvian program received its full certification in 2010 thanks to the help of Michigan Guardsmen assigned to the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center. Today there are about a dozen “fully accredited, up-and-running, full-time, self-sustainable” Latvian JTACs, said Jansons. The goal is to eventually grow the program to 16 JTACs, though Jansons said that is dependent on future funding sources.
The Latvian JTAC program is often referred to as one of the great SPP success stories, but it came at a significant price. Two Latvian soldiers, including the first to be selected for the JTAC training program, died during a battle at Combat Outpost Bari Alai in Kunar province on May 1, 2009. It was the first joint deployment for Michigan and Latvia. The bond between the Latvian soldiers and Michigan Guardsmen is strong, however.
The two fallen soldiers’ pictures hang on the Hall of Heroes wall at the Joint Force Headquarters in Lansing, Mich., alongside those of 21 Michigan Army Guardsmen who died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In mid-June, Roberts stood in the pouring rain at Camp Adazi, Latvia, reminiscing about the first time he met Jansons back in February 2008. It was clear the mentoring relationship also has led to a true friendship.
“He’s been to my house in Michigan six times. … That’s the piece of the State Partnership Program that you don’t see with a normal engagement on any other level,” said Roberts. “You see teams come in, … they go away, and they never come back to Latvia. With this program you see six, 10, 20 years later, guys who know each other and are still working together and building capability and capacity.”
Graube has a similar story of how the SPP has shaped his family life. Graube was a young lieutenant when the partnership first formed. Now a lieutenant general, his career has often run parallel to that of his US counterparts. Some 10 years ago, both his sons went to Michigan and stayed with a colonel he had met through the SPP. They attended high school in Michigan for one year and then came back to Latvia where they are now “extremely successful” businessmen, said Roberts.
“That influence from the US, you can’t buy that. It’s real. It’s tangible. He feels it. He gets it. That’s what this program really kind of gets for you in a lot of ways,” said Roberts.
There are other residual “side effects” of the SPP as well, said Oury. For example, civilian medical library, youth, and academic exchange programs have developed over the years. Some states even provide scholarships or free tuition for residents of their partnership nation states. “It’s a two-way street,” said Oury. He noted that North Carolina wanted to build a wine industry, so it looked to Moldova, its SPP partner, for help.
Some of the more mature partnerships, like California and Ukraine, have taken on second partnerships, typically on the African continent. California has also been partnered with Nigeria since 2006.
Bang for the Buck
Oury said the idea came from senior leader engagements. The goal was to take the capabilities and capacities gained over the last two decades and train someone else at little extra cost.
“The fundamental tenets of the partnership program are the same,” said Siepmann. “It bleeds over. From a California perspective, the partnership is broad. It’s not just about SPP. It’s about any and all engagements we do.”
Oury said Pacific Command and Africa Command are “big SPP areas of growth.” There are 10 partnerships within AFRICOM. The oldest, each formed in 2003, were built between New York and South Africa and Utah and Morocco. North Dakota, which partnered with both Togo and Benin this year, represents the newest partnership. There also are eight partnerships within Pacific Command dating back to Guam’s and Hawaii’s partnership with the Philippines in 2000 and including the newly formed partnership between Nevada and Tonga this year.
AFRICOM Commander Army Gen. David M. Rodriquez “wants five more partnerships this year,” said Oury. “He’s banging on the table calling [National Guard Bureau Chief Army Gen. Frank J. Grass] saying, ‘You need to help me.’ But we can’t work that fast. There is a point where states can only do so much because they still have to maintain their own missions.”
Oury said the Guard does still have the capacity to take on more partnerships, but it’s going to take time. In the meantime, partner nations themselves are looking to share their knowledge with other countries. For example, the second accredited Latvian JTAC is now running an accredited JTAC schoolhouse in Poland. Jansons said it “is another great achievement [done] with the help of the Michigan Air National Guard.”
Oury said that development is proof the State Partnership Program “gives you the greatest bang for the buck” when it comes to security cooperation. “The [combatant commands] have really spoken up about the value of the program. The Guard Bureau also finds it is a huge training opportunity.”