Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp, Wisconsin’s adjutant general, was part of a panel discussing the future of the State Partnership Program (SPP) as part of the program’s 30th anniversary.
“The stock of the State Partnership Program is at an all-time high,” Knapp — who chairs the Security Cooperation General Officer Advisory Council for the chief of the National Guard Bureau — said during the July 18 panel. “And I think right now is a great time that we can increase the trust between our partners, and that is the key to moving forward.”
The State Partnership Program — a Department of Defense program administered by the National Guard Bureau — began 30 years ago to help countries emerging from behind the Iron Curtain following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Today 100 nations from around the globe are involved in 88 partnerships with National Guard organizations from every state and U.S. territory to increase regional security and advance U.S. interests.
“The SPP is about people,” U.S. Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, National Guard Bureau chief, said at a separate SPP function July 17. “It’s about mutual relationships. It’s about finding commonality across cultures and languages. It’s about partnerships. It’s about cooperation that endures for 30 years — and counting.”
Maj. Gen. William Zana, director of strategy, plans and policy at the National Guard Bureau and moderator of the panel discussion, echoed that sentiment.
“If you want to move fast, go alone,” he said, referencing an African proverb. “If you want to go far, go together.”
Zana emphasized how continuing to strengthen and develop enduring partnerships through the State Partnership Program reinforces its pivotal National Defense Strategy role in an increasingly complex strategic environment.
Gen. Daniel Petrescu, the Republic of Romania‘s chief of defense, was also part of the panel discussion. Romania was among the first 13 partner nations to join the State Partnership Program in 1993, but he said now is not the time to rest.
“I think the situation now, it’s more dangerous than it was in the nineties when the State Partnership Program was formed, and we need to be ready,” Petrescu said. “A war is going on in Europe — what is going on is close to our borders. This is a time when we need to stay together and to be prepared.”
Most of the earliest State Partnership Program countries in Europe have gone on to become U.S. allies in NATO, and many of them credit the SPP and their National Guard state partners with helping to make that possible.
Vice. Adm. Stephen “Web” Koehler, director of strategy, plans and policy with the Pentagon Joint Staff, said developments in cyber and space add to the complexity of an already complex landscape.
“These challenges that the U.S. National Defense Strategy highlights are [met] by what we call integrated deterrence,” Koehler said, “or simply working together with partners across all warfighting domains, across all theaters and spectrums of conflict, to deter our adversaries.”
Hokanson said the partnerships are an exchange, where the National Guard and the partner nation work together, learn from each other and strengthen each other.
“By working together, pooling our resources and learning from each other, we enhance readiness and interoperability,” Hokanson said. “We deepen enduring friendships and further understanding, and we invest in our shared future. That’s what makes the State Partnership Program one of the best, most valuable security cooperation programs in the world.”
Knapp agreed, saying there are areas where a great program can be made even better.
“Most [adjutants general] would agree that, preferably, the bilateral affairs officer for each country should be resident in that country. I think that’s very important,” Knapp said. “It’s been said a number of times and I know we’re all asking for the same thing, but predictable and stable funding is critical for the SPP and coordinating across different fiscal years.”
For an estimated $42 million annually, the State Partnership Program helps ensure the Defense Department has capable, trusted and interoperable partners at its side supporting approximately 1,000 engagements, exchanges and training exercises worldwide each year. But the continuity of federal military funding has presented challenges for leaders in their ability to proactively plan and execute activities. Also, the U.S. fiscal year may be different than the fiscal year in a partner nation.
“Providing that predictable funding will allow us to have more stable events and engagements,” Knapp continued.
“I would just say in the funding line, you know, you’ve got my support,” Koehler said.
Knapp also called for increased staffing in the National Guard to adequately manage the State Partnership Program.
“The last thing that I think we want to do as an organization for state partnerships is to not adequately staff and fund them,” Knapp said. “We want to keep the quality of engagements high.”
To that end, Knapp urged multilateral engagements in addition to bilateral engagements, and synchronizing engagement opportunities with other training events in geographic combatant commands.
“I think that will help us get more bang for our buck as we pursue engagements in those areas of operation,” Knapp said. Multilateral engagements “will help us expand partnerships to whole-of-nation partnerships, which will be hugely beneficial in the future.”
Additionally, Knapp suggested a “professionalization” path for the bilateral affairs officer — a standard certification and expectation for the role — as well as introducing a noncommissioned officer position to each state’s bilateral affairs staff.
Zana said a pilot program for bilateral affairs noncommissioned officers is in the works. As the program is refined, the intent would be to work toward fully funding the initiative.
“It’s one of the things that we’re working for towards the future,” Zana said.
Dr. Celeste Gventer, president of Defense Security Cooperation University and a panelist for the morning discussion, agreed with the importance of highly trained and educated people in the State Partnership Program.
“When we think about security cooperation, we need to make sure we’re getting the right people in the right places with the right training and education,” Gventer said. “This professionalization process is critically important to our success going forward.
“We need to invest in our people, we need to be able to find the best talent, and we need to be able to cultivate them, provide career paths to them, and make security cooperation a real profession and a real career,” she continued, “and be able to work closely with our partners, and understand them, understand their challenges, and be able to provide them with real solutions.”
Petrescu said the State Partnership Program should be proud of what has been accomplished over the past 30 years.
“I don’t think we need a revolution here to change things — I think we can be evolutionary and continue what we have done,” Petrescu said. “As the changes in the strategic environment are very fast, maybe we need something to be more urgent and more responsive in case something pops up.”
The State Partnership Program builds capability, shared understanding and readiness for U.S. and partner forces, Zana said — but most importantly, the program builds trust.
“You cannot surge trust in a crisis,” Koehler said. “When the crisis comes [and] the trust is already built, you will succeed.”
The Wisconsin National Guard entered a State Partnership Program relationship with Nicaragua in 2003. Currently that partnership is emphasizing civilian engagement over military engagement. In 2020 Wisconsin entered a partnership with Papua New Guinea.
Tech. Sgt. Sarah McClanahan contributed to this report.