STUTTGART, Germany - When a pro-democracy revolution swept Tunisia, launching what became known as the Arab Spring, the Tunisian military looked to its U.S. partner, the Wyoming National Guard, for help in teaching democratic values to the country's youth.
The Wyoming Guard had the perfect tool at its disposal: the National Guard's Youth Challenge program, which has been instilling values, skills, education and discipline in at-risk youth since 1993 with a goal of helping them lead successful, productive lives.
The Wyoming Guard "was immediately able to offer this program of instruction and this experience to assist the Tunisians in establishing a similar program," Army Maj. Gen. Charles Hooper, U.S. Africa Command's director of strategy, plans and programs, said. "So that is the kind of experiences, relationships, skills and capabilities that our state partners bring to our African partners."
With no permanently assigned forces and increasing budgetary constraints, Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, the Africom commander, is hoping to expand the popular State Partnership Program to increase the command's engagement across the African continent.
Ham called himself "a big fan" of the program during recent congressional testimony and said he hopes to expand the number of partnerships in Africa from the current eight to 10.
"In our efforts to strengthen defense capabilities of African partners, the National Guard State Partnership Program is an incredibly important component," he said. "We have very strong state partnership programs that contribute very significantly to our training and exercise programs."
Ham reported that he has asked the National Guard Bureau chief, Air Force Gen. Craig R. McKinley, to add two additional partners this year, including possibly one for Libya.
"That might be a place where we could apply a State Partnership Program to great effect," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March. "So we will continue to look for opportunities such as that."
McKinley has called the State Partnership Program, initially formed in 1993 to support former Soviet bloc countries after the Soviet Union collapsed, the crown jewel of the Guard's international engagement. Citing the program's high impact at a relatively low cost -- the exact type of engagement the Defense Department's new strategic guidance promotes -- McKinley said he, too, would like to expand it to promote mutual security cooperation with partners and allies around the world.
Navy Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shares Ham's and McKinley's enthusiasm about the program. "It's proven to be a very, very valuable high-leverage tool for us," he said earlier this year, after the release of the new strategy. "So we plan to build on things like that to help us on these innovative approaches to other parts of the world."
The State Partnership Program includes partnerships with 63 countries within Africom, U.S. European Command, U.S. Southern Command, U.S. Central Command, U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Northern Command areas of responsibility.
Africom currently has eight partnerships. The California National Guard is partnered with Nigeria; the New York National Guard with South Africa; the North Carolina Guard with Botswana; the North Dakota National Guard with Ghana; the Michigan National Guard with Liberia; the Vermont National Guard with Senegal; the Utah National Guard with Morocco; and the Wyoming National Guard with Tunisia.
Since Africom's inception in 2008, the State Partnership Program has been vital to its theater engagement strategy.
"What it brings to our toolbox is continuity," Hooper said. "It creates long-term relationships between the state partners and their African partners."
Hooper has seen firsthand the close bonds that form between National Guard participants, who don't typically rotate between assignments as frequently as their active-duty counterparts, and the African militaries they work with.
"In all of these relationships, the states bring the very best of their practices," he said. Along with military skills training that helps build capacity on the continent, he said the Guard also provides role models for African militaries.
In Liberia, for example, the Michigan National Guard is providing 24 members in support of Operation Onward Liberty, a joint venture between the U.S. Marine Corps, Air Force and Army to help Liberia's armed forces build capacity to defend their borders and their neighbors.
Last spring, North Dakota National Guard members demonstrated to the forces and civilian disaster-management experts in Ghana how the Guard supports civilian-led disaster response efforts -- in this case, during an actual snowstorm and major flooding in Fargo, N.D.
Although their climates are worlds apart, North Dakota and Ghana deal with similar disasters, including floods, drought and windstorms, a participating Guardsman noted.
In December, a team of North Carolina National Guardsmen traveled to Gaborone, Botswana, to share the U.S. experience in integrating military intelligence into operations with Botswana.
"Relationships count, and that's what makes the State Partnership Program so valuable," Hooper said. "It's the long-term relationships between the state partners and their African partners."