COLUMBUS, Ohio – In 2019, the Ohio National Guard’s State Partnership Program showcased its full array of soft skills to support U.S. security cooperation objectives by building enduring relationships with its partners Serbia and Hungary.
“At the heart of the SPP program is the ability to build, grow and sustain personal relationships between a National Guard state and a partner nation,” said 1st Sgt. Daniel Skinner, the ONG’s SPP coordinator. “Although this is not a directive and not always measurable or tangible, it is the ‘art’ of security cooperation.”
The SPP began in the early 1990s to assist countries emerging from behind the Iron Curtain of the former Soviet Union’s spans of control in Eastern Europe. It now involves 83 countries and the National Guard of every U.S. state and territory.
Its influence has developed from not just military-to-military partnerships, but also military-to-civilian and civilian-to-civilian relationships.
For example, the Ohio-Hungary SPP prepared conditions for an economic, technological and commercial memorandum of understanding signed by Lydia Mihalik, director of the Ohio Development Services Agency, and Péter Szijjártó, Hungarian minister of foreign affairs and trade, last April.
“Our SPP military partnership of 25 years was recognized/acknowledged as laying the groundwork for the deal,” said Simona Vaclavikova, political adviser for the Ohio Adjutant General’s Department and the SPP, “and for facilitating growing cooperation between Hungary and Ohio.”
The document pledges that the two parties will broaden their economic cooperation, an already strong relationship with two-way trade totaling more than $186 million in 2018. During his visit to Ohio, Szijjártó met executives from some of the biggest U.S. companies including Procter & Gamble, Owens-Illinois, Dana, Eaton and Goodyear, all of which have already invested in Hungary, Szijjártó said.
It’s a partnership that makes sense, in part, because nearly 200,000 Americans with Hungarian roots live in Ohio, more than in any other U.S. state. The ONG’s partnership with Serbia also makes sense, as Ohio has the third-highest Serbian-American population of any state.
“We were able to help connect key players and facilitate an educational alliance/partnership called the Serbian Educational Alliance (SEA) between our state’s flagship university, The Ohio State University, and the University of Belgrade,” Vaclavikova said.
The State Department awarded a $300,000 grant to Ohio State’s Center for Slavic and East European Studies to create the SEA in September. The grant will increase collaboration between Ohio State and the University of Belgrade, with support from the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade. Under the two-year grant, the SEA will foster classroom activities, research and joint seminars and workshops.
In fiscal 2019, the ONG sent about 600 Soldiers and Airmen to Hungary and Serbia to train with its partners and conduct roughly 25 engagements with each country.
“The relationships that are built and strengthened between the Soldiers and Airmen of the Ohio National Guard and military members in Hungary and Serbia is undeniable and can’t necessarily be captured in a database or system of record,” Skinner said. “It is best reflected in stories and experiences, and shared by the individual service members themselves.”
Training together to prepare to one day operate side by side is one such shared experience.
For four years, ONG service members have patrolled southern Serbia with security forces of other countries as part of Platinum Wolf. The multinational exercise of 500 Soldiers conducted in June included 80 members of the Ohio National Guard’s 838th Military Police Company out of Youngstown, Ohio. They worked with nine other countries (including Hungary) to master peacekeeping skills including detention operations, crime scene investigations, Military Operations on Urban Terrain (MOUT), crowd and riot control, patrolling and traffic control point/vehicle checkpoint.
“In 2019, EUCOM continued to focus on building partner capacity, strengthening interoperability and building regional cooperation,” Skinner said.
Platinum Wolf is only one such exercise that meets these objectives.
“The ONG conducted multiple military engagements and exercises in support of these lines of effort, most notably with Exercise Breakthrough in Hungary, which was part of the Saber Guardian series and the 2019 Southern Exercise Campaign,” Skinner said.
Soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 134th Field Artillery Regiment, participated in BREAKTHROUGH 2019 in June, a training exercise hosted by the Hungarian Defence Forces’ Land Forces. This was an opportunity for Ohio’s field artillery battalion to deploy its weapons systems in a more complex bilateral operational environment. The Hungarian Land Forces established a challenging environment for the training and provided opportunities for the participating units to develop lethal capacity with their assigned artillery pieces. The exercise tested the participants with fire missions on multiple ranges and distances during the day and night.
Another challenging, annual SPP training exercise is Exercise Neighbors, conducted by the Ohio National Guard, Hungarian Defence Forces and Serbian Armed Forces.
“Exercise Neighbors is a true trilateral exercise between partners,” Skinner said. Soldiers focus on small unit tactics, such as room clearing and fire support. To improve interoperability and to exchange military tactics and experiences, each squad is fully integrated with members from all three countries.
Senior Ohio National Guard leaders visited Hungary in September to meet with Hungarian Defence Forces. It was the first time Maj. Gen. John C. Harris Jr. represented Ohio as the adjutant general, since his appointment in January 2019.
Also in January, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić led a delegation to Ohio, where she met with military, political, academic and business leaders to promote mutual relations and discuss potential areas of economic cooperation.
“The Ohio National Guard State Partnership Program will continue to support and build upon the objectives of our adjutant general, National Guard Bureau, U.S. European Command, and U.S. country teams in both Budapest and Belgrade,” Skinner said.
On Oct. 1, Lt. Col. Tim Grady took over as ONG SPP director from Capt. Trevor Ducey. Ducey said the position requires a lot of travel to Europe to coordinate with Ohio’s two SPP partner nations — Hungary, since 1993, and Serbia, since 2006.
“I planned to schedule 12 times a year and had 1st Sgt. Skinner programmed for six trips a year,” Ducey said. “Over the course of the assignment, I flew 25 times, visiting each partner country 15 times.”
As the program grows and develops into new areas such as fostering civilian-to-civilian relationships, engagements will increase.
“I see us expanding our engagements with our partners to be more complex and challenging, and incorporating our civilian partners (more so),” Ducey said.
Key areas under further development include cyber, medical, chaplaincy, emergency response and disaster response, economic development and higher education.
“We will continue to try and meet the needs and requests of our partners in order to strengthen their military capabilities, improve regional cooperation and increase interoperability,” Skinner said.