STUTTGART, Germany – From Poland to Kosovo, Lithuania to Ukraine, Soldiers and Airmen from the U.S. National Guard operate alongside allies and partners throughout Europe. They train in all domains, whether firing a rifle, driving a tank, flying a plane or protecting critical infrastructure from cyber threats.
Of the 64,000 U.S. military personnel supporting U.S. European Command (USEUCOM) exercises and operations at any given time, many of them are from the National Guard. Their efforts help ensure that the U.S. and its allies and partners are postured and ready to deter future conflicts, and to defend against aggression if deterrence fails.
Support to Exercises
Each year, USEUCOM and its components execute a campaign of high-end, multinational and multidomain exercises. These exercises enhance the readiness and collective capabilities of NATO allies and partners, ensuring a more responsive, resilient and lethal alliance.
“The National Guard has been a major contributor to U.S. European Command exercises this year,” said U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Jessica Meyeraan, director for USEUCOM exercises and assessments. “When these forces train alongside allies and partners, it’s mutually beneficial. Not only does it improve interoperability and capability within the alliance, the National Guard units receive immeasurable benefit from these training engagements.”
More than 2,100 Army National Guard Soldiers participated in U.S. Army Europe’s (USAREUR) DEFENDER-Europe 21 and its linked exercises in May and June. The exercise built readiness and interoperability by exercising USAREUR’s ability to integrate approximately 28,000 U.S., allied and partner forces from 27 nations to conduct simultaneous operations across more than a dozen nations.
During the DEFENDER-linked exercise Immediate Response, the Florida Army National Guard’s 53rd Infantry Combat Team deployed to Europe. The Soldiers transitioned to five nations, including Albania, where they conducted training alongside their host-nation counterparts. While in Albania, they ran basic soldiering skills training with Albanian military cadets to enhance the capabilities of the Albanian military, a key NATO ally in the region. Soldiers from other Florida Army National Guard units were in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and North Macedonia, where they trained with Bradley Fighting Vehicles and conducted live-fire exercises.
“We wear slightly different uniforms and we wear different flag patches on our shoulders,” said U.S. Army Col. Blake Glass, 53rd Infantry Combat Team commander, Florida Army National Guard. “But when we get down to it, and we get behind our rifles and we start doing individual Soldier skills, we’re exactly the same.”
National Guard units also joined other nations’ exercises that complemented DEFENDER-Europe 21. In Greece, Soldiers from the 1-167th Infantry Battalion, Alabama Army National Guard, participated in CENTAUR-21, the Hellenic Army’s national exercise. The combined force conducted mounted and dismounted ambush exercises, mortar live-fire exercises and force-on-force training to improve readiness and interoperability.
For two weeks in Slovenia, Colorado Air National Guard’s 140th Medical Group worked in a field hospital alongside Slovenian military medical personnel as part of ADRIATIC STRIKE 21, a Slovenian-led exercise held during DEFENDER-Europe 21. Additionally, both Rhode Island and Minnesota Air National Guard Airmen provided airlift and airdrop support during Swift Response 21 in Lithuania.
Recent National Guard support to exercises was not limited to DEFENDER-Europe 21. In May, Airmen and three KC135 aircraft from the Iowa, Maine and Ohio Air National Guards provided air refueling support during the multinational missile defense exercise Formidable Shield 2021. Held in the United Kingdom, the maritime defense exercise was hosted by U.S. Naval Forces Europe and Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet and the British Royal Navy.
Support to Operations
In addition to exercises, USEUCOM maintains rotational forward forces throughout Europe in support of Atlantic Resolve. These forces are defensive and allow the U.S. and its NATO allies and partners to deter and defend against threats. Atlantic Resolve builds readiness, increases interoperability and enhances the bond between ally and partner militaries using multinational training events. There are three types of Atlantic Resolve rotations – armored, aviation, and logistical – plus a division headquarters forward. There are approximately 6,000 regionally aligned Soldiers, including those from the National Guard, participating in nine-month Atlantic Resolve rotations at any given time.
During a recent visit to Poland, U.S. Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief, National Guard Bureau, met with the Florida National Guard’s Regional Support Group and the Michigan Army National Guard’s 1225th Combat Sustainment Battalion, who are supporting Atlantic Resolve.
“Supporting operations like these helps the National Guard maintain readiness for our primary mission, the warfight,” he said during the visit.
While not part of Atlantic Resolve, the 678th Air Defense Artillery Brigade recently returned from a nine-month European rotation to support the 10th Army Air and Missile Defense Command. Based primarily in Germany, the unit supported activities throughout the European theater, including Atlantic Resolve missions. This was the fourth rotation of an air defense artillery brigade. Their presence sends a powerful message of commitment to our NATO allies and partners.
In Ukraine, approximately 150 Army National Guard Soldiers from Washington are serving as the current iteration of the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine (JMTG-U), which is the mission of training, equipping, training center development and doctrinal assistance to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Since 2015, eight rotations of U.S. Army personnel from the active, reserve and National Guard have supported the JMTG-U.
“We appreciate the support and assistance of the U.S. and other partner nations in our struggle for independence, sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine,” said Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, who spoke during the transfer of authority ceremony in April when the Washington Army National Guard unit assumed command of the mission. “With great pleasure, I call you not just great partners, but great friends.”
In addition to U.S.-led missions, National Guard units support NATO missions, including the Kosovo Force under Operation Joint Guardian and NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence. Soldiers from the Iowa Army National Guard, along with troops from Poland and Turkey, are part of Kosovo Force’s Regional Command-East (KFOR RC-E). Earlier this month, U.S. Army Col. Brey Hopkins, Vermont Army National Guard, took command of the KFOR RC-E, which marks the 29th rotation of a U.S. military contingent in Kosovo.
Approximately 800 Washington Army National Guard Soldiers are deployed to Poland as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence. They join NATO Allies from Croatia, Romania and the United Kingdom, which collectively make up Battle Group Poland.
Partnerships in Europe and Beyond
The Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program (SPP) pairs a U.S. state National Guard and another nation’s military in a cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship. There are currently 22 partnerships in the USEUCOM area of responsibility.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, a six-member National Guard medical team from Texas and Nebraska deployed to their SPP partner the Czech Republic in November to provide medical support as that nation faced threatening levels of nationwide infection.
The partnership worked both ways as Polish and Romanian forces also deployed to the United States to provide COVID-19 support to their SPP partner states – Illinois and Alabama, respectively.
The cooperation and partnership between National Guard units and NATO allies and partners extends well beyond Europe. From 2003 through 2020, Poland deployed more than 35,000 troops to Afghanistan and Iraq in support of coalition forces. Illinois National Guard members joined their SPP partners on all two dozen deployments.
This is not unique; the bonds formed between states and their partners is strong. In 2009-2010, Michigan National Guard and Latvian military personnel deployed together to Afghanistan to help develop the Afghan National Army. During the deployment, two Latvian soldiers were killed in action. In 2017, a street was named to honor one of them at the Alpena Combat Readiness Center in Michigan. Michigan and Latvia have been SPP partners since 1993.
Enhancing Capabilities in the Cyber Domain
Bilateral and multilateral training increases readiness across all domains, including cyber. As threats in the cyber domain increase, this training ensures that the U.S. and its allies and partners are ready to take on those threats.
In April, National Guard members from West Virginia and Illinois, along with Defense Information Systems Agency employees and West Virginia University students, partnered with Polish allies to compete in the world’s largest international cyber defense exercise, Locked Shields 2021. Hosted by the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre, 1,200 experts from nearly 30 nations participated in Tallinn, Estonia. Exercise participants were graded on how well they protected their networks while simulated attacks threatened to infiltrate them.
Additionally, Soldiers and Airmen from the Minnesota and Iowa National Guards conducted cyber exercise Adriatic Thunder with their counterparts from the Kosovo Security Forces and the Croatian Armed Forces in Zagreb, Croatia, in early June. One team acted as the offense and the other the defense. The objective was to learn each other’s tactics and procedures and enhance the ability to operate across each other’s cyber domains.
“We’re partnering, showing our ability to work with one another, working across nations, working across joint environments,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Lawrence Yazzie, commander of the 168th Cyber Operations Squadron, Iowa Air National Guard. “We’re doing it in an actual hands-on fashion where you see ones and zeroes in the defensive critical mission systems.”
The National Guard will continue to support exercises and operations in Europe. In September, Air National Guard members from Texas and Nebraska will support NATO Allied Air Command’s exercise Ample Strike. In July, an air refueling wing from the Illinois Air National Guard will deploy to Poland for an Aviation Detachment Rotation and the 134th Air Refueling Wing, Tennessee Air National Guard, will deploy to Bulgaria, where Airmen will conduct force protection and security forces training in the Tennessee-Bulgaria SPP bilateral exercise, Falcon Defender.
“The propensity to utilize National Guard units during U.S. European Command exercises and operations is a testament to the unique capability and expertise these service members bring to the theater,” Meyeraan said. “As we continue to train alongside our allies and partners, the National Guard will continue to have a significant role in those activities.”
U.S. European Command is responsible for U.S. military operations across Europe, portions of Asia and the Middle East, the Arctic and Atlantic Ocean. USEUCOM is comprised of more than 64,000 military and civilian personnel and works closely with NATO Allies and partners. The command is one of two U.S. forward-deployed geographic combatant commands headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany.