ALOFA, Tonga - The Nevada National Guard and the Kingdom of Tonga marked the formation of the newest official relationship in the National Guard’s State Partnership Program on April 11 with a formal signing ceremony here in the Tongan capital. The two parties vow, in Tongan, to ‘Fe tokoni aki,’ (help one another).
The State Partnership Program links a unique component of the Department of Defense – a state's National Guard – with the armed forces of a partner country in a cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship. The SPP was established in 1994 and, with the addition of the Nevada/Tonga partnership, now features 68 partnerships involving 74 nations around the world.
The SPP is administered by the National Guard Bureau, guided by State Department foreign policy goals, and executed by the adjutants general in support of combatant commanders and Department of Defense policy goals.
Comprised of over 170 islands, Tonga is located in the Pacific Ocean about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand. Tonga is governed by a constitutional hereditary monarchy and is home to more than 106,000 inhabitants whose income is derived from the services, industrial and agriculture sectors. Pacific-Islanders are the fifth-largest demographic in Nevada and account for about 1 percent of Nevada’s population.
Staff Sgt. Malakai Niko of the 152nd Operations Support Squadron, one of the thousands of Tongans living in Nevada, said he was ecstatic about the partnership. “I am very happy that, out of all the states, Nevada was awarded this partnership,” Niko said. “I am very proud to be a Nevada Guardsman and Tongan and look forward to an opportunity to be part of an exchange between our two militaries.”
Brig. Gen. Tau’aika ‘Uta’atu, the commander of Tonga’s armed forces, and Brig. Gen. Burks, the adjutant general for Nevada, signed the partnership agreement. Other attendees at the signing included Adm. Samuel Locklear III, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Maj. Gen. Donald McGregor, the National Guard Bureau’s director of strategic policy, plans and international affairs, Brig. Gen Michael Hanifan, the commander of the Nevada Army Guard and Brig. Gen. Ondra Berry, the assistant adjutant general of the Nevada Air Guard.
According to Burks, the Nevada Guard is an ideal partner for Tonga because of the Nevada Guard’s diversity and unique mission capabilities that allow for robust military-to-military exchanges.
Also, with the end of the Iraq War and drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the Department of Defense is rebalancing military assets to increase readiness in the largest of its geographic areas, the Pacific Command. The shift in resources to the Pacific region created a new opportunity for the Nevada National Guard to gain its new strategic partner, Tonga.
“As one of the anchor tenants in the Oceania region, Tonga can inform us on matters of military significance as we shift our emphasis to the Pacific theater, Burks said. “This partnership will create a shared sense of responsibility as we work together on security issues, humanitarian assistance and domestic response goals.”
The Nevada-Tonga partnership was initially established when Locklear signed a preliminary agreement on Oct. 28, 2013. The new partnership aims to conduct four to six exchanges a year to share information that both parties can implement in their respective regions. Despite obvious topographical differences, the desert state of Nevada and the island nation of Tonga share many challenges and issues.
Both Nevada and Tonga have large population concentrations separated by large tracts of uninhabited land that create challenges such as delivery of basic governmental services and humanitarian relief in the wake of a natural disaster. Tonga faced that exact challenge earlier this year when Cyclone Ian devastated the Ha’apai island group in January.
“Nevada and Tonga share the tyranny of distance,” Burks said. “Nevada has a vast amount of land with small patches of water, where Tonga has a vast amount of water with small patches of land. Both make security, infrastructure and the provision of goods and services a monumental task.” Earthquakes and flooding are also threats to both Tonga and Nevada, Burks said.
Drawing upon its past experience reacting to those types of disasters, the Nevada Guard is set to share its disaster response knowledge with the Tongan Defense Force. “The Nevada Guard includes some incredible resources that allow the military to assist civilian authorities in time of need,” Burks said. “A symbiotic relationship of their resources and our capabilities will benefit both Tonga and Nevada.”
In addition to the mutual military interests, Nevada and Tonga share similar economic priorities. Like Nevada, Tonga’s economy is based on tourism and private sector growth, especially in renewable energy. According to the U.S. State Department, Tonga – just like Nevada – will invest heavily in tourism and renewable energy during the next decade.
“The priorities of Nevada and Tonga mirror each other,” said Maj. John Brownell, the Nevada Guard’s State Partnership Program coordinator. “It made great sense to partner the two.” Brownell said Tonga’s military growth has been minimal after five years of budget cuts and the Tongan armed forces will likely rely on the partnership for information exchanges on several topics that include non-commissioned officer development, legal, cyber and renewable energy. The next step in the new partnership will be to coordinate with the stakeholders and establish a timeline for those exchanges.