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General Daniel Hokanson’s National Press Club Headliners Newsmaker Remarks

23-006 | July 27, 2023

Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, spoke at a National Press Club in-person Headliners Newsmaker on Thursday, July 27, 2023, at 10 a.m.

Good morning! Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today—although, frankly, I think everyone is happier when the National Guard is not making news. Because if we are making news, it’s often because our Nation is at war, or our communities are in crisis.

That’s because—to remove any misconception—the National Guard’s purpose is to fight and win our Nation’s wars. That purpose drives our manning, our training, and our equipment. Our unique Constitutional authorities allow us to use that manning, training, and equipment to help our communities in times of need—but it is all derived from our primary warfighting mission, and not vice-versa.

But today, I want to talk about a different, more timely news story—we recently celebrated 30 years of the State Partnership Program. The State Partnership Program—or SPP—pairs a state’s National Guard with a partner nation. Today, we have 88 partnerships with 100 nations around the world. And last week, 93 countries sent senior government and military leaders here to celebrate the 30th anniversary and discuss the SPP’s future.

Now you might be thinking, “Well Dan, that’s very interesting, but that’s history. How is history news?”

The State Partnership Program is news because the partnerships we’ve built over the past 30 years have a strategic impact that’s playing out every day, all around the world.

The most immediate example is in Ukraine. Ukraine and the California National Guard were among the very first state partners.

For three decades, Ukraine and the California National Guard trained, worked, studied, and deployed together. Their pilots flew together.

Before the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, the California National Guard sent dozens of trainers to Ukraine; after the invasion, they sent hundreds. Those trainers helped Ukraine strengthen their forces and build their interoperability with NATO. They developed infantry tactics. They established a Ukrainian non-commissioned officers corps. They cross-trained on cyber operations. They helped build a Joint Operations Center.

Hours after Russia began their unprovoked invasion in February 2022, Ukrainian military officials made a call to a friend more than 6,000 miles away: the California National Guard.

And I firmly believe Ukraine’s ability to limit Russia’s initial invasion was—at least in part—because of the training and assistance they received and continue to receive from their 30 year partnership.

This morning, I can tell you we’re breaking new ground using the successful template of the State Partnership Program. I’m pleased to note that we will soon deepen and expand our security cooperation relationships throughout Europe.

Finland and Sweden have expressed potential interest in the SPP and are currently in discussions for partnerships. Finland and Sweden have been long-time security partners, and we look forward to deepening these relationships.

In addition, the success of the SPP program is resonating with European countries who historically have remained neutral, such as Austria, who partnered with Vermont in 2021, and Switzerland.

Switzerland is currently reviewing the relationships that other nations share with the National Guard and assessing the possibility of the program in their future.

Interest from these nations validates the proven SPP model, especially against the backdrop of the current conflict in Ukraine.

Every state, territory, and DC has at least one partner. And these partnerships are truly inspiring. Earlier this year, the Minnesota National Guard formalized a partnership with Norway, while Arizona formalized a partnership with Oman.

SPP partners Oklahoma and Azerbaijan share an oil-rich economy. The state of Georgia and the country of Georgia…well, I bet you can guess what they share.

These are strong and valuable alliances and partnerships. These partners train together, exchange best practices and subject matter expertise, and host senior leader engagements. They may even deploy together. During the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Illinois National Guard deployed with their Polish partners 34 times.

30 years. 88 partnerships. 100 nations. And about 20 to 30 percent of our Nation’s security cooperation engagements—all at one percent of the security cooperation budget. Our annual SPP budget is about $42 million—out of a $6 billion security cooperation budget—and this year we have more than 1,500 planned engagements.

The State Partnership Program began after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

As they emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, former Soviet states looked to reform their militaries, moving away from a communist system towards democracy and civilian control of their armed forces.

Because of our legacy as state militias—and because it would seem less provocative to Russia—the National Guard was the obvious choice to lead these engagements.

In addition, the Guard is experienced with disaster response, search and rescue, and civil-military relationships—all of great interest to the former Soviet states at that time. And so, in 1993, the first three SPP partnerships began: Estonia with Maryland, Latvia with Michigan, and Lithuania with Pennsylvania.

The 30 years since then are important because building relationships and building trust takes time. You can’t surge trust, you can’t surge respect, and you can’t surge understanding. You can only build it one day, one person, and one partnership at a time. That’s what we’re doing every day, with 100 nations around the world—with plans to grow.

Our relationships with former Soviet bloc countries may be the longest-standing, but they are by no means our only partnerships. When the 2015 National Security Strategy highlighted the rising significance of Asia-Pacific, Africa, and the Americas, the SPP prioritized these areas for building and maintaining partnerships. In the past ten years, the SPP formed 21 new partnerships with 26 partner nations. Of those, four were established in the CENTCOM area of responsibility, five were in INDOPACOM, and eight were in AFRICOM.

The State Partnership Program directly supports the National Defense Strategy’s second priority: Deterring strategic attacks against the United States, allies, and partners. It does so by ensuring our Nation has trusted, capable, and interoperable allies and partners at our side. This is key to integrated deterrence, campaigning, and building enduring advantages—all critical components of the National Defense Strategy.

And in the current strategic environment, these relationships matter more than ever. Russia’s violent, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has increased interest in the SPP. Other countries are looking at Russia and are concerned they too will need to defend their sovereignty.

Meanwhile, the SPP helps the United States remain the partner of choice at a time when China, our pacing challenge, uses predatory diplomatic and economic tactics to fulfill its imperial ambitions.

I don’t use the term “partner of choice” lightly. The fact is, these partnerships can’t be forced; they are the product of trust, respect, and free will. Every interaction with our partners either strengthens or weakens that bond. Every moment we share, from a signing ceremony to a training exercise, is an opportunity to improve our relationship with our partner nations. It takes effort and commitment to remain the partner of choice around the world.

Every day, our Guardsmen bring that effort and commitment to everything they do. They are citizen-Soldiers and citizen-Airmen who bring their civilian talents and skills to the service of our Nation.

This makes us even more effective in our missions, both in the warfight and here at home.

Here I think of Sergeant Major Ed Carlson whom I served with in Iraq, who worked for FedEx as a civilian. Because of his experience with developing routes and understanding supply chains, he was able to create more effective and efficient supply routes in support of our mission in Iraq.

I think of the Guardsman in Texas, whose civilian job working at a call center gave her the expertise to establish a call center for her state during the height of the COVID pandemic, when people were desperate for information.

I think of the former Adjutant General of the Puerto Rico National Guard, Major General Jose Reyes.

During the pandemic, he pored over medical literature, and early on identified the importance of cold storage for the emerging vaccines.

His early acquisition of ultra-cold freezers allowed Puerto Rico to quickly vaccinate the island’s population, and other states adopted Puerto Rico’s hub-and-spoke vaccine distribution plan. This was especially critical in remote areas and sparsely populated states.

This is the ingenuity, dedication, efficiency, and effectiveness our Guardsmen bring to our many missions. Our people allow us to live true to our motto: Always Ready, Always There.

Our role in the National Guard is unique—and it is critical to the National Defense Strategy, our national security, and our global stability. We don’t just celebrate history—through our unique position, our abilities, and our partnerships, we help write it.

Thank you. I look forward to your questions.