MADISON, Wis. – Though 8,327 miles separate Madison, Wisconsin, and Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, the Wisconsin National Guard and the Papua New Guinea Defense Force moved closer toward building an enduring partnership last month.
“This is a historic moment between the PNG Defense Force and the Wisconsin State Partnership Program,” said Maj. Gen. Gilbert Toropo, commander of the Papua New Guinea Defense Force, during an online workshop May 25-27. “This opportunity comes at a very appropriate time for PNG, particularly the Defense Force, and we are excited about the opportunities ahead.”
The Wisconsin National Guard was selected to begin a new state partnership with Papua New Guinea in February 2020 through the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program.
The COVID-19 pandemic hindered much of the early work to build the partnership, but Wisconsin National Guard Capt. Chris Meza spent six months as part of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s Task Force Oceania in Papua New Guinea, building relationships with the people there as well as officials with the United States Indo-Pacific Command. The PNG Defense Force and the Wisconsin National Guard also conducted a virtual event in March focused on women in the military, peace and security and a cyber subject matter expert exchange.
Lt. Col. Derrek Schultheiss, Wisconsin National Guard State Partnership Program director, said the pandemic and travel restrictions prevented the Papua New Guinea Defense Force (PNGDF) delegation from traveling to Wisconsin in February and then again in late April.
“[That’s] when we made the call to conduct a hybrid in-person/virtual event,” Schultheiss explained.
Schultheiss thanked 2nd Lt. Ellie Tadych, State Partnership Program coordinator; Staff Sgt. Oscar Gollaz, information technology specialist; Katie Reinfeldt, state protocol officer, and Dr. Vinothini Roy and her team at the Defense Department’s Institute for Security Governance (ISG), for planning and implementing the workshop.
“These individuals invested countless hours developing a well-organized, professional and strategic-level workshop,” he said.
During the workshop, the Wisconsin National Guard and the PNG Defense Force learned more about each other’s organizations.
“It is hoped that both the Wisconsin National Guard and the PNGDF are able to build on these exchanges in these key areas of interest,” Roy said, emphasizing the importance of this partnership as part of broader national strategic priorities in the region.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am to see this all come together,” said Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp, Wisconsin’s adjutant general.
Col. Matthew Wenthe, international affairs division chief at the National Guard Bureau, informed the Wisconsin National Guard on the opening day of the workshop that the State Partnership Program offers some latitude in how the partnership is defined.
“This is whatever you decide to make of it,” Wenthe said. “These programs are intended to be long-range — there’s no immediate pressing objectives that you need to get after from a national defense strategy standpoint. Just the fact that you are working to build and foster an alliance and a partnership with a new country, particularly into [U.S. Pacific Command’s area of operations], is foundational to meeting national defense strategy objectives in the first place.”
Maj. Jeremy Lyon, the Wisconsin National Guard’s future plans and policies officer, said the Guard will borrow heavily from a partnership plan developed by the Nevada National Guard to assess how to make the partnership beneficial for both parties.
“I typically think of this as a Venn diagram,” Lyon said. “There are things we want to accomplish, there are the things [Papua New Guinea] wants to accomplish, and of course, let’s not forget that the State Department also plays a role in defining the objectives. Where those three overlap, we have opportunities for cooperation.”
Potential significant security cooperation initiatives (SSCI) include maritime and border security, humanitarian assistance and disaster response, and military professional development.
Papua New Guinea ranks 10th in the world for frequency of disasters, including volcanic activity, floods, landslides, sea rise, famine, earthquakes, cyclones, drought and frost, disease outbreak, hailstorms and tsunamis — not to mention man-made disasters such as chemical spills or kerosene explosions.
The Guard and Wisconsin Emergency Management can share its experience responding to disasters with Papua New Guinea.
“This is just the beginning of a continuous dialog to make this partnership better for the future,” said Col. Larry Opa of the PNG Defense Force.
The Wisconsin National Guard is not entering this partnership as Papua New Guinea’s only military ally. Papua New Guinea was an Australian colony until 1975, and Australia maintains a presence on the eastern half of the island. Knapp emphasized the importance of synchronizing with allies in the region.
Besides the physical distance — Papua New Guinea is 16 time zones ahead of Wisconsin — and COVID-19, Wisconsin participants in the State Partnership Program with Papua New Guinea will need to navigate cultural differences between those who reside in the island’s highlands and elsewhere, as well as the approximately 830 languages spoken among the roughly 9 million residents.
Lyon said that the Wisconsin National Guard will send teams to Papua New Guinea in the first half of training year 2022, which begins this October, to visit Port Moresby and other installations and facilities.
This is Wisconsin’s second State Partnership Program — it has had a similar relationship with Nicaragua since 2003. The SPP program began in 1993 and has grown from building relationships with former Soviet bloc nations in Eastern Europe to fostering personal and institutional relationships across the globe. All 54 states and territories are involved in the State Partnership Program, which now has 82 partnerships with 89 nations.
Knapp described the workshop as “an amazing couple of days.”
“The possibilities seem endless,” Knapp said. “This has whetted our appetites in terms of what’s within the realm of possible going forward.”
Roy said the Wisconsin National Guard and PNGDF had set the stage for an enduring partnership.
“We hope that both the Wisconsin National Guard and PMGDF will build on the mutual respect that was evident all through the planning and execution of this foundational event, continue to have open discussions, and learn from each other in support of shared goals in the coming years,” Roy said.