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Home : News : State Partnership Program
NEWS | June 21, 2023

In Albania, Hokanson Sees Committed Partner, Steadfast NATO Ally

By Sgt. 1st Class Zach Sheely, National Guard Bureau

TIRANA, Albania – In a country that spent nearly 450 years under Ottoman Empire rule, suffered fascist occupation during World War II, and endured a dictatorship for much of the 20th century, democracy emerged and NATO accession ensued.

The latter is due, in part, to the National Guard.

“Thanks to the partnership, we became a NATO country,” Albania’s president, Bajram Begaj, told the National Guard’s top officer during a recent visit here.

That partnership is the link between Albania and the New Jersey National Guard in the Defense Department National Guard State Partnership Program. The SPP, established in 1993, is intended to form cooperative, mutually beneficial relationships between the National Guard of every U.S. state and territory and foreign nations based on common interests, respect and trust.

Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, met with Albanian government and defense officials June 8-11 to reinforce and strengthen this partnership.

Since their official SPP pairing in 2001, New Jersey Guardsmen have conducted more than 500 training exchanges with Albanian counterparts. Albania was accepted into NATO in 2009, and its troops have been part of peacekeeping operations in Bulgaria, Iraq, Kosovo and Latvia. Albania was recently selected to host a NATO airbase in Kucova, an area once known as “Stalin City.”

The CNGB recognized Albania’s importance to NATO and as one of the 25 European SPP partner nations.

“Albania is a vital security partner for the U.S. in the Western Balkans, and this is one of our most successful state partnerships in Europe,” he said. “As we look to grow our 100-nation State Partnership Program, this partnership will be a model to emulate.”

Albania-New Jersey Guard collaboration predates the formal SPP union. The New Jersey Guard first sent adviser teams to train with members of the Albanian Armed Forces in 1995. As with other SPP associations, this partnership has evolved to include military-to-military, military-to-civilian, and civilian-to-civilian engagements. But it started with shoulder-to-shoulder military training.

Over the past two decades, Albanian troops and New Jersey Guardsmen co-deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq. They continue to train together to “make both organizations better,” Hokanson said.

New Jersey Guardsmen worked alongside Soldiers with the Army’s 4th Security Force Assistance Brigade to help the AAF’s light infantry battalion group achieve NATO combat readiness certification in September.

Other training exchanges have focused on aviation operations, combat medical care, explosive ordnance disposal, infantry tactics, officer and enlisted development, and, more recently, cybersecurity.

Last summer, Albania experienced cyberattacks attributed to Iran on its national infrastructure systems. New Jersey Guardsmen from the 140th Cyberspace Operations Squadron were in Albania immediately after the attacks conducting a subject matter expert exchange with their host-nation counterparts and helping Albania’s Ministry of Defense respond.

“We are committed to continue to train together to strengthen Albania’s cyber defense capabilities,” Hokanson said. He added that the New Jersey Guard will work with Albania’s newly formed cyber unit to develop its standard operating procedures.

Another transformation is happening within the Albanian Armed Forces Academy. Albania’s primary military school for officer training will shift to a program based on the U.S. Military Academy at West Point’s education model. Now, the AAF Academy holds a three-year degree and commissioning program. Soon, it will move to a four-year curriculum.

Albania has worked with West Point faculty and New Jersey Guard Officer Candidate School cadre to redevelop how it trains and commissions officers.

In April, five New York Army National Guard and 17 New Jersey Guard officer candidates spent two weeks training with Albanian counterparts in combat leadership and tactics as part of each nation’s officer training requirements.

The New Jersey Guard has been there, too, as the AAF continues to overhaul, professionalize and empower its NCO corps — a testament to Albania’s dedication to compatibility with NATO forces.

Albania recently hosted Dynamic Employment of Forces to Europe for NATO Deterrence and Enhanced Readiness 2023, or DEFENDER 23. The U.S. European Command-directed, multinational, joint exercise builds readiness and interoperability between U.S. and NATO allies and partners.

Hokanson said exercises like DEFENDER are necessary to form the foundations of cooperation and readiness.

“I want to thank Albania for hosting DEFENDER Europe 23 and agreeing to host again in 2025,” Hokanson said. “We are building upon the success of DEFENDER 21 that was hosted in Albania for the first time.

“These types of exercises are critical to our ongoing partnership,” he said.

President Begaj said the State Partnership Program is the best solution for peace and security in this region.

“The National Guard is our best friend,” Begaj said. “Every Albanian knows the U.S. is here and we’re happy … more than happy.”