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Home : News : State Partnership Program
NEWS | July 14, 2023

‘Why Don’t we do a Little Partnership Thing?’ The Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program is Born

By Master Sgt. Jim Greenhill and Sgt. 1st Class Zach Sheely, National Guard Bureau

This is part one of the five part series "State Partnership Program turns 30." 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – It began in 1992 with a brief chat between two general officers about how to help emerging democracies following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc.

Thirty years on, the product of that chat between Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, then both NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and commander, U.S. European Command, and Air Force Lt. Gen. John Conaway, the 22nd Chief of the National Guard Bureau, has become a worldwide program, with security cooperation agreements between the National Guard of every state, territory and the District of Columbia and 100 countries – or more than half – of the world’s 195 sovereign recognized nations.

Today, the Department of Defense National Guard State Partnership Program includes countries on every continent except Antarctica and in every U.S. geographic combatant command.

But in 1992, it was just an idea. 

“We talked about the Guard going behind the Iron Curtain to help some of the emerging democracies,” recalls Conaway, now retired, “and that the Guard might be the best vehicle for the Defense Department to use to go there. And that was the end of the conversation.”

Born in Warsaw, Poland, Shalikashvili, a World War II refugee, immigrated as a teen to the United States via Germany. He had grown up stateless in Eastern Europe and seen the benefits of the Marshall Plan, America’s European Recovery Program, which helped devastated Western European countries rebuild after the war.

“I gained a firsthand appreciation for what Americans fight for and how very important it is that when we do fight, we win,” Shalikashvili, who died in 2011, once said.

A chat became a plan, Conaway recalls: “I was going to take the first trip behind the Iron Curtain to the emerging democracies, starting with the Baltics.”

Army Gen. Colin Powell, at the time chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, approved the plan. Conaway then visited the White House, and on Nov. 15, 1992, the 22nd CNGB and staff left Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, destination the Baltics, closed to the West for more than four decades.

The Russians had not yet left Latvia when Conaway touched down in Riga, the capital. He recalls being greeted by Latvian colonels with Russian colonels closely watching nearby. The Russians filmed his every step at the airfield and at subsequent stops in Tallinn, Estonia, and Vilnius, Lithuania.

“We went around and visited, saw how they lived, saw some of the austere conditions that the Russians had the Baltic people live in,” Conaway says. “You know they drafted them and sent them to Afghanistan to fight? We lost an awful lot of Baltic soldiers thanks to Russia.”

On the return flight, Conaway says, “We started talking about what can we do to help these folks, and how can we do it?”

There were models: The Minnesota National Guard had a longstanding relationship with Norway, and Puerto Rico led National Guard exchanges in Central and South America.

“Why don’t we do a little partnership thing to help the Baltic emerging militaries get started, and help train them, and help them with equipment?” Conaway, revered by some as the “Father of the State Partnership Program,” remembers thinking on that long flight back home.

The timing was auspicious: Desert Storm and Desert Shield were over, and the Warsaw Pact threat was collapsing. Suddenly, the National Guard had the capacity and capability to support this new mission at exactly the right moment.

From the outset, EUCOM provided the authority, funding, and direction for SPP engagement in Europe.

Conaway says the National Guard also was uniquely suited to the job.

“Potential partners saw how the National Guard operates, taking care of the local community in the state while also trained for the federal mission,” he says. “We fit their template better than the active-duty military did, and that’s why they came to us.”

General Powell agreed, writing in a memorandum to Conaway: “I know the Guard’s support will continue to be the key to the successful accomplishment of the mission. Keep up the good work!”

It takes a highly capable staff to execute leadership vision, and on Conaway’s team were three officers vital to shaping the program: Air Force Col. Vance Renfroe, Army Col. Wayne Gosnell, and retired Army Col. Max Alston, who was now a civilian in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.

Renfroe, now retired, vividly remembers the early meetings about the SPP, a concept on which he was instantly sold.

“I just got chills,” Renfroe says. “I said, “Wayne, tonight we are in rarefied air. People don’t know this, it’s usually written in the history books, but tonight you and I know that this idea is going to make history.”

Heritage guided which American states were selected as the first partners. More than 1% of Pennsylvanians report Lithuanian ancestry. Maryland had a concentration of Estonian descendants. Some Michigan residents traced their roots to Latvia.

Those first three partnerships formed in 1993, rapidly followed – the same year – by Alabama and Romania, Arizona and Kazakhstan, California and Ukraine, Colorado and Slovenia, Illinois and Poland, Indiana and Slovakia, Ohio and Hungary, Tennessee and Bulgaria, Texas and Nebraska and the Czech Republic, and Vermont and Macedonia. 

An idea had become a program, later chartered in United States Code – and it spread like wildfire.

“I had to fight them off,” Conaway says of the adjutants general of potential National Guard partners. “They were coming at me loaded. They all wanted in.”

There was no shortage of potential partner nations, either. “Countries started coming to us when they heard of it,” Conaway says. “Their embassy folks would say, ‘Hey, how do we get in?’”

The National Guard is the oldest military component in the United States, predating the American Revolution, and traces its roots to colonial militias, beginning with the First Muster in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1636.

“It sort of reminds me of our early militia days,” Conaway says. “They worked until they got a little better each year, and this is what we’ve seen emerge in some of our early, Eastern European partners. Some of them have done a beautiful job and have a very good military force now.”

Retired Air Force Gen. Craig McKinley was one of Conaway’s successors who nurtured and grew the program as the 26th Chief of the National Guard Bureau.

“The National Guard is a community-based defense force,” McKinley says. “And our communities are the key. Our Soldiers and Airmen come from our communities. 

“Our states and territories, with the governors and their adjutants general, are key because – in many cases – the countries that we partner with already have a demographic, economic, or academic relationship with them. So we bring a unity of effort to the partnership and the sustainability over time that only the National Guard, in my humble opinion, can bring.”

That sustainability is unique to the Guard, whose members – unlike their active-duty counterparts, who are typically rotated through different assignments in different places every three to four years – tend to stay in their home state for an entire career.

That stability means both Guardsmen and their foreign counterparts ascend the ranks simultaneously. Many of today’s National Guard and partner nation senior officers and noncommissioned officers first met as junior troops in the nascent days of the SPP, building invaluable trust over decades.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, 25th Chief of the National Guard Bureau, says there is another distinctive quality Guardsmen bring that makes the component the perfect fit for the SPP mission: Civilian-acquired skills.

“Typically, a Soldier is a Soldier, an Airman is an Airman,” Blum says. “They are not plumbers, electricians, farmers, doctors, teachers, lawyers, salesmen, business owners, entrepreneurs, mayors, civic leaders.

“Typically, our early partners had conscripts who came in and out of their ranks. And the only thing they knew is what the military taught them. And our people came in with civilian-acquired skillsets that are extraordinary and unexpected by virtue of their rank and their military occupational specialty or career field. 

“That is just a bonus. And, oh, by the way, they brought over American military values. Our partners saw it. You could feel it. You could touch it. And they saw it in all of our young men and women. Our Guardsmen act as role models, and they counter all the propaganda and all the stereotypical information.”  

This month, the SPP celebrates 30 years of forging and maintaining effective security cooperation partnerships, with National Guard leadership looking more forward than back, with plans that include enhancing existing partnerships, adding new ones, making the funding that pays for the program more predictable from year to year, and experimenting with noncommissioned officer representation in U.S. embassies overseas.

“I knew it would be bigger than what we had done prior to this,” Conaway says of the SPP, “but I did not realize the massive potential. I’m so thrilled it’s grown to 100 partner nations, and I give all the succeeding CNGBs credit – every one of them has jumped in and taken it to the next level.”

– William Boehm, historian, National Guard Bureau; and The Columbus Dispatch contributed.