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Home : News : State Partnership Program
NEWS | May 3, 2024

Guard Leaders Stress NCOs Role in State Partnership Program

By Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Pena, National Guard Bureau

LAS VEGAS – Developing NCOs has long been a strategy in the U.S. military to build capability and maintain readiness by providing the education and training required to operate in complex environments.

While the professional development of NCOs is varied in focus internationally, many countries recognize the critical importance of their enlisted force and increasingly prioritize training and professional development programs.

At the National Guard Bureau’s annual State Partnership Conference in Nevada in April, a consistent theme was the importance of enlisted development — a cornerstone of the Defense Department National Guard SPP for more than 30 years. Delegates from several partner countries attended the conference, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Fiji, Georgia, Indonesia, Moldova, Morocco, the Philippines, Poland, Qatar, Romania and Tonga.

Senior Enlisted Advisor Tony Whitehead, the SEA to the chief of the National Guard Bureau, discussed the progress and development of noncommissioned officers from the United States and partner nations.

“Over time, our approach to developing enlisted personnel has undergone significant changes,” said Whitehead. “While the development of our partner nations and allied enlisted forces may not have been a top priority initially, it would always be a crucial aspect of our strategy. As we examine our operations and objectives, it becomes evident that the continued development of our enlisted personnel is critical to achieving our national defense goals.”

Whitehead also emphasized the substantial growth in NCO participation abroad over the past 30 years, including the impact of their development through NGB’s 89 partnerships with 106 countries.

Some of the current shared NCO activities include the Best Warrior competitions, which were initially exclusive to the Army National Guard at the state level. Over time, these events expanded to include the Air National Guard, with each state eventually inviting their international partners to participate, fostering broader military collaboration and cohesion.

“Some aspects of our development go beyond traditional settings like classrooms or military institutions,” said Whitehead. “We excel in engaging our Soldiers and Airmen in practical, hands-on experiences, focusing on the technical skills they require from us. This approach leverages our strengths and ensures effective learning and application in real-world scenarios.”

Additional examples of collaboration include inviting partners to participate in professional military education programs like the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy, Airman Leadership School, Air Force NCO Academy, and U.S. military graduate-level universities and colleges.

“These opportunities allow partners to understand better how the U.S. military educates and empowers its enlisted members,” said Whitehead. “One important thing to us as a National Guard is getting our NCOs involved in professional development earlier in their career. And as we do it, we can do the same for our partners and allies.”

Whitehead also highlighted the progress in including partner nations in diversity and inclusion events, such as celebrating International Women’s Day. The National Guard reinforces the Department of Defense’s Women, Peace, and Security framework by engaging with partner nations across the globe on WPS initiatives.

“As I look back on my time in the military over 41 years ago, I am encouraged at the progress made towards including women in the military,” said Whitehead. “We have been deliberate in positioning our leaders to capitalize on opportunities for growth within the U.S., particularly in how we integrate and utilize women in our formations.

“It is impressive to hear stories like the recent one of women leaders from the New Jersey National Guard hosting an event and inviting their partner country Albania to participate and openly address female service members’ challenges, contributing to a culture of equality and respect.”

In 2023, more than 9,000 Guardsmen completed 1,600 engagements worldwide through the SPP, an increase from previous years. Today, the 50 states, three territories, and the District of Columbia are paired with at least one of 106 partner nations across every geographic combatant command.

During the conference, Chief Master Sgt. Mikael Sundin, senior enlisted advisor to the director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, delivered a speech on security cooperation and NCO development.

Sundin emphasized the importance of conducting assessments of paired countries to identify gaps or needs in supporting them effectively. He also recommended state leaders review their strategies to ensure they successfully engage in military-to-military interactions that align with defense security goals.

“Are you following combatant command strategy?” asked Sundin to state leaders. “Let’s think about how deep we go into your strategy to develop your NCO corps, not just through overarching institutional capacity-building activities, but really NCO-focused.

“As our national defense strategy says, we will not fight alone. Our partner nations and allies are significant to our progress.”

Leaders from the National Guard Bureau indicated they will continue to advocate for the program’s relevance and growth. Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said more engagements are needed.

“Together, we execute 20 to 30 percent of the geographic combatant command’s engagements that are SPP related or enabled with only a small fraction of the U.S. Security Cooperation budget,” said Hokanson.

“It is clear the State Partnership Program is a valuable investment and a force multiplier for our nation’s defense. We must continue to do more and look for opportunities with our partner countries.”

Last year, the Guard’s partnership program achieved an 89 percent execution rate for military-to-military engagements. In 2024, the program will add six more partnerships: Finland, Palau, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, Sweden, and Tanzania.

The addition of these nations builds upon the National Guard’s ability to support the National Defense Strategy through enhanced security cooperation with allies and partners.

Whitehead said he’s confident that, as the SPP expands, the need to share NCO development best practices with partner nations will also grow.

“I am eager to see what will transpire in the following discussions, as this is precisely what we do as an enlisted force,” said Whitehead. “We take the mission, vision and purpose our commanders provide us and turn it into actionable steps.

“Standing before you, I wish to assure you, on behalf of Gen. Daniel Hokanson and myself, that we are committed to maintaining our enlisted force as the foremost fighting force and teaching force for our partners and allies.”