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TRANSCRIPT | Jan. 29, 2024

General Daniel Hokanson and Major General Gregory Knight’s interview with Austrian’s Kurier newspaper

(General Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, and Maj. Gen. Gregory Knight, adjutant general of the Vermont National Guard, were interviewed by Armin Arbeiter, a journalist with Austrian newspaper Kurier on January 19, 2024.)


Armin Arbeiter So to what extent is the Austrian Armed forces into a national health benefit from the state partnership?

Gen. Hokanson I'll start out, and then I'll have Greg speak as well.  

Gen. Hokanson  The great thing about the State Partnership Program is it's an opportunity for one or more states, and their partner country, to really learn from each other. And we both benefit significantly from this. And, just like yesterday, I spent visiting some of your helicopter units. We fly the same type of helicopter in the United States and even in Vermont. We also do rescues like they do here. And so the opportunity to learn from each other, share experiences, makes both of us better. The other thing is, by allowing our Soldiers and Airmen they help train in Austria, they get to see the environment that you operate in. They get to be in Europe and see the relationships between all the countries here and it gives them a better global perspective. And so they become more attuned to what's going on in the world and correspondingly become better soldiers and airmen. And Greg, I know you have a lot more you can add to that.

Maj. Gen. Knight  Thanks for that. Yeah, it's a great question. And I've been involved with the state partnership program personally for over 23 years now. Well, the program itself has been in place for 30 years. So, Vermont, the Vermont National Guard, has three partners. We've been with North Macedonia for 30 years, with the Republic of Senegal in West Africa for 15 years, and then now coming up on our second anniversary with Austria.

But if you really want to see the program at its best, where it works the finest, is watching the interactions, as General Hokanson said, watching the interaction between the service members. I cannot replicate the experiences that they have when they're doing a state partnership event. Imagine the impact of what our work is in Senegal, working, by the way, with Austria for physical security and stockpile management and humanitarian demining. It's our Air National Guard [explosive ordnance disposal] personnel working with Austrian Armed forces to help the people of Senegal. I can't make that up. And that, to me, is where we really need to go.

If we do this right, you can have a multinational approach to this. So, imagine the impact for Austria to work with the Vermont National Guard and North Macedonia, or with the Republic of Senegal, or any of the other partnerships, to work towards a common goal. And I think that's probably the most powerful thing of the program. Within the partnership, we all have things in common. We serve a common purpose, as you know, you serve, and that's the foundational element, to me, of the State Partnership program.

Gen. Hokanson  And if you look at our program today, we have 80 partnerships with 100 countries. But the personal relationships are incredible because in the National Guard, we have a tendency to stay in the National Guard for our entire career, as do your military officers. And so, as Greg mentioned, over the course of 10 or 20 years, it's not just training together in the partnership, but you become friends, trusted friends, because you have gone through so many experiences together. I was an Oregon Guardsman and we had a partnership with Vietnam, and even when I went back later in my career, the generals that were now retired would come to the functions just to say, ”Hi,” and to see each other again. And it just it's just a very good program. And, it's very inexpensive for both of our countries. Yet the payback in terms of the ability to grow our capabilities, is really hard to put a monetary value on it.

Armin Arbeiter   In Austria every effort is made to find new personnel for the militia. Maybe let's, let's say the equivalent to the National Guard. Do you have the same issues in the U.S. finding, something personal.

Gen. Hokanson   So obviously we all face recruiting challenges. We were fortunate in the Army National Guard that we have met our recruiting goals or our end strength requirements. But we're always looking for the ability to connect with younger men and women to show them, you know, their ability, particularly in the National Guard, they can serve their country, but they can also serve their nation in the military and then they can also have a civilian career. They can have a civilian job and a family. And so we work very hard to find that balance so that they can have their military career in the National Guard, their civilian job, and then also their family. And we work very closely with the adjutants general to make sure our nation provides the policies, like the protections, for our Guardsmen when they're training so that they know they'll be able to go back to their job. But at the end of the day, our nations need a strong defense or a capability to remain neutral or, in our case, to, you know, to support our allies and partners. And so, we do need the constant influx of young men and women. And so, we do everything we can to make their service possible.

Armin Arbeiter   Absolutely. But, is it enough or does it work out in Vermont?

Maj. Gen. Knight   It's tough. Recruiting is hard. And in Vermont, like many places across the world right now, we're having workforce development challenges. So, I think this is another aspect of the State Partnership Program that folks probably should consider. Yes, foundationally, it's a military-to-military relationship. But Ambassador [Petra] Schneebauer came to Vermont a couple of months ago and signed an agreement, memorandum of agreement, with the State of Vermont to help us with apprenticeships, which is something that Austria does incredibly well. So, imagine if I can't find helicopter mechanics, as General Hokanson said, these are traditional drilling members of our Guard. One weekend a month, normally two weeks a year, come work on our helicopters. But imagine if we can build an apprenticeship and I can have a young man or woman come out of school and come intern with us and now become interested in service in the Guard while concurrently doing this work. So, it's not just military-to-military. It can, if we do it again, do this right, it becomes more of a whole of society approach.

Armin Arbeiter  Absolutely. So, regarding the, the fast mobilization in Ukraine and, even more in Israel and the problems with, especially Western, armed forces, is there a post-heroic age dawning?

Gen. Hokanson  Can you repeat that last part for me?

Armin Arbeiter  Yes. Is this the beginning of a post-heroic age in the Western societies?

Gen. Hokanson   So, I would say if you look at the readiness levels of our National Guard, of course, we try and maintain the highest levels we can, but one of the reasons we have the National Guard is it gives our nation a great capability and capacity at a reduced cost. And so, because our personnel costs are significantly less, it allows our nation to have a much larger military. And what we do is, because we're so large, that we can increase the readiness of those units so that they're able to meet whatever missions that are given. But if they're not getting ready to go somewhere then they stay at the standard rate, which, which costs a lot less. I hope that helps.

Armin Arbeiter   Yeah, absolutely. Thank you very much.

Maj. Gen. Knight   So, as to your question about a post heroic age, I think they're out there. I think we, as a service, can be a little more nimble in how we're messaging what it means to serve. Armin, I would be, and you’re in, I would be candid with anybody. It is not for everybody. There's a level of work ethic and discipline and personal sacrifice. I think if we lead with that and inform people of all that we do and, as the general said, all the capabilities that we're bringing and the opportunities that we offer people. I tell my story. If you're familiar with rank structure, I joined the military as an E-1 with no college. Well, obviously that's changed, and that's only because of the opportunities that come with the service in the Guard, in particular in my case. But I think if you start with giving back to people, that selfless service is probably the beginning of the conversation for one of the people to join and bring their talents to us.

Gen. Hokanson  And one thing that we find is, once people come in, they tend to stay. And like our retention rates are over 90 percent. And, so once they're part of the team, they realize how important it is and how valued they are. And then the benefits to them, not just the military training, but the experience they get in terms of leadership. And what we find with our companies that they work for, the businesses they work for benefit from the training that they receive and the leadership. But then also when our guardsmen come to do their military training, they bring their civilian skill set as well. And it makes them even, you know, more valuable of an asset to the military.

Armin Arbeiter   And so that's absolutely my opinion. But yeah, of course we have to we are struggling to find enough persons. But thank you for the answers to this. So to come to Ukraine, some people say that the U.S. is supplying Ukraine with, too, much to live for, uh to die for and, too, little to live for. So this was already the case before the lockdown in Congress. What is your take on it?

Gen. Hokanson   I would say we are 100 percent behind Ukraine and their ability to defend their sovereignty. I mean, they were unjustified invasion by another country. And I know that we're doing everything we can to help them, as is the majority of Europe, to help them defend their country and provide them the capabilities they need to do that.

Armin Arbeiter  But, for instance, it would have been easy to, send 100 HIMARS to Ukraine instead of 20, wouldn't it?

Gen. Hokanson   Well, you've got to balance that with the capabilities that we have to retain as well, to deter, in other parts of the globe. And I know that many countries have given more, some have given less. But I think what we all saw is the unification behind Ukraine and the travesty of Russia illegally invading them. And I think all of us are trying to provide what we can to help them be successful.

Armin Arbeiter   Once again in Ukraine, do you expect Russia, to launch another offensive in the upcoming months? And, what is your forecast for this year?

Gen. Hokanson   So, I don't know that I can forecast that. But obviously I know that [European Command] and Ukraine are watching this very closely, um, to make sure that they have the capabilities to prevent that or to at least address it.

Armin Arbeiter   The National Guard has helped to train Ukrainian soldiers as well. So were there any lessons you could learn from the Ukrainian soldiers?

Gen. Hokanson  So, I think if you go back to … so, the California National Guard has had a state partnership with Ukraine since 1993. They were one of our original partners and, after the invasion in 2014, the California National Guard as well as the U.S. military met with the Ukrainians to decide what went right, what went wrong, how they can improve. And since 2016, we were training with them in Lviv to help them address their shortcomings and then help prepare their military. And what you saw is, I think Russia assumed that they would just roll right through Ukraine. And you saw the valiant effort by Ukrainian soldiers and civilians who ward off the Russians. And so, we trained right up until just before the war started. And then we moved our training to Germany, and we continue to train Ukrainian forces today. Our National Guardsmen do.

Armin Arbeiter  Absolutely. But are there already some, yeah, some lessons, you learn by the Ukrainian soldiers? Because this warfare, right now, is a revolution in importance to reality.

Gen. Hokanson  It is. We do continue to learn things every day from them, you know, the consumption rate of munitions, the impact of Russian missiles going after critical infrastructure. The loss, sadly, of so many civilians due to indiscriminate, you know, missiles by the Russians. And so, you know, of course we're all looking very closely, to try and to help the Ukrainians to do better. But then also for us to learn and so that we don't repeat those mistakes at some time in the future.

Armin Arbeiter  I ask you, as an aviator, what kind of a difference can the F-16 fighter jets make here on the battlefield?

Gen. Hokanson  So, it's hard to describe that, you know, it depends on the aircraft. It depends on the air defense situation. It depends on the type of munitions. And, because I don't know how Ukraine would plan to implement those, I think that kind of remains to be seen. But I think the F-16 is very capable aircraft and, it will be, we'll wait to see how it's employed by the Ukrainians.

Armin Arbeiter  Since the outbreak of the Gaza War, numerous U.S. military bases in Iraq and Syria--you both served in Iraq, I think, and Afghanistan as well—have come under fire, mostly by pro-Iranian units. And the U.S. is obviously trying to de-escalate the situation. But what has to happen? And at what point wouldn't it be, sorry at what point would it be no longer possible to maintain the situation?

Gen. Hokanson   So, I think obviously we're very concerned about the safety and welfare of our soldiers. And so, we put up defensive systems to make sure that they're as safe as possible. And then, obviously, we would like to see the whole situation de-escalated.

There's a lot that has gone on recently, and you'll see like even the coalition over the Red Sea, it's not just the United States, but many other nations see the impact to their economies and to many nations that transit that area. And what you'll see is our response is we're trying to de-escalate the situation. We don't want it to …  to escalate any further. And we would like to see a peaceful end.

Armin Arbeiter   But suppose the US consulate in Erbil would have been hit on Monday night. What, yeah, what would have been the reaction

Gen. Hokanson   And I don't know the results of that, specifically. But, as I said, you know, we're putting in defensive systems to make sure that our people are safe. And then if our senior leadership determines that there is a retaliation, then they will conduct that at that time. But once again, we're trying to de-escalate the situation.

Armin Arbeiter   Yeah. I received, I think it was the one hour before the first strike, and the Houthis, when the Iranian vessels left the coast. But it said that a superpower must be able to shoulder two minor conflicts and one major conflict and attention to the conflict, currently on the rise in many regions all over the world. So, is the U.S. still in a position to assert all its interests throughout the world?

Gen. Hokanson  So, that's the beauty of having allies and partners, around the globe, because we all, you know, all of us want to protect our countries and our citizens and maintain the rules based international order. And so, obviously, we have great capability because our nation has provided that to our military, the resources to do that. But we can't do it alone. And that's why we really rely on our allies and partners to work together to de-escalate situations, so that our nations can continue to prosper, that our economies can continue to evolve, and provide for each of our citizens.

Armin Arbeiter  Is Europe doing enough to be considered as a good, valuable ally?

Gen. Hokanson   Oh, Europe has always been a great ally for us. And I know we work very closely together with NATO partners and non-NATO partners, and allies and friends, because we all see the importance of maintaining, you know, the rules-based international order so that our economies, our citizens and that, you know, we can live in peace and take care of our people.

Maj. Gen. Knight   And something else to consider Armin, if you look at … to General Hokanson’s point, we build capacity, we build capability, we focus on interoperability. We use as an example, we had a Vermont National Guard infantry company travel to North Macedonia two years ago and they were embedded with North Macedonian special forces, but they were training as a NATO ally with multiple, like 2,500 soldiers for this, this training exercise. But in the end, it was mutually beneficial. My Soldiers learned as much from training with soldiers from North Macedonia, with Italians, French, Spanish, British. Those are really hard to replace, hard to replicate. I have a hard time doing that training by ourselves in the United States.

I think the other takeaway for me, and this is General Hokanson’s point as well, this is not just a partnership with Vermont. This is a partnership with the National Guard. So, if I, for instance, have units deployed or I can't support a training event or I simply don't have that platform or that capability, that's a conversation with one of my colleagues in another state who has that capability. And we've seen this in North Macedonia. We're going to see it here, in Austria, it's a partnership with the 54 states, territories and Washington, D.C., not just Vermont.

Armin Arbeiter   And that's great, and that's my last question up here: military assistance, the concept of military assistance in Iraq and Afghanistan, has obviously failed. So is a State Partnership Program a better approach? Also, for countries like, let's say Mali in 10 years or maybe even Syria in 20 years, to bring back the partnership in a better way than, military assistance in Afghanistan and Iraq was.  

Gen. Hokanson   Yeah, and I think that really relies on our political leadership. But what we look at in a State Partnership Program, obviously, we usually go into a stable environment. But we highlight the mutual benefit there. And so, if the country sees a value in a partnership to help them build stability, or one of the more frequent thing we work is the cyber field, is working with their cyber forces to help make their country, their critical infrastructure more resilient, then we both get benefit from that. And so, we work with our State Department and our combatant commanders to help identify those countries that in the future, or currently, would be great candidates for a partnership program. And that's how we help develop those. Because, at the end of the day, if we can help a country or region become more stable or peaceful, then everyone benefits. Not just the region, but the partner nations, but even the people within the country, they see the stability, the peace—they can hopefully bring back hope where they can focus on taking care of themselves again.

Armin Arbeiter   The do you still believe in the military assistance? Like it was some that, like in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Gen. Hokanson  So, if you look at you go back to the State Partnership Program, and we do this with 100 countries right now, and in Afghanistan, you know, when I look at that, I would like to think that for 20 years that we showed that nation what democracy, what peace, and what hope is. And I hope that they always reflect on that time as it was beneficial to them. And then maybe sometime in the future that internally that they will pursue that and see the value of peace, security, and economic prosperity.

Maj. Gen. Knight   And I think if you look at the State Partnership Program, again, it's military-to-military. But what the National Guard brings, as General Hokanson mentioned earlier, is the continuity of effort. So other organizations, other personnel, they will come and go, but our organization will be a part of a partnership, so, it's an enduring relationship.

Already with Austria, we're seeing, again, the apprenticeship program. We just signed a memorandum of agreement with Theresian Military Academy and our senior military college in Vermont, Norwich University. So, now we're talking student exchanges, professorial exchanges, so we can have academics, guest lecturing, and guest teaching. If we provide the whole of society approach, from Austria to Vermont and Vermont and other states to Austria, and we're talking things that are not just military focused. If I look at my experience in the State Partnership Program, what I've come to realize that regional security, national security is not just a military proposition. It is food and fuel security, renewable energy, environmental conservation, it's the arts, it’s all of those things that make a society work. If we can be a part of that and facilitate those relationships and those engagements between colleges and universities, between other businesses, business to business, economic leaders, legislators, then that's a good thing for us.

Armin Arbeiter   Thank you for the interview.

Maj. Gen. Knight  Thank you, Armin.

Gen. Hokanson   Thanks, Armin.