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TRANSCRIPT | March 9, 2024

McAleese Defense Programs Conference: General Daniel Hokanson

(Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, spoke to industry leaders, military leaders, and elected officials March 7, 2024, during the 15th Annual McAleese Defense Programs Conference in Washington, D.C.)

Good morning, distinguished guests, fellow service members, ladies and gentlemen.

This morning, I'd like to take you back two years to a Ukrainian soldier who was in trouble. His homeland had just been brutally invaded. Civilians had been killed in the onslaught and destruction. Invading Russian army was four times larger than the Ukrainian forces he was fighting for. And now, he was face to face with a Russian tank and his anti-tank weapon malfunctioned. But the Ukrainian soldier had a cell phone and through an encrypting phone app he called a friend in the Washington National Guard over 6,000 miles away.

Before Russia's invasion, Guardsmen had been the lead instructor in training Ukrainian soldiers on how to use the anti-tank missile. Now he was serving as tech support when the stakes could not have been higher. The Guardsman explained to his former Ukrainian student how to clear and do a functions check on the weapon. Then their communications went silent for over 30 minutes. Then his phone pinged again and the text message was just a photo of a destroyed Russian tank that was still on fire.

Ladies and gentlemen, honored guests, that’s the importance of allies and partnerships. It's nothing short of life and death. And that's why I'd like to thank McAleese and Associates for inviting me to speak with you this morning about how the National Guard is pulling partnerships and allies for our nation, and in turn, helping them build capability and capacity for the good of their nation.

The Ukrainian soldier was able to destroy the Russian tank because of an existing relationship and because we gave them the right equipment. The Ukrainian soldier and the Guardsmen had trained together in a multinational training exercise in 2021 that included the Washington National Guard 81st Striker Brigade Combat Team. To this day, National Guardsmen continue to train Ukrainian soldiers and airmen, as we have for over 30 years. And since Russia's unprovoked invasion in 2022, we have trained more than 7,500 soldiers from 19 different Ukrainian battalions in the European Command area of responsibility.

All of this training builds on a relationship that began in 1993 as part of the most productive, cost-effective Security Cooperation agreement you’ve probably never heard of—the National Guard State Partnership Program. The State Partnership Program, or as I’ll refer to as the SPP, formally pairs a state’s National Guard with its partner nations’ military, security forces, and disaster response organizations.

Today we have partnerships with over 100 nations around the world. All 50 states, three territories, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, and Washington, D.C., have at least one partner nation. As a brief history, the State Partnership Program began after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As they emerged from behind the Iron Curtain, former Soviet states looked to reform their militaries, moving away from a communist system towards democracy and civilian control of their armed forces.

Because of our legacy of state militias, and because it would seem less provocative to Russia at the time, the National Guard was the obvious choice to lead these engagements. In addition, the Guard is experienced with disaster response, search and rescue, and civil-military relationships, which were all of great interest to the former Soviet states at that time. And so in 1993, the first three SPP partnerships began. Estonia with Maryland, Latvia with Michigan, and Lithuania with Pennsylvania.

Today, there are multiple state partnerships in every area of responsibility and we’ll add seven new partner nations this year: Saudi Arabia, Finland, Sweden, Tanzania, Gabon, Sierra Leone, and Palau. The pairing of states with a nation are not random - demographics, economics and military size and composition are all factored in. This helps establish a sense of commonality and make the partnerships beneficial for both parties. Over the years, we've seen some truly inspired pairings. For instance, SPP partners Oklahoma and Azerbaijan are both rich in oil. Illinois’ large Polish-American community made it a natural fit for Poland. The state of Georgia and the country of Georgia share more than a name—they’re partners through the SPP.  And because of this program, Kosovo’s very first foreign consulate … is in Des Moines, Iowa.

In 2023 alone, more than 9,000 Guardsmen completed nearly 1,500 world-wide SPP engagements. To put that in perspective, the SPP enables between a quarter and a third of our Nation’s security cooperation engagements, with just one percent of our security cooperation budget. But as impressive as the numbers may be, they only tell a small part of the SPP story. 

The best stories are about people - because the SPP is ultaimtely about people. It’s about mutually beneficial relationships where we learn from each other. It’s about finding commonality across cultures and languages. It’s about partnerships. It’s about cooperation that endures for 30 years - and counting. You can find examples in every combatant command - and one of the greatest honors I have, as Chief, is having the opportunity to witness these examples, and see the impact of this program all around the world. 

Last year, I visited Hanoi, Vietnam, where the Oregon National Guard was training with a delegation from the Vietnam National Committee for Incident, Disaster Response, and Search and Rescue. They were holding a disaster management exercise. This allowed both partners to improve their ability to respond to natural disasters and communicate effectively with key agencies. This visit was especially significant to me as an Oregon Guardsman. Since the partnership between Vietnam and the Oregon National Guard began more than a decade ago, I’ve seen how the relationship between our Guardsmen and our Vietnamese partners has grown. I remember visiting Vietnam as Oregon’s Adjutant General in 2014, just two years after the partnership began—and I am proud to see how it’s evolved. In fact, during my recent visit, the Vietnamese counterparts I had worked with in 2014—who had all since retired - all traveled from parts of Vietnam to see me - a testament to how these partnerships build relationships that endure and develop over time.

I also had the opportunity to witness our Guardsmen, and their partners in action, at the African Lion training exercise in 2021. It was my first overseas travel as Chief, and I was excited by the opportunity to see our National Guardsmen and service members from nine partner nations training side-by-side. One of the nations, Morocco - the host of the event - had been partnered with the Utah National Guard for nearly two decades. Utah and Morocco cooperate on combined arms capabilities, including special forces, attack helicopters, artillery, and fighter aircraft. Other exchanges include humanitarian demining, emergency medicine, disaster response, and non-commissioned officer development. 

Less than a year into their partnership, Morocco was struck by a devastating earthquake. Less than 72 hours later, the Utah National Guard delivered emergency relief supplies with their KC-135 aircraft. Morocco has shown staunch support for their security cooperation relationship with the Utah National Guard, which makes our populations more secure. This partnership has promoted lasting friendships, deepened understanding, and cultural appreciation between the people of the United States and Morocco. And that’s because these partnerships are an exchange - where we work together, learn from each other, and strengthen each other.

In December of 2022, I traveled to Ecuador as part of the South American Defense Conference. Ecuador is partnered with the Kentucky National Guard - a partnership that’s been reinvigorated by shared challenges in recent years. Large-scale disasters are an ongoing concern for both Ecuador and Kentucky. While the Kentucky National Guard responded to historic flooding in 2022 and 2023, they also train to respond to earthquakes, given their proximity to the New Madrid fault line. And in their training, they look to their state partner, Ecuador, who experiences many of the same disasters. But they don’t just trade disaster response expertise. In June of last year, senior [non-commissioned officer] instructors from Kentucky’s Regional Training Institute met with senior [non-commissioned officer] instructors from Ecuador’s army and air force on how to best train their service members. It was the first of a growing number of all-enlisted subject matter expert exchanges. 

As cyberspace becomes a critical warfighting domain, the benefits of our partnerships extend into the digital realm as well. One example is Poland, which I mentioned earlier,  is partnered with the Illinois National Guard. In recent years - particularly in light of the cyber threats posed by Russia - Poland began seriously hardening its cyber operations, observing their Illinois National Guard Partners and learning how they handled this contested domain. In a few short years, Poland has developed a formidable cyber program, recently ranked sixth in a global cyber defense index that measures advance resilience against cyber-attacks. 

In another example, the Texas National Guard and the Chilean army met last August for a joint cyber security exercise in Santiago. The exercise simulated an attack on a government website, and partners from both countries worked together to fix the problem and address vulnerabilities.   

We may be separated by language or distance, but we are united in what we seek - a peaceful, stable world. Safe countries and safe citizens. And together, we step closer to making these things possible. We also have the opportunity to address the things that challenge all of us: cyber threats, mal-information and disinformation, global pandemics, malevolent actors, climate change and energy crisis just to name a few. These challenges aren’t confined to a single country, a single region, or even a single hemisphere. Both directly and indirectly, they impact all of us. They are our collective problem - and addressing and overcoming them is our collective responsibility.

As I mentioned earlier, in 1993, when the SPP began, the first three partner countries were Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia—Baltic nations who knew the brutality of Soviet rule. I visited all of them in July shortly after the war started. 

In Estonia, who is partnered with Maryland, I visited a cyber defense center; Estonia has become an international leader in cyber defense after their nation was crippled by a Russian cyber-attack in 2007.  

In Latvia, who is partnered with Michigan, I visited the multinational NATO division headquarters. On my last day, in Lithuania, who is partnered with Pennsylvania, I visited the Genocide and Resistance Research Center. It’s in a building that housed the Gestapo during World War II, and the KGB during the Soviet era. Within its walls, countless Lithuanians were held, tortured, and killed. 

In those countries I heard the words: “This is our war.”  I heard, “Ukrainians are defending our values.”  I heard, “A Russian tank destroyed in Ukraine won’t come here.” And I heard “We would rather die than go back to Russian domination.”  

Our partners know the stakes of defending democracy. They know the value of sovereignty and independence. They know the importance of alliances, the power of trust, the strength of cooperation - and the consequences of isolation and complacency. 

Let’s go back to the Ukrainian Soldier with the anti-tank missile.  Ukraine, like the Baltic States, was one of original partnerships in 1993 – and partnered with California.   

Even before Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the California National Guard was sending trainers to Ukraine. But after 2014, the California National Guard accelerated their training, helped establish a major training location in Ukraine, and worked with the Ukraine forces to address the areas they needed to improve on based on their fighting with Russia – this included joint operations, air defense, anti-armor, logistics and development of a non-commissioned officer corps. 

In the year since, Ukraine transformed from an unseasoned military, reliant on Soviet-era equipment and tactics, to a fighting force capable of challenging one of the largest militaries in the world - despite being outmanned and outgunned. This has been achieved - in part - through cooperation and training since 2015 with the California National Guard, nine different National Guard brigade combat teams, and active-duty Soldiers who formed the Joint Multi-National Training Group – Ukraine. 

The success of these partnerships is built on relationships that endure across decades, spanning the entire duration of careers. I see the relationships develop in our adjutants general and ministers and chiefs of defense. These are genuine friendships with shared history, mutual understanding, and yes – inside jokes.

These relationships can be found at every rank. Our Guardsmen befriend and keep in touch with their partner nation service members - as highlighted by the Ukrainian with the anti-tank missile. As their careers progress, those relationships endure. When it is time to train, time to respond, or time to fight, our Guardsmen and our partners build on existing relationships of trust and respect. When called, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with friends, not strangers.

In the current strategic environment, these relationships matter more than ever. Russia’s violent, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has increased interest in the SPP and other security cooperation agreements. Meanwhile, the SPP helps the United States remain the partner of choice at a time when China, our pacing challenge, uses predatory diplomatic and economic tactics to fulfill its imperial ambitions.

I don’t use the term “partner of choice” lightly. The fact is, these partnerships can’t be forced; they are a product of trust, respect, and free will. Every interaction with our partners either strengthens or weakens that bond. Every moment we share, from a signing ceremony, to a training exercise, is an opportunity to improve our relationship with our partner nations - and our standing as the partner of choice around the world.

Our 2022 National Defense Strategy is clear: Mutually beneficial alliances and partnerships - like the State Partnership Program - are an enduring strength.  And they will be even more critical in the years ahead. There are so many benefits to our cooperation—stronger diplomatic relations, greater prosperity, advancements in science and technology, improved resilience in the face of adversity, and a stable, more peaceful world for generations to come. Freedom and democracy are American values—but we can’t uphold them alone. 

Instead, we must tend to our networks, nurture our alliances, and invest in the partnerships that may one day make the difference between stability and chaos, between democracy and authoritarianism, or one day - victory or defeat. Our National Guard motto is: Always Ready, Always There. The State Partnership Program is fundamental to that motto, not only for us, but for our partner Nations as well. 

Thank you again for joining me this morning. With the time we have left, I’d love to hear your questions.  

Moderator  You truly are the one service that is drawing from its inception. And so the question I would ask for you, not only are you dealing with multiple budgets, NGREA (National Guard & Reserve Equipment Account) funding, all of the service funding and your own funding, but also you're dealing with two services that are in reorganization right now. The Army's gonna drop 24k, go down to 270,000, some kind of change in force structure is still to be announced. And the Air Force's has announced the announced the reoptimization for global war or large scale conflict. How are you balancing all of those? And what's the impact on the Guard?

GEN Hokanson  Okay. So that's a great question. So for those that may not be very familiar with the National Guard, we were formed in 1636, we’re the oldest military organization in the United States, at 435,000 we’re the second-largest military organization in the Department of Defense. In fact one-in-five service members is in the National Guard. In the Army National Guard we have eight full divisions. In the Air National Guard, we have 90 Wings and we fly every aircraft in the U.S. inventory accept the B-1 and the B-52. And so, when you look at the incredible capability and capacity that the National Guard ranks, we work very closely with both with the Army and the Air Force because we provide that depth. When you look at deployments, in fact, recently, we had an unfortunate event in Tower 22, when a one-way UAV came in and actually killed three Army Reservists, sadly. There were also 41 National Guardsmen wounded in action there. In any given day, like today, we have 27,000 Guardsmen deployed around the globe and we have another about 30,000 here mobilized within the United States. So, our National Defense Strategy cannot really exist without the National Guard, we’re so critical to that. And your point about working with the Army and Air Force, We are unique in that, that we’re joint, we've got adjutants general in every state that commands both army and air forces.

But we work very closely with the Army and Air Force to make sure that all of our equipment, number one, it’s got to be deployable, got to be repairable, and it’s got to be interoperable with everything on the battlefield. And so we work very closely with the services to do that. And you mentioned NGREA funding is additional funding that Congress gives us every year to offset where the Army and the Air Force’s budget ends, and allows us to do innovative solutions to problems that we face to make sure our equipment is modernized. And the concern, obviously, is when you have a continuing resolution, if it goes for the full year, that money goes away and it sets us back, really, multiple years, because the equipment we plan to modernize, now gets moved to the next year, which shifts everything else, another year, so it is devastating.

The State Partnership Program I talked to you about this morning. When we have a continuing resolution, a significant amount of that funding doesn't come to us until we get an appropriation. And so, we're now almost to the middle of March. When we get an appropriation, whatever funding we get, we have to execute by September 30th. And so now, when you talk about some of our allies and partners, when you tell us on April 1st, “Hey, I got all this money, can we plan something between now and September 30th?”

They're like, “No, all our exercise are planned or training, we can't do anything until after the 1st of October,” which doesn't help us because now that money's no longer valid. And so the impact of the budget issues that we face, are enduring and something that we just can't overcome. And, so, thank you for that.

Audience Question  Sir, Brigadier General [inaudible] Sanders in Michigan and we're also working in the White House. Sir, I’m interested in your viewpoints on how there's a lot of industry partners here, as well as government, but how we best can work together to achieve some of these situations, but to solve some of these SPP issues [inaudible]? 

GEN Hokanson  So one of the interesting challenges I face is I meet with many, not only,  presidents of countries, but all their chiefs of defense and ministers of defense, in light of the reason for a lot of them have donated to the Russian government Ukraine to get into the fight, which has been really helpful because the Ukrainians aren’t used to that type of equipment. But many of them, when they look to donate this stuff, they’re saying “Look, I need something to replace them, because, at the end of the day, I have to defend our country.” And so, it's critically important that our defense industrial base can fill that gap so that Russia or China, that doesn't fill that gap. Obviously, many of them will never buy Russian companies that which is very, you know, quite appropriate, I would say, right now. But we're trying to work with them to give them options so that they know I can give that because there is something coming along the way. The other thing is our capacity to provide that is a challenge. And one of the countries’ chief of defense invited me in and he said, “Look, Dan, because of the war, I've got all this money, but if I can't put it on contract or spend it, they're going to take it back and I'll never get that money again.” And so, the ability for us to give our partners and allies options, to fill the need they have is critically important.

And within our National Guard State Partnership Program, we work very closely with them to help identify, you know, their gaps [inaudible] and what equipment that they might need so that hopefully we can connect them. Or they could have been made aware of sources available to them. Thank you.

Audience Question  Good morning, Sir. [inaudible] Earlier, Sir, we were talking about innovation [inaudible] across the board all right, that's going on now [inaudible]. Can you kind of elaborate on the SPP as far as your goals and stuff like that [inaudible]?

GEN Hokanson So when you look at the innovative aspect of this, one of the great things about the State Partnership Program is every country we train with is really good at a multiple thing. And when we train with them, we say ‘hey here’s some things that we’re really good at.” And we also ask them, or we usually know in advance, what [inaudible] and we say, “Hey, can you help us with this? Because you guys are really good at this.”

And so, in that respect we kind of share tactics, but then we also share equipment, like if sometimes can you develop this organically, or we have this but we’re missing this piece when we look at our force composition. Is there something that the U.S. uses or something out there that could potentially address that. And so, in that respect, we try and work together because at the end of the day, we're all just trying to protect our citizens. And one thing that we have seen since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, we’ve seen some interest from neutral countries. So, Austria historically neutral since World War II, partnered with the Vermont National Guard.  And their point was, “look we're surrounded by NATO countries, but at the end of the day, we have to provide a formidable force to deter anybody from doing anything.” Not only that but they’re finding cyber doesn’t acknowledge boundaries. So we can be surrounded by NATO countries, and we’re still going to be vulnerable to cyber attacks. There are other neutral countries as well that are looking at this, but they need to develop capability. And so, we're working with them on innovative ways to get to where they want to be, understanding the financial constraints. 

Moderator General thank you very much for your time today and for participating in the McAleese Defense Conference.