Along the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, units of the Panamanian Public Forces conducted an operation in response to a mock terrorist threat in early July 2019. Exercise PANAMAX Alpha, coordinated with the Missouri National Guard (MONG), sought to strengthen Panamanian security forces’ crisis response to protect the crucial trade route.
Around the same time, in the Andean region of Tolemaida, Colombia, a deployment of 100 South Carolina National Guard (SCNG) soldiers carried out combined live-fire exercises with the Colombian Army. The operation, Together Forward, is aimed at strengthening Colombian service members’ tactics, techniques, and procedures.
Just months prior, South Dakota Army National Guard service members partnered with the Suriname National Army to deliver medical and dental services to residents of a rural community on the border with French Guiana. The objective was to contribute to improving the population’s health.
Each year, the U.S. National Guard conducts hundreds of similar exercises with partner nations worldwide, under the framework of the U.S. Department of Defense’s State Partnership Program (SPP), administered by the National Guard Bureau (NGB). In place since 1993, SPP, which links a state’s National Guard with a partner nation’s armed or public forces, has been building successful relationships and facilitating cooperation through military engagements in support of defense, security, and humanitarian goals.
“It’s all about partnerships and building trust — the importance of interoperability and cooperation,” said U.S. Army Captain Raymond Youngs, SPP program director for the New Hampshire National Guard (NHNG), partnered with El Salvador since 2000. “It’s about understanding each other better, knowing the expectations, and enhancing professionalism and interoperability so that we can better accomplish our missions.”
In 2019, SPP included partnerships with 76 nations worldwide, of those 24 fell under U.S. Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) umbrella. According to U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Juan Mora, SPP chief at SOUTHCOM, more than 140 events were carried out in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2018, and again in 2019.
According to the NGB Historical Services Branch, SPP evolved from a U.S. European Command decision to initiate engagements to help former Soviet-controlled republics and Eastern European nations rebuild their militaries. In the 1991 initiative, the National Guard played a prominent role cooperating on issues such as military education, disaster management, and civil-military relations. Two years later, SPP was born, partnering Estonia with Maryland, Latvia with Michigan, and Lithuania with Pennsylvania.
SOUTHCOM, NGB said, soon requested that the National Guard formally engage with countries under its command, and by 1996, four partnerships arose: Belize and Louisiana, Ecuador and Kentucky, Panama and Missouri, and Peru and West Virginia. In Latin America, however, SPP can be said to have its very own origins.
A 1988 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office on U.S. National Guard activities in Central America indicated that guardsmen conducted training exercises with Central American armed forces as early as the 1980s. The missions included building roads, schools, and clinics, and providing medical care to the population.
These exercises became a model for the work the National Guard would conduct during their deployment under SOUTHCOM in the Americas. To this day, medical and engineering development continue to be a major focus of SPP activities.
Cooperation building activities
SPP events are country-specific and planned yearly between partners. For example, according to U.S. Army Major Richard Sambolin, MONG bilateral affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Panama, in recent years, exercises in Panama prioritized emergency management preparedness.
“The subject matter exchanges revolved around all hazard responses with the Summit of the Americas , expansion of the Canal , and the visit of the Holy See ,” said Maj. Sambolin. “MONG was able to share lessons learned and methods used to streamline communication, requests for support, and develop common operation practices.”
Aviation maintenance and logistics; border, port, and aviation security; humanitarian assistance and disaster response capacity building; peace support operations capacity building; human rights support; and leadership development are among the many activities conducted under SPP. Activities are also meant to strengthen bonds of friendship and trust among partners.
In 2020, for example, the Salvadoran Army will send soldiers to New Hampshire to participate in the Best Warrior Competition, a friendly event that seeks to test soldiers’ combat capabilities. In 2019, SCNG deployed four F-16s to take part in Colombia’s F-AIR, an international air show and exhibition dedicated to the aerospace and defense industries — marking the third deployment of F-16s to Colombia since the 2012 partnership debut.
The enduring efforts to build trust and cooperation between partners are also evident at the time of pairing a state’s National Guard with a nation. According to Lt. Col. Mora, resources, geographic similarities, shared cultural ties, shared natural disaster threats, and prior engagement efforts, are among the criteria taken into account.
The long-standing partnership between Panama and MONG for example, goes back to a mid-80s project to build roads, bridges, schools, and water wells. The 2011 partnership between Haiti and the Louisiana National Guard, ushered from relief efforts reservists provided in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 hurricane, both also share a French colonial history.
If SPP focuses on a partner nation’s needs, the benefits are mutual. As U.S. Army Brigadier General David Boyle, MONG director of the Joint Staff, put it, “SPP is a win-win.”
In Panama, U.S. reservists have been able to use the country’s geographic features to strengthen jungle combat skills. In Colombia and Peru, soldiers build up their guerilla warfare knowledge. The characteristics of the partnership itself can also weigh in.
“The Missouri-Panama partnership is unique and important because Panama is one of only two countries in Central America without a traditional military force,” said Brig. Gen. Boyle. “This makes SPP even more relevant, connecting [MONG’s] emergency response mission and expertise with Panama’s security forces — police, fire, emergency management, and sea, air, and ground border security.”
While partners tap into each other’s knowledge, nations can also benefit from skills and capabilities of the U.S. National Guard. “The capability is out there for the National Guard to lean on other forces for support,” said U.S. Air Force Captain Stephen Hudson, SCNG SPP program director, citing that SCNG once sought help from the Connecticut National Guard to address a Colombian military request for help with their working dog program.
The U.S. and partner nations share a long-term view of common interests. Since its inception in Latin America, SPP has been preserving critical partnerships, while also building stronger bonds for a more secure future. In recent years, SPP welcomed two new countries: Argentina, paired with Georgia (2016); and Brazil, paired with New York (2019).
“The SPP is without a doubt a successful program and continues to exceed expectations. Since its inception, the program has managed to stand firm on what is now the Command’s strategic theme, ‘Enduring Promise for the Americas,’” said Lt. Col. Mora. “The SPP served as the catalyst for strengthening and sustaining our alliances and partnerships in the Western Hemisphere, which helps to accelerate and shape the global expansion of the competitive space in ways that advance our mutual interests.”