Cairo, Egypt and Austin, Texas may be more than 7,000 miles apart, but this summer, they got a bit closer. Mabrouk! (“congratulations”) to Egypt, who on August 24 signed a new exchange partnership with the Texas National Guard under the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program (SPP).
Like a military version of “sister cities,” SPP links State National Guard units from across the country with foreign militaries for exchanges, exercises, and other activities that help us build new skills and work together more effectively to meet shared security challenges. “The pilot light of security cooperation,” and “the U.S. military’s best-kept secret,” are among the ways senior policymakers have described this security cooperation effort that has been quietly building enduring U.S. military partnerships around the world for more than 30 years. In an era of great power competition, it’s a one-of-a-kind program that offers another example of why the United States the global security partner of choice.
The SPP dates back to 1993 as one way the United States worked to build ties with new military forces from countries emerging from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Today, the SPP continues to grow and foster new partnerships. The Texas National Guard’s size and capability make it the only state with three partners, which includes Chile and a shared partnership with Nebraska and Czechia.
For countries that do not have an established history of security cooperation with the United States, SPP can offer a first look at the benefits of U.S. partnership. For countries like Egypt, with which enjoyed decades of close a U.S. cooperation, SPP adds an additional opportunity to further work with U.S. Army and Air National Guard units with similar mission sets and equipment.
“The Texas National Guard has a history of cooperation with Egypt, including participation in several rounds of Exercise Bright Star and support to the Multinational Force and Observers,” said Maj. Gen. Tracy Norris, Commander of the Texas National Guard, referring to an almost 40-year-old international peacekeeping force overseeing the terms of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. “This history makes Texas a natural choice for a formal partnership. Additionally, the Texas National Guard’s expertise in key areas, such as C-130 and F-16 operations, disaster assistance, and border security make, it an ideal partner to further U.S.-Egyptian security cooperation and exchange efforts.”
Texas is home to the largest National Guard complement and significant force structure, including an infantry division and fighter wing. Thanks to its substantial size and recent operational experience, the Texas National Guard’s partnership with Egypt will help to improve the capabilities of Egyptian forces. “We have an unbelievable wealth of combat and operational experience from Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, Djibouti, and Operation Talisman Saber in Australia – we’ve operated in theaters around the world, which buys us more respect in the region. When people ask them ‘what have you done,’ the combat patches and qualification badges our service members wear show it firsthand,” reflects Mr. Bill Duff, Texas Military Department’s Deputy J-5.
U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Jonathan Cohen adds: “U.S.-Egyptian security cooperation goes back more than 40 years and has been the cornerstone of our strategic partnership. The SPP adds a new dimension to this partnership by increasing capabilities to closely cooperate on a range of key strategic areas, including flight operations and maintenance, cyber defense, logistics, and humanitarian and disaster assistance.”
A Unique Form of Security Cooperation
The SPP is something of a hidden gem within the broader array of security cooperation and assistance programs the U.S. can offer. Implemented by the National Guard Bureau, SPP pairs National Guard organizations from the 54 states and territories with partner country security forces for key leader engagements, subject-matter expert exchanges, and cooperative exercises. Mr. Ed White, the Department of State’s foreign policy advisor (POLAD) to the Chief of the National Guard Bureau, serves in a position that provides him visibility on all SPP programs. “The SPP program is unique in the enduring ties that develop between states and their partners,” says White. “National Guard personnel are linked throughout their careers with their partner country counterparts. The decades-long relationships and friendships, developed through the SPP program, are a unique aspect of the program that are also invaluable in building enduring partnerships.”
U.S. embassies and combatant commands to the Joint Staff, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, and the National Guard Bureau annually identify and nominate potential SPP partners. On average, the process produces two new partnerships per year. State National Guard organizations make ‘bids’ for new partners with the rationale for each pairing varying widely. Illinois’ large Polish-American diaspora communities led to its partnership with Poland. Collaboration on energy research and extraction continues to bring Azerbaijan and Oklahoma together. While a partnership between the state of Georgia and the Republic of Georgia seems too good to be true, their partnership includes multiple efforts such as collaboration on civilian control of the military and establishing Georgia’s National Defense Academy in Tbilisi.
In perhaps the apogee of security cooperation, combined SPP partner-nation and American units have even deployed together in combat in Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams since the early 2000s. SPP partnerships encouraged some North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners, such as Slovenia (Colorado), Latvia (Michigan), Hungary (Ohio), Lithuania (Pennsylvania), Croatia (Minnesota), Bulgaria (Tennessee), and others, to train and deploy together to advise and fight alongside Afghan and Iraqi security forces.
SPP’s role in great power competition
In today’s strategic environment of great power competition, the United States seeks to maximize strengths afforded by its alliances and partnerships. It is in this context where SPP takes on new relevance and usefulness – serving to expand the competitive space in adversary spheres of influence and develop new partnerships with states that may have previously been reluctant to engage the United States in security cooperation. Ed White’s role as the POLAD to the National Guard Bureau provided him a nuanced perspective on the SPP’s role in strengthening partnerships and the U.S.’s competitive posture. “The SPP is a key component to building strong and enduring partnerships and alliances, which is something our competitors struggle to do. The decades-long relationships fostered through the SPP are a unique capability that we bring to competition with our strategic rivals.”
Today, SPP provides the U.S. with inroads to partnerships countries that were adversaries just a few decades ago. From the former Soviet republics in the Baltic region, where the program started, to Vietnam (partnered with Oregon in 2012) in southeast Asia, SPP partnerships form a burgeoning worldwide network of friendships and opportunities. R. Clarke Cooper, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, described the SPP as “an affirmation of our confidence in our valued partners, and something that forces our adversaries to perk up and take notice, in a good way. One of America’s chief comparative advantages is our worldwide network of allies and partners; and SPP lets our adversaries know there is no region of the globe off-limits and no partner they can take for granted as we continue to forge and deepen relationships wherever we go.”
About the Author: Mr. Russell Galeti serves as a strategic planner in the Office of Security Assistance, in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.