Officials: National Guard's role in Eastern Europe vital

Air Force Gen. Craig McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, speaks during the opening of the 2011 United States European Command and national Guard Bureau State Partnership conference in Garmish-Pertenkirchen, Germany, Aug. 17-18, 2011. The partnership program is going on its 20th year as a part of the National Guard's global strategy. Darron Salzer/Courtesy U.S. Army

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 18, 2011

STUTTGART, Germany — The mission started small: three National Guard units matched with military units from three former Soviet bloc nations.

Nearly two decades later, U.S. European Command and Guard officials are touting the program — which today pairs militaries of 65 nations with state Guard units — as an efficient way to conduct joint training at a time of looming budget cuts. Twenty-two of those programs are in Europe.

“I think the State Partnership Program was designed to work in an austere financial environment,” said Air Force Gen. Craig R. McKinley, chief of the National Guard Bureau, who was in Germany this week for meetings with American and European military commanders. Military officials from the U.S. and 22 European countries wrapped up the 2011 United States European Command and National Guard Bureau State Partnership conference in Garmisch on Thursday, which focused on ways to bolster training missions across the region.

“This is exportable,” said McKinley. “It’s something that can grow.”

For EUCOM, the National Guard’s State Partnership Program, has long been regarded as a force multiplier. The Guard currently conducts nearly half (46 percent) of security cooperation activities in the EUCOM theater of operation, according to Guard statistics.

While it remains unclear how Pentagon budget cuts will eventually be doled out, McKinley argues that the $13 million it costs his bureau to run the State Partnership Program is a relative bargain.

EUCOM chief Adm. James Stavridis, who hosted the event in Garmisch, told the conference’s attendees that the Guard’s citizen soldiers have played a key role in strengthening relations between the U.S. and eastern European militaries. Going forward, the Guard’s citizen soldiers also could play an important role by bringing their private sector expertise to challenges such as cyber security, he said.

“I think the State Partnership Program is a perfect example of how we should be using military forces in this 21st century,” Stavridis said.

For its part, the Guard is seeking congressional authorization to coordinate its activities with the civil sector. By partnering the Guard with civilian institutions such as hospitals, universities and emergency service providers, a more comprehensive government approach to security cooperation missions is possible, McKinley said.

“We have to have the proper authorities to do that,” McKinley said. “That’s truly where gains will be made.”

During the conference, special attention was given to disaster response planning and how the military should work with various civilian institutions. Guard, EUCOM and foreign military commanders worked alongside civilian experts to develop a strategy to better coordinate responses. Recent large-scale natural disasters across the globe, from the earthquakes in Japan and Haiti to flooding in Pakistan and the U.S. underscore the need for closer cooperation, officials said.

But while officials discussed the need for more attention to disaster response planning, the core of what the Guard does today in Europe remains rooted in more traditional military functions.

The training runs the gamut, from infantry tactical collaboration to fighter jet operations that prepare air forces to operate together. Another focus in Europe is on preparing allies for missions in Afghanistan, where guard units frequently deploy alongside European partners.

In Afghanistan, a team of Pennsylvania guardsmen and Lithuanian soldiers is now deployed to advise a group of Afghan national police officers. The mission’s commander is a Lithuanian major.

“It’s the only one (Guard mentor team) I know of that’s under command of a foreign officer,” said Maj. Gen. Wesley Craig, of the Pennsylvania National Guard.

Guardsmen and Lithuanian troops have been working side-by-side for 18 years as one of the three founding partnerships of the program. In that time, much mutual trust has been built up, according to Maj. Gen. Arvydas Pocius, Lithuania’s chief of defense.

“There was a great cultural connection, and it was a great start for this program,” said Pocius, recalling the first Pennsylvania team that deployed to his country. “We have good cooperation and we can be an example for others.”