February 25, 2022 | Breaking Defense

Time to integrate State Partnership Program in Pentagon planning

As currently used, the program is a missed opportunity, especially when America needs to be strengthening its relationships abroad.
February 25, 2022 | Breaking Defense

Time to integrate State Partnership Program in Pentagon planning

As currently used, the program is a missed opportunity, especially when America needs to be strengthening its relationships abroad.

In addition to the pivotal role the United States military plays in deterring aggression by hostile states like Russia and China, it shoulders increasing responsibility for supporting the federal response to crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and instability on the US-Mexico border. The State Partnership Program (SPP), a unique set of partnerships between State National Guards and foreign military partners, has demonstrated it can respond rapidly to the full range of demands the US military now faces.

However, the program remains an afterthought for the leaders who plan national-level responses to emerging threats. That’s a missed opportunity, especially when America needs to be strengthening its relationships abroad.

The SPP has its origins in the early years of the post-Cold War era when the United States sought to welcome former Eastern Bloc countries into NATO while recognizing Russian sensitivity to US deployments on its western border. The Department of Defense also saw that the Baltic and Eastern Bloc countries had to enhance their military capability to be ready for potential NATO membership. In 1993, the Pentagon launched the SPP to address both of these problems.

As part of the SPP, one state’s Guard unit partners with the partner’s national forces; using reserve forces, rather than the active component, was seen as a way to avoid inflaming tensions with Russia. Early pairings included Estonia-Maryland, Latvia-Michigan, and Lithuania-Pennsylvania. The initial SPP missions in Eastern Europe enhanced the capabilities, capacity, and interoperability with the United States of foreign partners, culminating in their accession to NATO.

Since then, the program has spread globally and now boasts 85 partnerships with 93 nations around the globe. The global threat of the COVID-19 pandemic presented SPP with an opportunity to demonstrate its ability to operate outside of a traditional military sphere. For instance, in December 2020, the Czech Republic-Texas-Nebraska partnerships proved critical in helping establish field hospitals before a COVID-19 resurgence. Then in November 2021, Oregon and Bangladesh trained together on disaster management during this pandemic era.

On paper, the SPP looks like the perfect tool to strengthen and support what Pentagon leaders always say is America’s key leg up on China and Russia: our network of allies and partners. And yet, despite the role this program could play to deter regional aggression from those two competitors, especially when the American public is averse to persistent conflicts, it remains missing from any first-tier US government response to national-level threats.

For example, the lack of a US vaccine diplomacy plan opened the door to the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) influence in countries that received Chinese vaccines. For example, desperate for doses of vaccines at the onset of the pandemic, the Czech Republic turned to Texas as their SPP partner for aid– a sign of the trust leadership had built through the SPP.

If the US government had planned on working through the SPP early on, it could have led to strengthened ties; instead,  the effort ran into US federal bureaucracy and the Czechs were forced to look elsewhere. These existing partnerships and the foresight to bring them into priority planning, through the SPP could have helped project goodwill that would have helped nations wait out China’s offer for American ones.

Where could new SPP agreements benefit American interests? Two come to mind.

First, consider the challenges of illegal migration and smuggling on the United States’ southern border. A multi-state SPP partnership with Mexico would facilitate the long-term military-to-military and military-to-civilian relationships that have languished under previous US-Mexico security frameworks. Specifically, SPP could utilize the post-Warsaw Pact integration model as a template for building Mexican SEDENA (Ministry of Defense) capabilities, accountability, professionalism, interoperability, and transparency. Research has shown that sustained SPP partnerships have reduced the threat of corruption and terror; helping to clean up Mexico’s border security would benefit both nations.

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Issues:

Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy