Thirteen years after winning a 10-day war for independence, Slovenia in 2004 was admitted to NATO, thanks in part to the Army National Guard.Today, 2,200 U.S. personnel along with Patriot missiles; fighter aircraft; and command, control and communications systems are deployed to Jordan to block advances by the Islamic State group—again, thanks in part to the Guard.In 2013, senior officers from the communist Vietnam People’s Army clambered in and out of helicopters at an Army aviation support facility in Oregon and posed for pictures in the state Capitol. The National Guard made that happen, too.From Eastern Europe to Africa, South America and Asia, a low-key National Guard program is quietly nurturing partnerships with 76 countries around the world. Since the early 1990s, the State Partnership Program (SPP) has been matching the National Guard in U.S. states and territories with partner nations, including Mongolia, Macedonia, Bolivia and Bangladesh. The National Guard then helps foreign partners improve their military and strengthen ties to the U.S. while it promotes cooperation, access and interoperability.Surprising ResultsThese partnerships have yielded some surprising results. Since 2008, 27 of the partner countries have sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan to support the U.S. and international coalition fighting the wars there. Of those, troops from 14 countries co-deployed with National Guard troops from their partner states. Meanwhile, 30 partner countries have sent troops to peacekeeping operations around the world.“From a financial standpoint, it’s huge,” said Lt. Col. Jason Ellington, director of the State Partnership Program in Georgia. Every soldier the U.S. sends to an overseas war zone costs up to $300,000 a year to sustain, Ellington said. “Every time we have their soldiers going in place of us, it costs less.”Georgia, the U.S. state, is partners with Georgia, the east European country that also has been the second-largest partner contributor of forces to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said. In all, Georgia’s contributions have meant that a battalion of U.S. soldiers didn’t have to go, Ellington said.Such co-deployments by countries as diverse as Mongolia, Lithuania, Poland and El Salvador are among the partnership program’s most significant accomplishments, said William Boehm, a National Guard Bureau historian. They’re “a good example of how partnerships can lessen the burden of the United States.”Additional SuccessesAfter winning independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, Slovenia was determined to join NATO. But gaining admission to the Western alliance is a complex process. Nations must meet “certain political, economic and military goals in order to ensure that they will become contributors to Alliance security as well as beneficiaries of it,” NATO says.The goals include demonstrating that their militaries are under civilian control and are interoperable with other NATO members, said Col. Nathan Thomas, chief of the international affairs division of the National Guard Bureau.It took Slovenia more than a decade to meet NATO’s numerous requirements, which included building a NATO-qualified bombing range. For that, U.S. European Command, which was pushing for Slovenia’s admission into NATO, turned to the Colorado National Guard, Slovenia’s partner since 1993.“[U.S. European Command] said, ‘Hey, Colorado, they need a NATO-qualified bombing range,’” recalled Lt. Col. Nicole David, the Colorado Guard’s bilateral affairs officer. Colorado responded by sending a team of Guard engineers who redesigned an existing range and then helped make the upgrades necessary to meet NATO standards, she said. In similar ways, the State Partnership Program has helped 12 central and east European countries gain admission to NATO, according to European Command.The BeginningsThe program was created in 1992. After the Soviet Union formally dissolved on Dec. 26, 1991, U.S. officials were seeking ways to help the former Soviet countries in eastern and central Europe solidify their newfound independence.In spring 1992, the Latvian government asked the U.S. for help in developing a military that would be similar to the citizen-soldier model of the U.S. National Guard. Gen. Colin L. Powell, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, then-chief of European Command, embraced the idea as a way to help Latvia and other former Soviet bloc nations develop Western-style militaries, democratic governments and market economies.Shalikashvili pushed for strong National Guard participation in the effort, according to historian Boehm. He had several reasons: Latvia and former Soviet satellites were proposing reserve-oriented militaries, so using the National Guard to help them made sense. Guard leaders made it clear that they wanted the mission. Meanwhile, the number of active-duty U.S. troops in Europe was shrinking rapidly; the Army alone planned to cut the number of U.S. soldiers in Europe from 216,400 in 1990 to 92,200 by the end of fiscal year 1993. For Shalikashvili, using the Guard was a way “to counter decreased active-duty troop numbers,” Boehm said. And finally, sending National Guard personnel into the former Soviet satellites would appear less threatening to Russia than sending active-duty troops.Visits to the former Soviet states began in late 1992 and in 1993, the first three partnerships were formed: Latvia was paired with Michigan, Lithuania with Pennsylvania, and Estonia with Maryland. Later that year, partnerships were also formed with Albania, Belarus, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Romania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine.In the 21 years since, the partnership program has expanded to Central and South America, Central Asia, Africa and the Pacific. The newest partner is Kenya, which was added to the list in September and is paired with Massachusetts.What Else Is Possible?The partnership program was designed to be low-cost and have a small footprint, said Maj. Jonathan Preteroti, SPP director for the Maryland Army National Guard. Indeed, the program has a budget of about $13 million a year. Beyond that, costs for some activities are covered by the combatant commands in which they take place.With Estonia, the Maryland Guard performs 15 to 20 engagements annually, Preteroti said. They have ranged from collaboration on cyberdefense and aviation development to special forces reconnaissance operations and close air support interoperability. There are also humanitarian assistance missions that include medical and public affairs support, he said. Estonia has also expressed interested in learning more about crisis management, strategic messaging, defense support for civil authorities, and the use of nonlethal weapons.But there are limits on what the National Guard can do. “We don’t do any ‘big T’ training” such as teaching partner-nation troops how to operate new weapons, said David, the Colorado bilateral affairs officer. Rather, “we talk about things we have in common” like NCO development, how to teach leadership, and exchanges on best practices. The goal is to increase familiarity between partners so that “when we put coalition teams together, they will understand how each other operates.”Thus, when a Colorado Army Guard unit deployed to Kuwait with its Black Hawk helicopters, it also traveled to Jordan so U.S. soldiers could “fly together and turn wrenches together” with Jordanian helicopter crews, she said. Next year, Colorado plans a similar exchange between U.S. and Jordanian field artillery units.European Command said this about the exchanges: “Rather than U.S. soldiers training other nations’ soldiers, partnership events involve the sharing of concepts, ideas and lessons learned.” The aim is “to promote access, increase military capability, improve interoperability, and enhance the principles of responsible governance.”“We can do a whole spectrum of military-to-military engagements” such as disaster response, medical activities and best-practices exchanges, said Thomas of the Guard Bureau. “But when it transitions into actual training, that’s outside the [boundaries of] SPP. If a combatant commander or the State Department wants us to do something else, we have to get additional authorities and the funding.”Even within those limits, the program is valuable, Guard officials said.Trust Is the WatchwordSince partnering with Jordan in 2004, the Colorado Guard has opened doors and built trust, David said. Such close relationships have developed between the Colorado Guard and the Jordanian military that some high-level active-duty officials “have asked to have Colorado Guard personnel accompany them to Jordan to open doors,” she said.“The relationship piece—I don’t think you can put a price on it. I have met so many people; I have been to their weddings, been in their homes,” David said. “It’s the classic winning of hearts and minds.”The military camaraderie has led to other cooperation. Tourism is a major industry in Jordan as well as Colorado, and the Guard has arranged for officials from the Colorado tourism office and the governor’s office to meet with Jordanian tourism officials to discuss tourism development, David said.Some partnerships have expanded to include exchanges between partner countries and the state’s civilian government agencies, cities, universities and other civil institutions, Thomas said.Typically, engagements between the National Guard and partner countries involve small groups of Guard members visiting their partners, and similar groups from the partner countries coming to the U.S. for workshops, demonstrations and discussions. Key leaders from both sides often return year after year, said Stephanie Sanok Kostro, a former scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. That taps a key advantage of the National Guard. Unlike active-duty personnel, who move to new assignments every few years, Guard members tend to stay in place and can develop long-term relationships with their partner counterparts.The Guard offers another advantage: “The fact that most Guard members serve while maintaining civilian employment may also allow Guard forces to bring a wealth of civilian knowledge and expertise to SPP activities,” Kostro wrote in a 2014 report on the future of the Army National Guard.Real-World ApplicationsCivilian knowledge and expertise benefited Bangladesh, a partner with the Oregon Guard since 2008. Oregon’s former SPP director, Col. Mark Crosby, was the chief of public safety and security for the Port of Portland in his civilian job. During multiple visits to Bangladesh, Crosby became aware of deficiencies in the country’s community policing capabilities.He discussed the problem with colleagues at the Portland Police Bureau and officials at the U.S. embassy in Bangladesh. With funding from the U.S. Department of Justice, 43 Portland police officers traveled to Bangladesh to teach community policing strategies to the Bangladesh police force.Since 2012, Oregon has had a second partner: Vietnam. Exchanges with that country have focused on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and search and rescue capabilities, said Maj. Kyle Akers, the Oregon Guard’s bilateral affairs officer based in Hanoi, Vietnam.In 2013, Lt. Gen. Tran Quang Khue, deputy chief of general staff of the Vietnam People’s Army, brought a group of senior Vietnamese military personnel to Oregon to meet the governor, tour the Capitol and visit Guard bases. They posed for photos in Black Hawk, Lakota and Chinook helicopters and attended workshops on a wide range of topics, including economics, education and humanitarian aid. The visit culminated in a series of presentations from experts in related and additional fields such as port and maritime security, renewable energy and disaster relief.In 2014, 10 emergency-response troops from the Oregon National Guard’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and High Yield Explosives Enhanced Response Force Package traveled to Hanoi to practice disaster rescues with the People’s Army.As for partnering with a former enemy that is still a communist government, Akers said, “Both the U.S. and Vietnam have a vested interest in ensuring their military organizations are prepared to respond to disasters and emergencies. Just like any other U.S. military mission, we remain focused on our specific operations and our specific tasks. Political decisions usually do not impact our ground-level training events and exchanges.”Not Out of the WoodsWhile the State Partnership Program “has met with certain successes in the past,” there are signs that success may be harder to achieve in the future, Kostro said.The global environment is changing, she said. “New and emerging threats, including the continued rise of nonstate actors, a shifting geographic center of gravity, and the continued (and perhaps increasing) likelihood that threats may cross into two or more commanders’ areas of responsibility may create new challenges” for the partnership program.Consider Ukraine. It was one of the original SPP countries, paired with California in 1993. But ties to the U.S. didn’t deter Russia from seizing Ukraine’s Cri-mean Peninsula in 2014, then aiding pro-Russian rebels who are fighting Ukrainian government troops in eastern Ukraine.“We’re greatly concerned about Russia,” said Maj. Lee Palmer, branch chief for California’s State Partnership Program. “We’ve been able to build long-term trust between the Ukrainian military and the California National Guard,” he said, but “it’s being put to the test by the current situation.”Over the years, the California Guard has conducted emergency management, civil support, disaster response, communications training and combat lifesaving exercises with Ukrainian troops, Palmer said.And since the takeover of Crimea and the fighting in the east, the California Guard has stepped up its activities in Ukraine, he said. “We’ve done a total of 23 events with Ukraine this past fiscal year.” They include participating in Rapid Trident, a major military exercise along Ukraine’s western border with Poland, and two cyberdefense training events. “Ukraine is very vulnerable to cyberattacks,” Palmer said. And the Russians excel at them.Limitations Still RemainBut the limits on what the California Guard can do through the State Partnership Program still apply. “It’s very important that we’re not seen to be involved with any kind of conventional warfare,” Palmer said.Partnership between the state of Georgia and Georgia, the country, similarly failed to deter Russian aggression. In 2008, Russian troops invaded Georgia and took control of two provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, even while U.S. soldiers, Marines, Marine Reservists and a battalion of the Georgia Army National Guard were in Georgia for a training exercise.“We actually had one of our battalions in country literally the day before the shelling started,” said Ellington, the Georgia SPP director. “The Russians knew we were there—they waited for us to get out of the way before they started shelling.”Russians remain in Georgia today. “Obviously, that’s a point of contention, and it will be as long as the Russians are there,” Ellington said.Still, the partnership program goes on. “We have done everything we can to increase our presence and assistance” with help from European Command and its European Reassurance Initiative, he said.Other partner states confront perilous challenges as well. For Nigeria, California’s partner since 2006, it’s the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram. The California Guard has provided Nigerian troops with counter-IED training “in direct response to Boko Haram,” said Palmer, the California SPP chief. “We sent a three-man team to Nigeria for a week to [Nigeria’s] version of the military academy to familiarize them with the types of IEDs we have encountered,” he said, and taught the Nigerians how to spot, identify and avoid them.But under the State Partnership Program, the California Guard cannot train Nigerian troops how to disarm IEDs. That’s up to the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency, Palmer said.Similarly, in the Pacific, there is little that Oregon—Vietnam’s partner—or Hawaii—the Philippines’ partner—can do about Chinese aggression in those nations’ territorial waters.“The South China Sea is a dynamic situation but does not directly relate to the Oregon National Guard State Partnership Program,” said Akers, the Oregon bilateral affairs officer.“It’s really not within our lane at the National Guard Bureau,” said Thomas. Minnesota and Croatia, Alaska and Mongolia, Georgia and Georgia. How do U.S. states and foreign countries get matched up in the Army National Guard’s State Partnership Program? The reasons are cultural, economic, geographic and sometimes personal.Take Georgia, the state. In 1994, it was matched with Georgia, the country—but not because they share the same name. At the time, Gen. John M. Shalikashvili was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Although he was born in Poland, Shalikashvili was a scion of the medieval Georgian noble house of Shalikashvili, according to multiple biographies. His father was a Georgian prince.The general, who died in 2011, also had a brother who lived in Georgia—the state, not the country, said Lt. Col. Jason Ellington, director of the State Partnership Program in Georgia. “So we had some ties there. We also had some similarities in agriculture.”The state wanted to be in the partnership program, the country wanted a partner, and Shalikashvili made it happen. “All the stars lined up,” Ellington said.Or consider partners Texas and Chile. During more than three decades in the U.S. Army, Maj. Gen. Charles G. Rodriguez completed two master’s degrees and a Ph.D., and attended the Inter-American Defense University in Washington, D.C. There, he met another student, Michelle Bachelet.Rodriguez, now retired, completed his studies and went on to become the adjutant general of Texas. Bachelet, meanwhile, was elected president of Chile. Learning of his friend’s new position, Rodriguez asked Bachelet if Chile wanted to become Texas’ partner in the State Partnership Program. The state and the country formally paired in 2008.Since then, they have conducted about 80 exchanges, including airborne and artillery operations, C-130 and F-16 flight maneuvers and maintenance, Special Forces exchanges, combat casualty care practice, homeland response capabilities collaborations, and even environmentally responsible practices, according to the Texas National Guard.For retired Maj. Gen. Raymond F. Rees, the 2012 partnership between Oregon and Vietnam came as a personal and professional astonishment. As a 24-year-old Army captain in 1969, Rees commanded a cavalry troop in the 101st Airborne Division at Camp Eagle near Hue, Vietnam. His unit’s mission was to search the jungle north of Hue for enemy soldiers. “I lost five good men to enemy action,” Rees wrote in 2013.That same year, Rees, by then adjutant general of the Oregon National Guard, invited Lt. Gen. Tran Quang Khue, deputy chief of general staff of the Vietnam People’s Army, to Oregon. While Rees had been at Camp Eagle, Khue had been a combat engineer and sapper in the same area fighting the Americans.“I never once thought about someday working with the people I was fighting,” Rees said. “We have come a long way in 44 years.” Rees retired as adjutant general in 2013, and now serves as deputy assistant secretary of the Army for training, readiness and mobilization.