State Partnership Program continues to develop in size, complexity
Story by Sgt. 1st Class Chad Menegay, Ohio National Guard
COLUMBUS, Ohio (12/31/19)
In looking back on 2019, the Ohio National Guard’s State Partnership Program showcased its full array of soft skills to support U.S. security cooperation objectives by building enduring relationships with its partners Serbia and Hungary.
“At the heart of the SPP program is the ability to build, grow and sustain personal relationships between a National Guard state and a partner nation,” said 1st Sgt. Daniel Skinner, the ONG’s SPP coordinator. “Although this is not a directive and not always measurable or tangible, it is the ‘art’ of security cooperation.”
Beginning in the early 1990s as a program designed to assist countries emerging from behind the Iron Curtain of the former Soviet Union’s spans of control in Eastern Europe, the SPP now involves 83 countries and the National Guard of every U.S. state and territory.
It has grown and its influence has developed from not just military-to-military partnerships, but also military-to-civilian and civilian-to-civilian.
For example, the Ohio-Hungary SPP was credited with preparing conditions for an economic, technological and commercial Memorandum of Understanding signed by Lydia Mihalik, director of the Ohio Development Services Agency, and Péter Szijjártó, Hungarian minister of foreign affairs and trade, last April.
“Our SPP military partnership of 25 years was recognized/acknowledged as laying the groundwork for the deal,” said Simona Vaclavikova, political adviser for the Ohio Adjutant General’s Department and the SPP, “and for facilitating growing cooperation between Hungary and Ohio.”
The document pledges that the two parties will broaden their economic cooperation, an already strong relationship with two-way trade totaling more than $186 million in 2018. During his visit to Ohio, Szijjártó met executives from some of the biggest U.S. companies including Procter and Gamble, Owens-Illinois, Dana, Eaton and Goodyear, all of which have already invested in Hungary, Szijjártó said.
It’s a partnership that makes sense, in part, because nearly 200,000 Americans with Hungarian roots live in Ohio, more than in any other U.S. state. Of course, the ONG’s partnership with Serbia also makes sense, as Ohio has the third-highest Serbian-American population of any state.
“We were able to help connect key players and facilitate an educational alliance/partnership called the Serbian Educational Alliance (SEA) between our state’s flagship university, The Ohio State University and the University of Belgrade,” Vaclavikova said.
The U.S. Department of State awarded a $300,000 grant to Ohio State’s Center for Slavic and East European Studies (CSEES) to create the SEA this past September. The grant will increase collaborations and partnerships between Ohio State and the University of Belgrade, with the close cooperation of and support from the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade. The SEA will officially begin activities in January that will run through December 2021. Throughout the two years of the grant, the SEA will foster activities in three primary areas: classroom activities, research, and joint seminars and workshops.
“In the grant application, as a way to justify why OSU-University of Belgrade deserves money for this partnership, they make a reference to a long-standing partnership/reputation of the Ohio National Guard in Serbia,” Vaclavikova said.
In Federal Fiscal Year 2019, the ONG sent about 600 Soldiers and Airmen to Hungary and Serbia to train with its partners and conducted roughly 25 engagements with each country.
“The relationships that are built and strengthened between the Soldiers and Airmen of the Ohio National Guard and military members in Hungary and Serbia is undeniable and can’t necessarily be captured in a database or system of record,” Skinner said. “It is best reflected in stories and experiences, and shared by the individual service members themselves.”
Training together in preparation to one day operate together is one such shared experience.
For four years running, ONG service members have patrolled southern Serbia with security forces of other countries as part of Platinum Wolf. The multinational exercise of 500 Soldiers conducted last June included 80 members of the Ohio National Guard’s 838th Military Police Company out of Youngstown, Ohio, who worked in tandem with nine other countries (including Hungary) to master peacekeeping skills including detention operations, crime scene investigations, Military Operations on Urban Terrain (MOUT), crowd and riot control, patrolling and traffic control points/vehicle check points.
“In 2019, EUCOM continued to focus on building partner capacity, strengthening interoperability and building regional cooperation,” Skinner said.
Platinum Wolf is only one such exercise that meets these objectives.
“The ONG conducted multiple military engagements and exercises in support of these lines of effort, most notably, with Exercise Breakthrough in Hungary, which was part of the Saber Guardian series and the 2019 Southern Exercise Campaign,” Skinner said.
Soldiers of 1st Battalion, 134th Field Artillery Regiment participated in BREAKTHROUGH 2019 in June, a training exercise hosted by the Hungarian Defence Forces’ Land Forces. This was an opportunity for Ohio’s field artillery battalion to deploy its weapons systems in a more complex bilateral operational environment. The Hungarian Land Forces established a challenging environment for the training and provided opportunities for the participating units to develop lethal capacity with their assigned artillery pieces. The exercise tested the participants with fire missions on multiple ranges and distances during the day and night.
Another challenging, annual SPP training exercise is Exercise Neighbors, which is conducted between the Ohio National Guard, Hungarian Defence Forces and Serbian Armed Forces, and focuses on small unit infantry tactics and building interoperability between squads and platoons.
“Exercise Neighbors is a true trilateral exercise between partners,” Skinner said.
Soldiers focus on small unit tactics, such as room clearing and fire support. To improve interoperability and to exchange military tactics and experiences, each squad is fully integrated with members from all three countries.
Ohio National Guard senior leaders visited Hungary in September 2019 to hold discussions and mark another successful training year with the Hungarian Defence Forces. This year marked the first time Maj. Gen. John C. Harris Jr. represented Ohio as the adjutant general since his appointment in January 2019. During the visit, Harris met with U.S. Embassy officials and Hungarian Defence Forces senior military leaders to discuss the Ohio-Hungary State Partnership Program engagements in the 2019 training year, and collaborate on ways to shape and improve these events in the future.
Another set of key meetings came in January 2019 when Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić led a delegation to Ohio, where she met with military, political, academic and business leaders to promote mutual relations and discuss areas of potential economic cooperation.
The SPP again served as a foundation to expand capacity building into military-to-civilian and civilian-to-civilian interactions that aim to promote cultural understanding beyond the battlefield to benefit civilian communities.
“The Ohio National Guard State Partnership Program will continue to support and build upon the objectives of our adjutant general, National Guard Bureau, U.S. European Command and U.S. country teams in both Budapest and Belgrade,” Skinner said.
One clear change is that Lt. Col. Tim Grady took over as ONG SPP director from Capt. Trevor Ducey Oct. 1. Ducey, who had been director since June 2018, said the position requires a lot of time travelling to Europe to coordinate the multiple facets and engagements with Ohio’s two SPP partner nations — Hungary, since 1993, and Serbia, since 2006.
“I planned to schedule 12 times a year and had 1st Sgt. Skinner programmed for six trips a year,” Ducey said. “Over the course of the assignment I flew 25 times, visiting each partner country 15 times.”
As the program grows and develops into new areas such as fostering civilian-to-civilian relationships, engagements are expected to increase both in number and complexity.
“Moving forward, I see us expanding our engagements with our partners to be more complex and challenging, and incorporating our civilian partners (more so),” Ducey said.
Some key areas currently under further development are: cyber, medical, chaplaincy, emergency response and disaster response, economic development and higher education.
“We will continue to try and meet the needs and requests of our partners in order to strengthen their military capabilities, improve regional cooperation and increase interoperability,” Skinner said.