“The Russian Air Force is strong and capable, so the Ukrainian Air Force is absolutely strong, capable, cunning and efficient,” said the former director of 29-year partnership between Ukraine and the California National Guard.
For the past 30 years, the United States National Guard has partnered overseas through the State Partnership Program (SPP). Through the SPP, the National Guard conducts military-to-military engagements in support of defense security objectives, but also leverages whole-of-society relationships and capabilities to facilitate interagency and corollary engagements. broader ones covering the military, governmental, economic and social spheres.
In 2022, the SPP includes 85 partnerships with 93 nations around the world. Following its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukrainian public opinion was divided between reaching out to the West or remaining aligned with Russia. Ukraine in 1993 became one of many European countries to join the State Partnership Program, where each country was paired with a US state, and Ukraine was paired with California.
The SPP was based on an effort the United States had suggested to NATO to help former Soviet and Warsaw Pact nations reform their militaries along Western lines. The program had many goals, including helping nations become more interoperable with NATO forces. U.S. officials believed pairing with state National Guardsmen made more sense than pairing with active duty forces, because those countries’ militaries had missions more closely aligned with the National Guard than those of active duty forces. .
These service members, in fact, could be called upon to assist in disasters and humanitarian crises, just as National Guard personnel help with hurricanes, wildfires, and tornadoes. Additionally, military partners often worked closely with law enforcement in a way that mirrored what National Guard troops sometimes do on state duty. On top of that, National Guard units often see personnel stay in place for an entire career, allowing state and partner military personnel to bond on a personal level, making collaboration even more effective. .
In an exclusive interview with the Center Of Aviation Photography, Col. Robert “Tigger” Swertfager, Operations Group Commander, California Air National Guard’s 144th Fighter Wing, explains the 29-year relationship between the California ANG and Ukraine. . Colonel Swertfager has 20 years of experience working with Ukraine, as he is the former Director of the State Partnership Program and a key figure in expertise in the region.
The 144th FW’s first deployment to Ukraine was in 2011, while the unit was still flying the F-16, for Safe Skies, an air defense-focused exercise to help Poland and Ukraine train to protect the sky above the stadiums for the EuroCup. 2012. As the Colonel mentioned, the ANG trained both countries in Air Sovereignty and the Quick Reaction Alert mission the same way they do to protect mass events such as the Super Bowl and the World Series.
In 2018, Ukraine hosted its first-ever joint multinational exercise, Clear Sky 2018, sponsored by US Forces Europe. The exercise primarily involved the U.S. Air Force and Ukrainian Air Force, but also included seven other partner nations in a collective effort to bring Ukraine in line with NATO interoperability standards. . For the occasion, the 144th Fighter Wing deployed for the first time its F-15C Eagles in Ukraine.
The exercise involved several capabilities, the main one being air sovereignty and air superiority, in addition to airlift and airdrop, cyber warfare, personnel recovery and unmanned aerial vehicle operations with MQ-9s flying from Poland. “We took the five capabilities of the five air wings in California and incorporated them into this exercise,” Col. Swertfager said. “We worked closely with the Ukrainian Air Force, especially on the fighter side, and helped to essentially develop the integration and interoperability of the Ukrainian Air Force in NATO and the United States Air Force.”
The Ukrainian Air Force wanted to migrate to Western doctrine and Clear Sky 2018 was the starting point, providing them with a baseline of how the West trains and how the Air Force informs, execute and debrief their flight missions. “I think the biggest thing the Ukrainian Air Force took away from Clear Skies was the ability to debrief and improve before the next flight,” Colonel Swertfager said. “At least in my discussions with them, it was something quite new for them and they definitely refined that point, improving their air force considerably.”
After months of war, everyone is extremely impressed with the ability of the Ukrainian Air Force, its ability to survive and function even though the Russian Air Force outnumbers the Ukrainians by almost 10 to 1, as the Colonel mentioned, while still being able to “counter the punch”. “The Russians. “The Russian Air Force is strong and capable, so the Ukrainian Air Force is absolutely strong, capable, cunning and efficient,” he said.
Army Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin, Adjutant General of California, also agrees. “Because we work so closely with the Ukrainian military, we always thought the West underestimated them,” General Baldwin said in a recent interview. “I think the best story is with their air force. Our fighter pilots have been telling everyone for years that the Ukrainian Air Force is pretty good. And meanwhile, many other people in the West were laughing at them. Their Air Force is way better than everyone thought except the California Air National Guard, who knew these guys were pretty good.
Colonel Swertfager added that in the future, the Ukrainian Air Force will be studied very thoroughly, because everyone will want to know its recipe for success. He agrees that the years of investment and the trust that the Californian ANG has built with its Ukrainian counterparts are the basis of this success.
Although it is not yet clear what the future holds, a new warning standard is on the horizon for NATO and USAFE because, as Colonel Swertfager said, we going to be able to go back to the conditions we were in before the start of the Russian invasion. However, whatever the solution, Ukraine will be part of it, because the country’s military has not been upgraded to the degree it should have been and this lesson is being learned by the forces. Russians.