“Russia’s Air Force is strong and capable, so therefore Ukraine’s Air Force absolutely is strong, capable, cunning and effective”, says former director of Ukraine-California National Guard 29-year Partnership in an exclusive interview with COAP Media.
In the last 30 years, the United States National Guard has been building partnerships abroad as part of the State Partnership Program (SPP). Through SPP, the National Guard conducts military-to-military engagements in support of defense security goals but also leverages whole-of-society relationships and capabilities to facilitate broader interagency and corollary engagements spanning military, government, economic and social spheres.
As of 2022, the SPP includes 85 partnerships with 93 nations around the globe. Following its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Ukrainian public opinion was divided between reaching out to the West or staying aligned with Russia. Ukraine became in 1993 one of the many European countries to join the State Partnership Program, where each country was paired with an American state, and Ukraine was paired with California.
The SPP was based on an effort the US suggested to NATO in order to help former Soviet and Warsaw Pact nations reform their militaries along Western lines. The program had many objectives, including helping the nations become more interoperable with NATO forces. US officials believed that pairing with state National Guards made more sense than pairing with active-duty forces, as the militaries in these countries had missions more closely aligned with the National Guard than those of active-duty forces.
These militaries, in fact, could be called upon to assist in disasters and humanitarian crises, just like National Guard personnel help in hurricane relief, forest fires and tornadoes. Also, the partner militaries often worked closely with law enforcement in a way that mirrored how National Guard troops on state missions sometimes do. In addition to that, National Guard units often see personnel staying in place for an entire career, allowing the state and the partner military personnel to bond in a personal way, making the collaboration even more effective.
In an exclusive interview with the Center Of Aviation Photography, Col. Robert “Tigger” Swertfager, Operations Group Commander of the California Air National Guard’s 144th Fighter Wing, explains the 29-year long relationship between the California ANG and Ukraine. Col. Swertfager has 20 years of experience in working with Ukraine, as he’s the former State Partnership Program director and a key figure in the expertise of the region.
Film by Tom Dalt & Rich Cooper (COAP Media)
The first deployment of the 144th FW in Ukraine was in 2011, when the unit was still flying the F-16, for Safe Skies, an air defense-focused exercise to help both Poland and Ukraine train to protect the skies over stadiums for the EuroCup 2012. As mentioned by the Colonel, the ANG trained the two countries on air sovereignty and the Quick Reaction Alert mission in the same way they do to protect mass population events such as the Super Bowl and World Series.
In 2018 Ukraine hosted its first-ever joint multi-national exercise, Clear Sky 2018, sponsored by U.S. Forces in 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 standards of interoperability. For the occasion, the 144th Fighter Wing deployed for the first time its F-15C Eagles in Ukraine.
The exercise involved multiple capabilities, the premier one being Air Sovereignty and Air Superiority, in addition to air lift and air drop, cyber warfare, personnel recovery and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle operations with MQ-9s flying out of Poland. “We took the five capabilities of the five air wings in California and threaded them into this exercise,” said Col. Swertfager. “We worked extremely closely with Ukraine’s Air Force, especially on the fighter side, and helped develop basically integration and interoperability of Ukraine’s Air Force into NATO and US Air Force.”
The Ukrainian Air Force wanted to migrate to a western doctrine and Clear Sky 2018 was the starting point, providing them with a baseline of how the West trains and how the air forces brief, execute and debrief their flight missions. “I think the biggest thing Ukraine air force took away from Clear Skies is the ability to debrief and improve before the next flight”, said Col. Swertfager. “At least in my discussions with them, this was something fairly new to them and they have definitely sharpened that point, improving their air force significantly”.
After months of war, everybody is extremely impressed with the Ukrainian Air Force capability, its ability to survive and operate even if the Russian Air Force outnumbers the Ukrainians almost 10 to 1, as mentioned by the Colonel, while still being able to “counter punch” the Russians. “Russia’s Air Force is strong and capable, so therefore Ukraine’s Air Force absolutely is strong, capable, cunning and effective”, he said.
Army Maj. Gen. David S. Baldwin, California adjutant general, also agrees on that. “Because we work closely with the Ukrainian army, we always thought that the West underestimated them,” Gen. 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 in the meantime, a lot of other people in the West were pooh-poohing them. Their Air Force is a lot better than everyone thought except for the California Air National Guard, who knew that these guys were pretty good.”
Col. Swertfager added that, down the road, the Ukrainian Air Force is going to be studied very much in depth, as everyone is going to want to know their recipe for success. He agrees that the years of investments and the trust that the California ANG built with their Ukrainian counterparts are the foundation for this success.
While it is not known yet what the future holds, a new standard for alert is on the horizon for NATO and USAFE because, as Col. Swertfager said, we’re not going to be able to go back to the conditions we were before the beginning of the Russian invasion. However, whatever will be the solution, Ukraine will be a part of that, as the country’s military was not valued to the degree they should have been and this lesson is being learned right now by the Russian forces.
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