Albanian Armed Forces welcomes New Jersey Army and Air National Guard

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Tyshawn Jenkins
  • 177th Fighter Wing

More than 15 Airmen and Soldiers of the New Jersey National Guard linked up with the 2nd Battalion, Light Infantry Battle Group, Albanian Armed Forces at Land Forces Headquarters, Zall-Herr, Tirana, Albania, Dec. 2-8, 2023, as part of the Department of Defense State Partnership Program.

Service members from both forces shared training, best practices, and mentorship opportunities, building on more than two decades of friendship as state partners.

“This is important to national security: it provides our partners’ interoperability with U.S. forces and other allies,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Kevin Murphy, director, NJNG SPP.

Murphy explained that the week’s exercise focused in part on uncrewed aircraft systems and future aviation operations, noting the AAF’s acquisition of two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. The UAS group conducted familiarization and maintenance of the Puma AE3 DDL UAS, and training activities included drone handoff, low and high-altitude testing, as well as setup and breakdown under time constraints. According to Sgt. 1st Class Justin Harris-Bennett, Course Director/Master Trainer, 254th Regiment [Combat Arms], NJARNG, small UASs provide defense assistance for civil authorities, which can be critical in supporting law enforcement, fire departments, battle damage assessments, surveillance capabilities and search and rescue operations.

“We work with [the Albanian Forces] Puma team to continue to build their Puma UAS,” said Sgt. 1st Class Justin Harris-Bennett. “We’ve been working with the Albanian Army for over 20 years, and we continue to support NATO and its mission. The Albanian military has been very welcoming and enjoys the training just as much as we do. These exercises make the UAS community stronger.”

Members of both forces exchanged best practices critical to emergency management and coordinated current and future training.

“In June of 2024, the goal is to conduct water training, launch and recovery, and other required exercises,” said Lt. Col. Emerjol Harka, commander, 2nd Battalion, LIBG, AAF.

During the collaborative exercises, the NJNG and AAF empowered their enlisted forces, as noncommissioned officers and senior noncommissioned officers are the leaders of their UAS programs.

“It’s been great, and most importantly, the concepts that the U.S. shares with us have been beneficial,” said Capt. Mirsit Bimaj, deputy company commander, 2nd Battalion, LIBG, AAF. “As an officer, we are constantly applying strategy; however, the enlisted soldiers can grow together, and this helps them do their jobs with excellence.”

In addition to the week’s training and mentorship activities, the two forces planned future lines of effort to strengthen state partner capabilities, including professional development, aviation, and cyber missions.

“The relationship between the N.J. National Guard and Albania have has been more than positive. The planning committee is an opportunity to work together and clarify the proposed activities for 2024 and 2025,” said Lt. Col. Gentian Alilaj, deputy J5, MOD. For New Jersey leaders new to SPP operations, the journey to the Western Balkans was especially rewarding.

“These meetings have been extremely beneficial,” said Lt. Col. Monica Delacruz, deputy commander, 254th Regiment [Combat Arms], NJARNG. “Being my first time in Albania, it was great interacting with the Albanians culturally, seeing the parallel between our military and theirs, and how they have adopted some of our standard operating procedures and doctrine.”

The relationship between the New Jersey National Guard and Albanian Armed Forces has existed for over 20 years. Building upon the military-to-military events is a primary focus as members of both militaries aim to improve NATO standards and cultivate the relationship through exercises and professional development of NCOs and senior NCOs.

“The United States has supported the Albania Armed Forces for years now, not only in the organization process but also in the education and training,” said Lt. Col. Dritor Papa, NATO advisor to the chief of defense, AAF. We have had your presence in LIBG with the Security Forces Assistance Brigade [SFAB] teams; they are instrumental; these bilateral meetings are opportunities to see if we are doing the right things or how we can adjust as we progress. I think we are doing great; the chief of defense is also very grateful he had a chance to meet with the various representatives of the N.J. Guard teams.”

The Department of Defense’s State Partnership Program is managed and administered by the National Guard Bureau. It is a U.S.-sponsored security cooperation program that supports the security cooperation objectives of the United States and the geographic combatant commands by developing enduring relationships with partner countries and carrying out activities to build partner capacity, improve interoperability, and enhance U.S. access and influence while increasing the readiness of U.S. and partner forces to meet emerging challenges. The State Partnership Program began in 1993 with 13 partners. Thirty years later, the program has grown to more than 100 partner nations and is a key U.S. security cooperation tool that facilitates collaboration across all aspects of civil-military affairs.