HELENA, Mont. — Over the course of 10 days, more than 230 individuals from the United States, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as observers from Turkmenistan, came together for Exercise Regional Cooperation 23, held Aug. 8-18, 2023, in Helena, Montana. The annual, multinational exercise, sponsored by U.S. Central Command and this year hosted by the Montana National Guard, aimed to enhance stability operations and promote cooperation on counter-terrorism and joint, combined capabilities among the U.S. and Central and South Asian nations.
“Since its inception in 2001, Regional Cooperation has become a key and well-known exercise,” said Guy Zero, the U.S. CENTCOM deputy director for strategy, plans and policy, during his opening remarks at the start of the exercise. “This is a tremendous opportunity for all of us to build relationships, share ideas and work together to meet the strategic challenges that face us in this important region.”
The initial phase of the exercise focused on academics. Advisors from the 3rd Security Force Assistance Brigade provided instruction on the Military Decision-Making Process, or MDMP, to ensure all participants were familiar with their duties and responsibilities and had a shared baseline of knowledge before the start of the exercise.
“The MDMP class before the exercise was one of the best practices for a combined exercise that helped shape the participants’ idea of internationally-recognized MDMP,” said Lt. Col. Tamir Udval, one of the participants from Mongolia.
On Aug. 12, 2023, the exercise officially began with a scenario that included an unstable, fictitious nation and conflicting, fictitious entities that exercise participants faced during a six-day, brigade-level Command Post Exercise, or CPX. Working with the indelible assistance of a team of interpreters, participants from all nations were integrated into staff sections and who together worked through a storyline that included border security challenges, providing humanitarian assistance, countering weapons of mass destruction and ensuring interagency cooperation.
“This exercise has a great history of success in facilitating effective training and has helped improve global military coordination and development,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Peter Hronek, the adjutant general of Montana. “Regional Cooperation 23 provides all participants the opportunity to share military expertise and experiences while building personal and military relationships that cross borders and cultures.”
Three planning conferences were held in advance of the exercise; an initial planning conference held in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in February; a main planning conference held in Helena in April; and a final planning conference held in June in Tempe, Arizona. During the planning conferences, personnel from each of the seven participating nations provided input and together built the exercise storyline and injects. Participation in the planning conferences often required travel of 30 or more hours each way for the international participants.
“Your participation in this exercise reflects our shared commitment to enduring regional stability and commitment to working together on challenges of mutual interest,” Zero said.
Approximately 65 participants from the U.S. were Soldiers and Airmen from the Arizona, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana and Virginia National Guard, most of whom participate in the State Partnership Program with a nation participating in RC23. SPP is Department of Defense program administered through the National Guard Bureau that links a state’s National Guard to the armed forces of a partner nation and focuses on building partner military capacity and defense capability through relationship building. Now celebrating its 30th year, SPP includes one-third of the world’s countries and every U.S. state and territory.
“Participating in Regional Cooperation this year gives us an amazing opportunity to continue our relationship with our partners from Tajikistan,” said Maj. Isaac Rivera, the SPP coordinator for the Virginia National Guard, which has enjoyed a partnership with Tajikistan since 2003.
Montana, this year’s host for RC23, has partnered with Kyrgyzstan since 1996, Arizona with Kazakhstan since 1993 and Mississippi with Uzbekistan since 2012.
“This exercise is really about collaboration and building relationships,” said Maj. Stephen Jung, the lead planner for RC23, said. “When you spend time working alongside military personnel from a partner nation, what you’ll inevitably find is commonalities. My hope is that, when we leave Montana, we all leave with a better understanding of our partnerships, as well as stronger relationships, not only between our military forces at the higher level, but also at the individual level.”
The first Regional Cooperation was held in 2001, and has been conducted annually every year since 2004, hosted both in U.S. cities and by participating nations.
“Right from the first planning conference until today’s last inject, everything was flawless,” said Brigadier Hamad Raza, one of the participants from Pakistan, as the exercise came to a close.
Finally, on Aug. 18, 2023, the exercise entered its third and final phase with an after-action review and gift exchange that marked the official end of the exercise.
“No matter what happens, as long as we’re partners, we will be able to overcome so many obstacles as a group united,” said Col. Peter Fiorentino, a Massachusetts National Guardsman who served as the brigade commander for the exercise. “Thank you very much, and I hope to see and work with you all in the future.”