A California Air National Guard fighter pilot, Swertfager has, by his count, 73 Ukraine entry stamps in his passport over 20 years, the result of a partnership between “The Golden State” and Ukraine that created both personal and professional relationships.
“We had official conversations on a regular basis,” Swertfager told CNN, “but daily communications as friends, partners and brothers.”
Swertfager and the other members of the 144th Fighter Wing have been close to many Ukrainian Air Force pilots, exchanging phone calls, texts and more every day since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February.
This is how Swertfager learned so quickly of the death of Colonel Oleksandr Oksanchenko on the first day of the war. The two played a major role in planning Exercise Safe Skies 2011 in Ukraine and have grown closer over years of shared training.
“It wasn’t just a war you see on TV anymore,” Swertfager said, “but it hits because we just lost a very good friend.”
The relationship between a U.S. state and a foreign nation exists under the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program, where each state will communicate and train with one or more countries as a designated partner.
California began its program with Ukraine in 1993, shortly after the country gained independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. During this time, Ukraine transformed from a fledgling army dependent on Soviet-era equipment and tactics to a fighting force that proved itself capable of challenging one of the largest armies in the world, although it is outdated in manpower and armament.
Even though no American troops are on the ground in Ukraine, the strong bonds formed have a practical impact as the Ukrainian military tries to resist Russian attempts to take over the country.
Members of the California National Guard have been in daily contact with their Ukrainian counterparts at all levels, said Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, commander of the state’s military department, which includes the Army and Air National Guard. .
About once a week, Baldwin has a video call with top Ukrainian military leaders, he said during a roundtable with reporters on the state partnership program that manages relations between foreign units and nations. But every day he exchanges texts and has one-on-one phone calls about “the big picture”.
At the staff level, Guards brigadier generals and colonels work with the Ukrainian defense attaché and Ukrainian leadership to refine their requests for weapons systems, Baldwin said. Early in the conflict, these conversations focused on what demands the United States was likely to meet and what systems might be considered too offensive in nature. But they moved on to bigger, more powerful systems as the Biden administration showed a willingness to send in artillery first and now multiple-launch rocket systems.
“The current thing we’re working on is what’s the right fighter for them,” Baldwin said. California Guard leaders are pushing the Ukrainian Air Force to stick with Soviet-era MiGs for now because of their familiarity with fighter jets, but Baldwin said Ukraine contemplated beyond the immediate one-year deadline and beyond.
“What is there in the realm of system possibilities that will be effective, available, and affordable to them?” Baldwin asked. “Ukrainians are very quick to integrate when we train them on western systems.”
At the tactical level, other members of the Guard are in contact with their Ukrainian colleagues “on a daily basis” on “tactics, advice and procedures”, Baldwin said. Ukrainian soldiers will also regularly share anecdotes, photos, videos, maps and more with members of the California Guard they have become close to, providing an unfiltered look into the details of the ongoing conflict.
These fragments of potentially valuable information are collected and consolidated into a daily call, Baldwin said, and passed on to active duty service members. The California National Guard participates in a daily video call with the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. European Command.
“A lot of times Ukrainians will share information with us that they don’t share through more formal channels because we have these personal relationships,” Baldwin said.
Although California is Ukraine’s partner state, other National Guard units from the state have traveled to Ukraine to train their military as part of the Joint Multinational Training Group (JMTG-U) , a mission established following the 2014 invasion and annexation of occupied Crimea.
More recently, National Guard units from Florida and Washington have gone to train Ukrainians as part of this mission, establishing their own relationships.
“A desperate call” from the front line
In one instance, a member of the Washington National Guard was sitting in his home a few weeks ago when his phone rang, Baldwin said and a Washington Guard spokeswoman confirmed. On the other side was a Ukrainian soldier with a “desperate plea” for help for his friend. The Ukrainian experienced a misfire from his Javelin, an anti-tank missile that proved devastatingly effective against Russian armored vehicles. But this one didn’t work. Washington’s guards led the Ukrainian through misfire procedures, allowing him to fire at the Russian tank.
Without that phone call – and the relationship behind it – the Ukrainian soldier would not have been able to defeat the tank, Baldwin said.
The Florida National Guard was the last unit to participate in the training group leaving Ukraine about a week before the Russian invasion began in late February. They returned to Europe two months later to resume training Ukrainian forces in places like Germany.
“There were some pretty emotional hugs and reunions” when they were reunited with their “Ukrainian brothers,” said Maj. Gen. James Eifert, commander of the Florida National Guard. “They are constantly reminded of the seriousness of their business and the importance of the training they provide.”
The process of learning and improving works both ways. As Ukrainian soldiers and pilots learn tactics and advice from their National Guard counterparts, members of the Guard take their own notes.
“They’re a hybrid of their old (Soviet) doctrine and Western doctrine, which I think is a key factor in their success right now,” Swertfager said. Members of the California Air National Guard, he said, are in contact with each of the Ukrainian squadrons and all of their various fighter jets.
Ukrainian pilots share their experiences and give informal debriefs to American pilots “on a regular basis,” Swertfager said.
“We take a lot of notes and learn a lot of things.”
Baldwin, the commander of the California Guard, points to this relationship as perhaps the most important link between the National Guard and the Ukrainian Air Force.
“This relationship between them proved to be the most effective,” Baldwin said, “due to the terrific performance of the Ukrainian Air Force in outnumbering and weaponry.”
It’s a compliment Swertfager refuses to accept, insisting that no one in California can or wants to take credit for the performance of the Ukrainian drivers.
“All of us in California are extremely proud of our partnership and our relationship with the Ukrainian Air Force,” Swertfager told CNN. “It… doesn’t go away because global conflicts start. They just seem to get a lot stronger.”