Michigan-Latvia partnership expands regional airfield operations coordination
By 1st Lt. Andrew Layton, Michigan National Guard
/ Published November 21, 2019
Lielvārde Air Base, Latvia --
LIELVĀRDE, Latvia – Maj. Kaspars Skudrovs looks across the flight line’s expanse of gray concrete, the walls of the Air Traffic Control tower behind him serving as a break for the November chill.
“Next year will open new areas for us,” he says. “In the beginning, we started to develop each piece of this airfield individually, like air traffic control and firefighting capability; now we are looking to not only make it one huge project, but we are also extending the partnership to neighboring countries and maybe even further into Europe.”
Skudrovs, commander of the communication support flight at Lielvārde Air Base, Latvia, is talking about his organization’s cooperation with the Michigan Air National Guard, which has helped drive a transformation of the air base over the last decade.
This week, Skudrovs and his team met with partners from the Michigan Air National Guard representing the fields of airfield management, fire protection, emergency management, plans, and force protection to outline key objectives for their work together in the coming year.
Maj. Lucas Freudenburg, Wing Plans officer, 110th Wing, Battle Creek Air National Guard Base, Mich., stands next to Skudrovs. Freudenburg, also an MQ-9 “Reaper” pilot, is part of the initiative to take the Michigan-Latvia collaboration into its next phase. He is currently advising his Latvian counterparts on the coordination for remotely piloted aircraft to participate in future multinational exercises from Lielvārde. A remotely-piloted MQ-1 “Predator” was first employed at the airfield in 2015.
“This is the first time I’ve been able to come to Latvia and there have been open arms all week long,” said Freudenburg. “I’ve always known that the State Partnership Program was a big thing, but I didn’t realize how much potential it has until I got here.”
Opened in 1969 as a hub for Soviet air operations, Lielvārde Air Base was transferred to the authority of the newly independent Latvian government in 1994. The facility began a major overhaul of infrastructure in the late 2000s, with the airfield’s massive, state-of-the-art control tower and headquarters complex a focal point. Today, these investments have morphed Lielvārde into a major hub of NATO air operations for the Baltic region.
To staff the refurbished base, the Latvian National Armed Forces drew upon its longstanding partnership with the Michigan National Guard to secure training and professional development opportunities. Michigan and Latvia have been joined since 1993 under the U.S. National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program, which links the National Guard units of U.S. states with partner countries around the world for the purpose of supporting the security cooperation objectives of geographic combatant commands and the U.S. State Department.
Through ongoing exchanges of personnel, higher degrees of proficiency have been built for both sides of the partnership, with Michigan Air National Guard personal pointing to increased interoperability with their NATO partners as a major benefit. The skill of Latvian personnel has likewise been proven on multiple occasions, including an incident in 2017 which saw an A-10 Thunderbolt II perform an emergency wheels-up landing at Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center in Michigan. Latvian firefighters were among the first to respond, extinguishing a fire and ensuring the pilot’s safety.
Now, members of the Michigan Air National Guard and Latvian Air Force seek to share the lessons of their partnership with neighboring countries by establishing a regional base for knowledge and skills enhancement. For three days this week, team members from Michigan and Latvia also visited Ӓmari Air Base in nearby Estonia to explore new areas of cooperation with their Baltic counterparts, building on Estonia’s participation in airbase operations and fire department activities alongside Latvia during Michigan’s exercise Northern Strike the past two years.
“Talking about regional cooperation between the Baltic States, the relationships we built up there [with our Estonian partners] are great,” said Freudenburg. “With Latvia being the most central location in the Baltic region, I can’t wait to see what this will look like in the future.”
It is a promising concept, with a multinational HAZMAT handling course for firefighters planned at Lielvārde Air Base in early 2020. Participants from Estonia, Hungary, and Ohio are expected to attend. Latvian Air Force personnel will also work alongside the Michigan Air National Guard in January’s exercise Winter Strike 20 at Alpena.
“The winter operations exercise will give us new ways to go in terms of nighttime operations and winter operations,” says Skudrovs, pointing out that sharing this synergy with other partner nations is just the latest chapter of Michigan and Latvia’s rich story together.
He pauses for the sound of construction equipment as new base infrastructure continues to be added.
“Last year we celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of our collaboration between Michigan and Latvia, so thank you to all Michiganders for such a long and wonderful cooperation.”
“I believe it will just continue as we find new ways to cooperate together, like we are doing now.”