The State Defense Forces

Almost immediately after the first plane crashed into Building One of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, the New York Guard (NYG) received activation orders. Guardsmen provided communications support to several tactical operations centers and manned five logistics centers within New York City. Guard medical personnel operated a dispensary and treated victims in the city’s National Guard armories—the NYG’s 244th Medical Clinic treated approximately 844 patients and operated a chiropractic clinic staffed by fully licensed chiropractors. New York Guardsmen also provided administrative, legal and chaplain services to a wounded city.

These weren’t active duty military personnel,reservists or even National Guardsmen. They were part of anoften-overlooked and unheralded force: the State Defense Forces (SDF).In the past, they’ve been referred to as militia, home guards, stateguards or state guard reserves. They’re all volunteers and between 30percent and 95 percent of their members have prior military experience.

These organizations, in 22 states and PuertoRico, represent an untapped asset for homeland security. GivenAmerica’s current security situation and the strains on the active dutymilitary, the National Guard, and the Reserves, these forces shouldreceive greater support and be used more—especially for homelandsecurity missions. They can provide domestic security and helpprosecute the war on terrorism at minimal expense. They have thehistory, the experience, and best of all, they’re already in existence.

A tradition of homeland security

From the time of the first colonial landingsin the seventeenth century, America has always had a militia. Themodern history of the SDF, however, began in 1916 when PresidentWoodrow Wilson mobilized 158,664 National Guardsmen to patrol theUS-Mexican border following a raid by Pancho Villa on the town ofColumbus, New Mexico. State governors lost their military capability astheir troops were federalized, leaving them in the lurch.

The National Defense Act later that sameyear, however, contained a provision—Section 61—which when looselyinterpreted permitted the states to raise and equip a force to replacefederalized National Guardsmen. This force would only provide stateservice and units could not be federalized or shipped overseas—althoughindividual members could do federal service.

During World Wars I and II, the home guardswere used as replacements for the National Guard and provided suchservices as infrastructure site security, riot duty, flood duty andassistance during a variety of other natural and manmade disasters.After Pearl Harbor, 13,000 state guardsmen were called to duty.

The state forces were modeled after theNational Guard, with infantry being the predominate branch in form andfunction. Training and doctrine were also modeled after the NationalGuard of the period and members drilled one night each week at thelocal armory and held a five-day summer encampment. Unlike theirNational Guard counterparts though, state guard units were not paidunless on active state duty.

Current operations

Today state adjutant generals command theSDFs. Most are organized into brigades, with the majority beingconfigured for infantry, support or administrative tasks. However, theSDFs in Alaska, Ohio and New Mexico are more oriented toward militarypolice missions. Puerto Rico has a water purification unit. More thanhalf of the SDFs are qualified to provide medical aid duringemergencyoperations.

As well as a military focus, the SDFs bring awide variety of specialized capabilities to their states. Georgia’sSDF, for example, has a robust chemical, biological, radiological andnuclear (CBRN) unit. With the Centers for Disease Control andPrevention and several well-known hospitals located in Atlanta, theGeorgia SDF can draw on the skills of chemists, doctors and otherprofessionals knowledgeable about weapons of mass destruction. Itassists, trains, and acts in an advisory capacity with the 4th CivilSupport Team of the Georgia Army National Guard.

This Weapons of Mass Destruction/ CivilSupport Team is a high-priority response unit. Commanded by alieutenant colonel and consisting of 22 full time National Guardmembers (both Army and Air Force) its mission is to provide advice toincident commanders by identifying CBRN agents and substances,assessing current and projected consequences of events, advising onresponse measures, and assisting with appropriate requests for statesupport. It can also be called for out-of-state missions.

The Alaskan SDF is particularly valuable inreinforcing and assisting the active and reserve military and the USCoast Guard. It was called to active duty for five months after Sept.11 and helped secure the Alaskan pipeline and the Alaskan railroad.Possessing four armed patrol boats for coastal defense and portsecurity, the SDF augmented US Coast Guard patrols at the ports ofAnchorage and Whittier. Trained at the Military Police Academy, whichis staffed by either Alaskan state troopers already in the SDF or statetroopers, the SDF is accredited by the state and granted the samearrest powers as the state police.

Recent SDF operations have been mounted onoperating budgets ranging from as little as $26,500 to $1 milliondollars, which were used for pay and allowances, logistics andmaintenance of equipment and weapons.

Given their dual role in civil and militarycontingencies, most SDFs offer training courses in both areas. Over 90percent of states offer a course approximating basic training forpersonnel who have no prior military service, while 60 percent offercourses for non-commissioned officers and 48 percent offer officercourses. Current Army doctrine, adapted to local needs, is the rule;although some states, like Georgia and California, draw on Marine CorpsInstitute officer courses. Oddly, SDF officers aren’t allowed to attendthe US Army Command and General Staff College because they’re notfederal officers—while the officers of foreign militaries canparticipate.

In additional to military training, roughlythree-quarters of the states encourage or require SDF members tocomplete a variety of courses offered by the Federal EmergencyManagement Agency. These include CPR, emergency management, emergencypreparedness, radiological emergency management, hazardous materialsand the Citizens Guide to Disaster Assistance courses.


State officials who use their SDFs on aregular basis are encouraged by their performance. Brig. Gen. CraigCampbell, Alaska’s adjutant general, told me: “For what we have themassigned to do, which is to backfill the National Guard, they train anddo a good job for us here in Alaska.”

Maj. Gen. David Poythress, Georgia’s adjutantgeneral, uses his SDF to support National Guard families when familymembers are deployed overseas. The Georgia SDF maintains the armories,acts as a point of contact for spouses of National Guard members andprovides food service for National Guard families in addition to itsusual duties of disaster relief and civil support. SDF personnel havemanned the state operations center and provided the Georgia NationalGuard with information technology expertise.

With strong ties to their states and theNational Guard, SDFs are particularly well suited to provide governorswith the support and expertise they need for civil, military, andhomeland security contingencies. Given the demands and the operatingtempo of the regular military, the National Guard, and the Reserves,reliance on SDFs is likely to increase—but relying on SDFs makes goodsense from a number of other standpoints as well:

First, the demonstrated willingness tovolunteer and serve after 9/11 has shown SDFs to be good outlets forpatriotic fervor; and given their degree of prior service experiencethey’re a useful resource.

Second, these are inexpensive forces sincethey’re only paid for active duty and not training. Using SDF troopswhere practicable can save thousands — if not millions — of dollars.

Third, SDFs give the states expandable forcesif the National Guard is unavailable or other federally controlledassets are being used for non-state tasks.

SDFs — whether they were called militia or home guards or MinuteMen—have a long and proud tradition in the United States. In America’scurrent situation that tradition is once again relevant. It would bewise of those authorities with homeland security responsibilities notto overlook the assets SDFs bring to the table. HST

US Army Lt. Col. Brent Bankusworks in the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College,Carlisle Barracks, Pa. He focuses on Homeland Security/Defense andweapons of mass destruction. He can be reached at [email protected] To comment on this article write [email protected]

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