State Defense Forces: An Untapped Resource

by Brent Bankus

Because of the high operational tempo of the nation’s active-duty forces and federalized reserves in recent years it is far from certain if there will be enough trained personnel available to carry out the many duties and responsibilities likely to be assigned to the U.S. military in future times of crisis affecting the American homeland. One potential source of additional manpower to help in the Global War on Terrorism, particularly the homeland-security missions, is what are called the State Defense Forces (SDFs), an asset frequently neglected by national and state contingency planners, many of whom may be unaware that such units even exist.

But they do, and they represent a high-quality asset that might well be needed in the foreseeable future, particularly if the nation’s armed services continue to deploy their active and reserve forces to such current trouble spots as Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Philippines–while also using them for other missions of long standing in Kosovo, Bosnia, the Korean Peninsula, and the Sinai.

With counterterrorism experts virtually unanimous in their belief that the real question about “the next terrorist attack” is a matter of “not if, but when,” it may be time to consider how SDFs can be used to relieve the pressure on the active-duty units, including the Guard and Reserve forces already mobilized.

Continuity and Capability Both

SDFs were first used extensively early in the twentieth century when the National Guards of many states were mobilized and deployed overseas in both combat and support roles. The governors of the states suddenly bereft of Guard units were not prepared to cope with local disasters, either natural or manmade, of any consequence, so they directed the formation of replacement units—state defense forces, in other words. One of the earliest uses of SDFs was during the Mexican Border Campaign of 1916-17. SDF units also were used to good effect in World Wars I and II and in the Korean War.

Prior to the 1980s, the SDFs usually were called Home Guards or State Guards. Although modeled after the National Guard in form and function - with infantry the dominant branch—they were intended to be for state use only.

The infantry designation was used primarily because most if not all SDF missions were of the type usually assigned to infantry units - e.g., the guarding of critical infrastructure sites, and the use of small-unit tactics. Because there was a preponderance of prior-service or even retired military personnel, including many former National Guardsmen, in the SDF ranks, these replacement units represented a force significantly experienced in state contingencies and thus were able to provide a valuable continuity of service to the citizens of those states fielding such units.

World War II proved to be the high water mark for the SDFs, with all but four states organizing and using these so-called “replacement” National Guard units. For four critical weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 more than 13,000 Home Guard troops nationwide were on duty protecting critical infrastructure sites such as dams, electrical plants, bridges, and defense factories.

Although never called upon during the war for actual combat missions, many state Home Guard units ably carried out such traditional National Guard missions as infrastructure security; they also were used to help settle labor disputes and to assist local law-enforcement agencies. Because they were theoretically vulnerable to invasion and/or “another” surprise attack, some states—California, for example - kept a number of Home Guard units on state active duty for the duration of the war.

High Value for a Modest Cost

There are now SDF units available in 22 states and in Puerto Rico. Recognized under Title 32 of the U.S. Code, they operate under the direct control of their own state adjutant generals, and are regularly used to augment the National Guards of their home states—in such assignments as search-and-rescue missions, the provision of legal and medical services, and various duties in emergency operations centers. They also are available for missions similar to those carried out by their predecessors of the early 1900s, such as responding to disasters and protecting critical infrastructure.

Some SDFs have fielded their own air units, and thus are able to use privately owned fixed-wing aircraft for a variety of missions ranging from search and rescue to assisting federal and state forest –service units. In response to the growing concern over Weapons of Mass Destruction, a growing number of SDFs have incorporated nuclear/biological/chemical (NBC) courses in their training programs and/or have created their own NBC units.

The costs associated with maintaining SDFs are relatively modest, mostly because weekend and annual training programs are carried out almost exclusively on a volunteer non-pay basis—as are the actual missions to which the SDFs might be assigned. The general rule is that SDF personnel are paid only while actually serving on state active duty. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, for example, the SDFs that had been called up by Alaska and New York were paid only for the few weeks they were serving on state active duty (to augment the federalized National Guard forces of those states).

Their typical volunteer status makes it relatively inexpensive for a state to maintain its SDF as a force-in-being. Moreover, the minimal equipment required by most SDF personnel keeps maintenance and operational costs fairly low.

Despite their obvious value, SDFs receive little in the way of federal support. In principle, the Department of Defense and the National Guard Bureau both support the development and employment of SDFs as logical back-fill organizations that can be quickly called up in the absence of the National Guard. But the federal government has provided almost no funding support for SDFs. Similarly, Congress approved the legislation needed for the formation of SDFs, but at least some congressional leaders seem to believe that the states themselves should fund the SDFs, because the SDF units were created primarily to respond to state problems. The attacks of 9/11 showed, however, that state problems may very quickly turn into major federal problems. The same is true of natural disasters, of course, such as hurricanes and/or power outages.

There are several associated second-level effects caused by the lack of federal recognition, including the fact that SDFs are not permitted to procure excess federal equipment such as uniforms, and related personnel gear.

Issues Still to be Resolved

Several other issues, in addition to federal recognition, must be resolved before the SDFs can be used as effectively as they might be. One involves the potential state liability for the actions of an SDF member while serving in a volunteer status. Training standards (and personal standards - e.g., individual height-and-weight requirements) also have to be addressed; a unit of SDF volunteers might well find it difficult to meet the necessarily more demanding standards set for regular Army units.

Another important issue is personal rank–especially the rank of officers–in SDF units, which frequently is much higher than might be expected for units that are relatively small in size. This is because many members of SDF units are retired former officers or non-commissioned officers who attained a relatively high rank prior to their retirement from active duty.

There also is little consensus on how SDF units should be organized and equipped. Although usually considered as potential replacements for National Guard units able to support state authorities in the preservation of life, the protection of property, and the maintenance of law and order, they would be called out principally during natural disasters. There are some, though, who believe that SDFs also should be trained for actual combat roles as well.

History has shown that, when they have been given adequate funding and training, SDFs can be and have been effective. As replacement units, SDFs have ably filled the void during critical wartime periods in the nation’s history.

Given the numerous uncertainties related to the Global War on Terrorism, and in view of the continuing drain on the active-duty and National Guard and Reserve force structures, it might be prudent for federal and state homeland-security planners to explore the potential of the SDFs for future use. With a minimum investment, and the formulation of policies that allow for their effective use, the State Defense Forces could become an important new national-security asset.

Brent C. Bankus retired as a promotable Lieutenant Colonel from the Army National Guard Active Guard Reserve Program with over 25 years service. His military career, beginning in 1979 as an Armor/Cavalry officer encompassed command and staff positions in the U.S. Army, Army National Guard, and the Army Reserve. He has served in assignments within the United States and Germany as well as missions to Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, Sinai, Eritrea, Guam and Hawaii. He has a BS from Bloomsburg University, PA, an MS in Information Management from Strayer University, VA and an MS in Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps Command and General Staff Colleges and the U.S. Army War College. He is a consultant with Resource Consultants, Inc.