Expanding the use of volunteer US military forces in homeland defence missions

The expanded use of US volunteer military organisations such as state defence forces (SDFs) and naval militias in homeland defence missions is emerging as an important, viable option in the global war on terrorism. The current high operational tempo of missions - both at home and abroad - underscores the need to examine all resources available to US planners, including the previously neglected SDFs and naval militias.

SDFs were created early in the 20th century as replacements for the National Guard when those forces were federalised and sent into combat overseas. They were utilised as replacement units when the National Guard was mobilised for the Mexican border campaign of 1916-17 and were similarly used during both world wars and the Korean War of 1950-53. Upon the National Guard’s departure, state governors were ill-prepared to cope with possible natural and man-made disasters and directed that replacement units be formed. Referred to as State Guards or Home Guards, many of these replacement soldiers had credible and even distinguished prior military experience and filled the void ably.

Similar to their land-based counterparts, naval militias have been in existence even before the US became a republic and were particularly prominent during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These organisations were used for missions ranging from picket duty during the Spanish-American War of 1898 to harbour defence during the First World War. Later, as the US Navy (USN) Reserve became a viable force in the late 1920s and early 1930s, interest in naval militias declined. After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, however, the militias experienced a resurgence in interest. Naval militias are now seen as an economical way to employ an inexpensive force with many experienced personnel to augment the US Coast Guard (USCG), particularly in areas such as the Great Lakes region or in coastal areas or states featuring large rivers. In the immediate aftermath of the 11 September attacks the New York and New Jersey naval militia units saw extensive duty, using water-borne patrol assets and ferrying rescue workers to and from the crash site as well as providing desk officers at operations centres.

Currently, land-based SDF units are recognised under Title 32 US Code and are under direct control of each state Adjutant General. SDF units exist in 22 states and Puerto Rico. These units continue to perform important traditional tasks such as critical infrastructure security, while also augmenting the National Guard in areas such as information technology; search-and-rescue; legal, medical and religious support; and trained emergency desk officers at operations centres. Furthermore, a small but growing number of states use 'blue suite' US Air Force (USAF) SDFs as augmentation to the Air National Guard. The states of Texas and New York are particularly active in using USAF SDFs in augmenting their Air National Guard in missions such as security and operations centre manning. USAF SDFs are currently organised under Title 32 US Code as state-recognised forces, similar to their land-based counterparts.

Naval militias are organised under both Title 10 US Code and Title 32 US Code. An important distinction between Title 10 and Title 32 is that the former gives federal recognition whereas the latter provides state-only recognition, which is directly tied to manning and funding. Title 10 naval militias are federally recognised and are required by law to man their organisation with 95% drilling reservists from the USN, US Marine Corps or USCG. Federally recognised naval militias are also allotted federal funding, whereas state-recognised Title 32 naval militias are not. Of the four active naval militias in the US, Alaska and New York are strictly Title 10 organisations; Ohio is strictly a Title 32 organisation; and New Jersey is a combination, with one battalion of Title 10 sailors and two of Title 32 sailors.

A re-examination of the role of these volunteer military organisations seems overdue. US regular forces are experiencing increased mission requirements with deployment to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Philippines, in addition to US force requirements in Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo and the Sinai (as part of a multinational force), with a high probability of similar missions to come. Given this situation, SDFs and naval militias are a resource that should not be neglected for several key reasons.

The costs associated with maintaining SDFs and naval militias are comparatively minimal since weekend and annual training is done on a non-paid, volunteer basis. As with their training, most missions are run on a voluntary basis. SDF and naval militia personnel are paid only while on state active duty. In the immediate aftermath of the 11 September attacks, for example, activated SDFs and naval militias of Alaska, New York, and New Jersey were paid only for the few weeks they were on state active duty to augment the federalised National Guard forces. Moreover, maintenance and related logistical costs are low because the units possess minimal equipment.

Despite their clear virtues, the US government seems split on its support for these organisations. On the one hand, the Department of Defense and National Guard Bureau support the development and employment of SDFs and naval militias, viewing them as a logical choice to fulfil the National Guard's state duties when it is absent. On the other hand, there is a lack of federal support and funding to make this happen. Congress has passed the necessary legislation for SDFs to exist but congressional leaders are equally quick to emphasise that internal security is a state problem.1 This argument now appears invalid, since 11 September proved that local or state catastrophes can quickly develop into federal ones.

Historically, SDFs and naval militias have been plagued by questions of strategic direction; the scope of their missions; training and personnel standards; and service member liability. These questions need to be addressed. Since SDF organisations are ostensibly replacements for the National Guard, there is also a lack of consensus on what model they should follow. Most military planners and state leaders regard the role of the SDF as providing emergency support to civil authorities in the preservation of life, the protection of property and the maintenance of law and order. Yet, as in the Second World War, there are also those who favour a combat role for SDFs, despite their clear relevance to homeland defence.

The system needs to change. Homeland security planners face the requirement to establish viable missions and personnel policies for the SDFs and naval militias. Training and personnel policies require standardisation and the legal status of the service members and missions require clarification. If this occurs, the volunteer spirit that motivates SDF soldiers and naval militia sailors can be channelled more effectively. These volunteer military organisations can be a viable force in the fight against terrorism, but only if they become part of an integrated US homeland defence structure. History has shown that these forces have been effective even when called upon in a hurried last-minute fashion, when other options have been exhausted. This paradigm requires adjustment before another catastrophe occurs.

Lieutenant Colonel Brent C Bankus is assigned as the Senior National Guard Advisor to the Director of the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, where he specializes in homeland security

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