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National Guard: Why So Special?
Why does the Army have two elements in the reserve component the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard? It’s a fairly common question.
The Army National Guard is distinctly different from the Army Reserve and the regular Army. The differences aren’t immediately evident, but they are real, nevertheless. The differences originate deep in our national past, but they exist today and are important for Soldiers to understand, regardless of whether they are active, Guard or Reserve.
Even if Soldiers never join the Guard, they will almost certainly work with Guard Soldiers while they train or are deployed, if they haven’t done so already.
The most fundamental difference is that every member of the National Guard belongs to two organizations — the National Guard of the United States and the National Guard of his or her particular state. In addition to the 50 states, the U.S. territories of Guam and the Virgin Islands, the District of Columbia, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico all have National Guard units. So there are 54 Army National Guards in all.
Because the Air Force grew out of the Army and has been a separate service only since 1947, there are also 54 separate Air National Guards. When National Guard members enlist, they swear an oath to the Constitution of the United States as well as to the constitution of the state or territory where they join. They serve two sovereign governments.
Decentralized control for domestic operations is a key part of what makes the Guard special and unique. Centuries of service have shown the wisdom of having a military force that can respond to local as well as national needs. In the past, the Guard served an obvious domestic defensive need.
Today, natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and regional situations that have national consequences — such as the recent announcement that 6,000 National Guard troops operating under state command will support the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency to stem illegal immigration — demonstrate the continued need for a National Guard that the states can call on.
When America was first settled by Europeans, the Europeans imported their military customs to the New World. The English, who became the dominant power on this continent, relied on local militias that required all free adult men to train together in defense of their colonies.
It is from these militia roots that the Guard traces its history. In fact, the birthday of the National Guard is Dec. 13, 1636, marking the day that town militia companies in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were first organized into regiments, a full 139 years before the founding of the U.S. Army.
GEN George Washington’s Continental Army, the forerunner of today’s regular Army, was organized from members of these militia units in June 1775 — two months after the battles of Lexington and Concord that started the American Revolution. The militia was a key to winning that war, not just because of its role in battle, but because it denied the British control of the countryside. With British troops isolated in coastal cities, popular opinion in the surrounding areas gradually shifted towards independence from Britain.
Recognizing the key role the militia played in the Revolution, the founding fathers ratified the militia’s continued existence by providing for its longevity in the Constitution. Control over the militia was split between the states and the federal government. The states would train the militia and appoint officers. The federal government would organize and arm the militia and determine the standard of training. The founders intentionally developed a system where military power was not monopolized by the federal government, but split with the states.
That division between state and federal control, further defined by numerous laws over the last two centuries, still characterizes today’s National Guard. The Guard remains under the control of its state commander in chief, the governor, unless mobilized for federal service. Governors don’t have to request permission from the federal government to use the Guard. It is immediately available and accountable to them.
While in state service, the Guard supports civil authorities as they cope with lawlessness and all types of natural disasters. To this day, the National Guard is called out by individual state governors hundreds of times each year.
The Origin of the Guard
The name “National Guard” was first adopted in 1825 by militia units in New York to honor the Marquis de Lafayette, the French nobleman who served with Washington during the American Revolution and later commanded the Garde Nationale de Paris during the French Revolution.
The name caught on in other states, and in 1916 the federal government adopted “National Guard” as the official term for the militia. That same year, Congress authorized the creation of the Organized Reserve Corps, the forerunner of today’s Army Reserve.
A significant difference between the Guard and Reserve today is the size and composition of the two forces. The Army Guard is authorized 350,000 Soldiers and is divided into combat, combat-support and combat-service-support units. The portion of the Army Reserve that is organized into troop units is authorized 205,000 Soldiers, but there is very little combat structure. So combat-arms Soldiers coming off active duty and seeking a combat unit in the Reserves will probably end up joining the Guard.
Soldiers in the Army Reserve, as with those in the active Army, don’t have state obligations. Though calls to state active duty can be inconvenient for Guard Soldiers, they have their benefits. There is a great deal of personal satisfaction that comes from helping neighbors during times of crisis. State service also builds a reservoir of goodwill with local communities, which translates into support at the state and national levels.
Governors and congressional delegations will fight for “their” National Guards. For countless American citizens, the face of the Army in their communities is the National Guard, a neighbor helping a neighbor recover from the effects of a natural disaster.
There are legal differences that make this distinction between the Guard and the other Army components even more clear. The 1878 Posse Comitatus Act prevents federal military forces from enforcing civil laws in the United States unless specifically authorized by the president. Federal military forces include the Army Reserve and even the Guard when it is mobilized by the federal government.
Posse comitatus does not apply to the Guard when it is employed in its state status. That allows governors to augment local law-enforcement agencies with Guard troops if necessary.
Posse comitatus, the rapid response and local accountability that come from state control, and long experience in supporting civil authorities explain why the Guard alone is used in the vast majority of homeland-defense, homeland-security and military-aid-to-civil-authority missions.
Only rarely is a disaster or riot so overwhelming that federal forces must become involved. On some of these occasions, like the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, the National Guard was federalized after active Army and Marine troops arrived on the scene and the Guard was placed under command of an active Army officer.
On other occasions, including after Hurricane Katrina, federal forces, under a federal chain of command, work together with Guard forces, under a state chain of command, all in support of local civil authorities. Close coordination between state and federal authorities assures unity of effort during those situations.
Homeland Security Today
Because the Guard has such a long history of serving the states, it has been quick to adapt to changing threats to homeland security. The result has been an expansion of forces and capabilities tailored to address 21st-century threats. All of these activities are unique to the National Guard.
In 1996 Congress told the Department of Defense to organize specialized units that would work with civilian emergency responders. These units would assess potential attacks with weapons of mass destruction, advise emergency responders on how to deal with the hazard and provide communication capabilities at an incident site.
Because of the Guard’s traditionally close association with emergency responders, the DOD decided to build this capability into the Guard. Initially, 10 22-man weapons-of-mass-destruction civil support teams were organized, one for each Federal Emergency Management Agency region, and composed of full-time Army and Air National Guard members.
In the wake of Sept. 11 and the anthrax attacks of 2001, demand for the teams was so great that Congress authorized one team for each state and territory, with two in California, for a total of 55.
Twelve regional response teams, called CERFPs, have also been organized. [See related story on homeland defense.]
The Guard also includes Alaska’s 49th Missile Defense Battalion and Colorado’s 100th Missile Defense Brigade, both dedicated to defeating ballistic missile attacks against the United States.
Since 9/11, the National Guard has been leveraging existing combat capabilities for homeland defense. The headquarters in every state has been transformed to provide a joint-forces command-and-control capability in the event of an emergency. A joint operations center with redundant and secure communications capabilities now operates all day, every day, in every state. These state JOCs regularly conduct exercises to test their reactions to a variety of incidents and attacks, from hurricanes to terrorist use of a WMD.
Every state now has a designated reaction force for rapid emergency response. These forces come from existing units and aren’t always Army Guard. Air National Guard security police — the equivalent of Army military police — frequently take turns serving as reaction forces.
One key element in preparing for domestic missions is having the right troops on hand for governors to deal with a crisis. Since 2003 the National Guard has redistributed forces among the states to ensure that each state has a core group of response capabilities, termed the “essential 10.” These capabilities include the joint force headquarters and CST in each state, plus the ability to conduct security, communications, medical, aviation, engineering, transportation, maintenance and logistics operations.
In an emergency in their state, no governor would have to go searching for these capabilities. Each one has immediate access to them in either their Army or Air National Guard.
The Guard has trained units to respond to cyber attacks and to assist the government, commercial and private sectors in evaluating threats to critical infrastructure. All of these new capabilities are unique responses to the homeland-security threats of the 21st century.
Meanwhile, overseas, the Guard’s role in the war on terror continues. More than 200,000 Guard Soldiers have been mobilized for active duty overseas since 9/11. At one point in 2005, half of the combat brigades in Iraq were Army Guard units, and a Guard division headquarters commanded active-duty brigades for the first time since World War II.
When mobilized to fight overseas, all units are being equipped identically, and it is hard to distinguish the Guard from Reserve and active-duty Soldiers.
With all Army components scheduled to convert to identical modular units over the next few years, the days of tiered resourcing — in which Guard and Reserve units were equipped with fewer Soldiers and outdated equipment — are expected to become a thing of the past.
Overseas, the total Army concept makes all components increasingly hard to distinguish. At home, the National Guard’s roots as the militia of the states give it a role and influence in homeland defense, homeland security and military support to civil authorities far out of proportion to its size.
For nearly 400 years, the Guard has been the average American’s most direct link to the military, and it remains so to this day.