The Role of the National Guard in Homeland Security

Report Homeland Security

The Role of the National Guard in Homeland Security

April 8, 2002 20 min read

Authors: Jack Spencer and Larry Wortzel

For the United States, the nature of warfare changed drastically on September 11, 2001, when the homeland became a major theater of war. Americans quickly realized that the nation's enemies are not only willing but also able to strike them at home with a myriad of unthinkable means to create massive loss of life. America's defense posture, which had changed gradually since the Cold War, must now evolve quickly to prepare for the threats faced at home, and this evolution must include a rethinking of the role that the Reserves and National Guard play in homeland security.1

The reserve component is a critical element of the nation's total force. Reserve and National Guard units are deployed around the world to support the active forces in missions that range from peacekeeping to major wars. Beyond combat forces, guard units provide, for example, medical personnel, as well as administrative support personnel for air defense capabilities and helicopter units, and personnel trained to operate in a chemically contaminated battlefield. The Guard's role has grown over the past decade as the active force has been downsized and deployments in operations other than war have increased.

Now, with the imminent terrorist threat to the homeland and the increasing likelihood that U.S. civilians may be targeted at home in future conflicts, the homeland is a theater of war. Thus, the role of the National Guard in homeland security must become a part of war planning for any future war contingency.

As a first responder in domestic emergencies, the National Guard is well-positioned to assume the lead military role in homeland security. Facilitating this role will require the federal government to:

  • Formally refocus the mission of the National Guard on homeland security as a major mission;
  • Take steps to make service in support of homeland security equal in respect and benefits to service abroad;
  • Provide adequate funding for homeland security;
  • Ensure that the Guard's State Area Commands administer homeland security missions;
  • Provide adequate funding for the active services to assume the combat support services now performed by the Guard; and
  • Use the Guard's resources wisely.


The U.S. military forces cannot fight a large-scale conflict today without relying on the National Guard units and the Reserves. The National Guard--the oldest component of America's armed forces--has contributed to every major military campaign in the nation's history; 19 Army Guard divisions, for example, were deployed in World War II, 138,000 Army Guardsmen were mobilized for the Korean War, over 63,000 Army Guardsmen were called up for the 1991 Gulf War, and thousands are currently serving in the war against terror.

Such wartime dependence on citizen soldiers--Americans who generally have other careers--will not change.2 Nor does expanding the Guard's responsibilities to include homeland security mean that its mission with the active forces during times of general war would change. But the Guard's contribution to America's war strategy must reflect the evolving threats to the homeland. Now that the homeland has been turned into a theater of war by the enemies of America, Guard units must be available to protect the homeland and respond to terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

America still relies on a "Total Force Concept" that was initiated in the 1970s to integrate the active and reserve components of the armed forces. President Richard Nixon's Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, created the concept to respond to pressure from Nixon to reduce defense expenditures for the Vietnam war and streamline the services while maintaining the nation's global military commitments. Laird sought to integrate all elements of the armed forces seamlessly into a military complex and increase the reserve component's readiness, training, and equipment levels for combat and combat support services.3

General Creighton Abrams codified the Total Force Concept during his tenure as Army Chief of Staff from 1972-1974. His "Total Army" approach fostered even greater dependence on the reserve component by the active force.

Throughout the Cold War, the Total Force and Total Army concepts served the nation well. Deployments were held in check, and military force was used to support the overarching strategy of containing the Soviet Union.

Throughout the 1990s, however, the shrinking defense budgets and declining force structure--compounded by President Bill Clinton's proclivity to involve U.S. forces in peacekeeping missions--resulted in even greater reliance on the reserve component for day-to-day operations of the active force.4

  • While the U.S. Army conducted just 10 major contingency operations outside of its normal training and alliance commitments between 1960 and 1991, it conducted 26 such operations between 1992 and 1998.
  • Similarly, the Marines conducted 15 contingency operations between 1982 and 1989, and 62 operations between 1989 and 1999.5
  • Under President Clinton, U.S. forces of 20,000 or more troops were engaged in non-warfighting missions in Somalia (1993), Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1996), and Iraq and Kuwait (1998).6

As the active forces participated in more and more of these missions, their level of military readiness for war began to slip, recruiting and retention rates fell, and morale declined.7

In 1997, Secretary of Defense William Cohen updated the Total Force Concept to facilitate President Clinton's policies, calling on each of the service branches to remove any remaining barriers to force integration. It became clear that the active forces could not maintain the tempo that the Clinton Administration required.

Once again, more of the burden of the nation's military operations fell on the reserve component. National Guard units were pulled away from their home bases more frequently to support the active forces. In 1997 alone, reserve component personnel worked 12.6 million man-days in this role. According to the U.S. Department of Defense's own analysis, this commitment was equivalent to adding 34,500 personnel to the active forces.8


While the mission of the National Guard and reserve component was broadened to facilitate President Clinton's interventionist policies, it did not change with respect to the post-Cold War threat environment. Homeland defense simply was not a priority, even though the threats to the United States changed rapidly after the Cold War ended. This problem befell other elements of America's national security infrastructure as well. Defense and intelligence budgets were slashed as the public turned its focus to domestic problems.

Though no peer competitor emerged immediately after the Soviet threat had dissipated, a different and more dangerous threat did emerge: Hostile regimes began to build or buy weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the means to deliver them over long distances. Global terrorist networks found safe haven in troubled states or regions and developed closer relationships with the regimes developing WMD. A broad-based propaganda campaign blamed the United States for the hardships these dictatorships bought and inflamed anti-American sentiment among their people.

In the new security environment characterized by such asymmetrical threats, the United States should modernize the Total Force Concept. The reserve component should continue to support the active forces to carry out the nation's security strategy, and military force planners should prepare for future wars on two (or more) fronts--including the home front and fronts abroad. U.S. forces must be prepared to defend Americans from attacks on U.S. soil and overseas. The military force structure must prepare for homeland defense without compromising the ability of the armed forces to carry out their missions abroad. The Guard must be available to train for and respond to attacks on the homeland.

In 2000, 71,000 Army National Guard troops were activated and deployed to 64 countries, including the United States, the Balkans, and Southwest Asia, to support the active force.9 By July 2001, the Army National Guard was deployed to 87 countries, and its deployment burden had increased 27 percent, fulfilling missions left over from commitments by the previous Administration.10 Yet no accommodation was made to ensure that the Guard's requirements for defending the homeland theater were being met.

As long as the primary objective for force planning is to have the reserve component support active forces for overseas contingencies, the reserve component will not be available to defend the homeland. And as long as the reserve component remains available to support the active forces, the active forces will not expand sufficiently to enable them to execute their own responsibilities within the national military strategy should the reserves be deployed for homeland security. And while the reserve component seemingly could prepare for both missions equally, in actuality it should not. To prepare for homeland security as part of a comprehensive war effort, much of the Guard should remain in the United States as an integral element of the Total Force.

A major attack on the homeland would require a significant response of military resources both at home and abroad. The active forces all train and are equipped to respond at a moment's notice to contingencies anywhere in the world. They are dependent, however, on the National Guard for follow-on combat power and supporting forces--a role the Guard has fulfilled valiantly.

It generally takes a Guard unit greater time to reach a fully trained and deployable status for wartime deployment abroad than it does an active duty unit, which results in a lag time for the Guard's response. Deploying abroad, moreover, means the Guard unit is not able to respond to an emergency at home; and because many Guard members are also police officers, doctors, firemen, and emergency technicians, supporting the active force abroad always removes critical first responders from America's communities.

On the other hand, because so many of America's Guard members are also first responders in a national emergency, these citizen soldiers are well-prepared to respond when the homeland is under attack. Given the immediacy with which America must respond to an attack as it unfolds, it is logical for the active forces to decrease their dependence on the Guard so that the Guard can concentrate on homeland security.

The Total Force must be structured so that the active forces can respond immediately to a major crisis without taking away Guard resources that will be needed for catastrophic emergencies and defending against attack at home. To do this will require the active forces to add personnel to fulfill some of the combat support and combat service support missions the Guard now provides.

The Guard As Lead Military Agency in Homeland Security
The National Guard is the logical element of the U.S. armed forces to act as the lead military agency for homeland security. By law and tradition, the Guard connects local communities to the federal government. Units are located in every American community, and they have the capabilities, legal authority, and structure to respond to attacks on the homeland. The Army National Guard maintains over 3,000 armories around the nation, for example, and the Air National Guard has 140 units throughout the United States and its territories. This close relationship between the National Guard and their locales must be leveraged to ensure that local Guard units are prepared to respond to attacks and that they help to train other first responders in their communities.

National Guard State Area Commands (STARCs) are well-situated to oversee the training of state and local first responders in weapons of mass destruction (WMD) consequence management. Currently, the National Guard maintains approximately 30 22-man Civil Support Teams (WMD-CST), who are trained and equipped to respond to a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear (CBRN) event. These units could provide valuable training to state and local first responders.

The Guard also could help state and local authorities understand how to maintain equipment and sustain operations in a CBRN environment, and to plan for medical treatment after an attack (combat triage). Local health authorities are not adequately prepared to address the mass casualties that would result from CBRN events; many would not know, for example, when to enter an environment or stay away, or when to admit patients to a public facility or send them to an off-site, secure facility. The Guard can help them gain that operational knowledge.

The National Guard should help state and local authorities assess their readiness level. These assessments should include the ability to communicate with other state Guard units and state and local authorities as well as to identify interoperability problems. Air National Guard bases and Army National Guard armories are ideally located to facilitate such cooperative efforts. The Guard units should assess their own ability to work with state and local officials to quickly rebuild "mitigating infrastructure" such as roads, bridges, and water supplies. Further, they should determine their ability to provide backup systems, such as power generation, water distribution, and communications systems, for local emergency facilities.

All these things the Guard can do well and is already doing to some extent. But these activities should constitute a critical Guard mission in today's new warfighting environment.


To facilitate the National Guard's role in homeland defense and as a vital element of a Total Force, the Administration should take the following steps:

  • Refocus the National Guard on homeland security. The National Guard, the Department of Defense, and the states already have in place much of the administrative and command infrastructure that is needed to enable the Guard to take on a greater role in homeland security. But the Guard's focus remains on supporting the active forces. Title 32, Section 102, of the U.S. Code describes the statutory role of the National Guard:
    In accordance with the traditional military policy of the United States, it is essential that the strength and organization of the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard as an integral part of the first line defenses of the United States be maintained and assured at all times. Whenever Congress determines that more units and organizations are needed for the national security than are in the regular components of the ground and air forces, the Army National Guard of the United States and the Air National Guard of the United States...shall be ordered to active Federal duty and retained as long as so needed.
    The modern realities of missile and WMD proliferation and the growth of the terrorist threat require that the Administration reevaluate the "traditional military policy of the United States." Significant elements of the National Guard must be focused primarily on homeland security, with a secondary mission of supporting the active forces.
  • Give homeland service the same respect as service abroad. Because the government's primary purpose is to protect the people of America, the homeland is the most important theater of war. Active service in defense of the homeland should be given the same weight and respect as service abroad. Those serving in the homeland should receive appropriate benefits, and adequate resources should be dedicated to the homeland mission. Changing the culture of the Guard in this way will increase both the morale of those serving in this important component and the numbers of recruits who want to protect the homeland.

    The primary statutes governing the activation of the National Guard fall under Title 10 and Title 32 of the U.S. Code. Guardsmen are called up to active duty under Title 10 for national service in missions funded by the federal government. They serve under the command of the National Command Authority (the President and Secretary of Defense) and receive all of the rights and benefits of active national service. Guard units activated for Title 32 missions, on the other hand, come under the command of the state governor. Additionally, Section 502(f) of Title 32 allows the National Guard to be called up for federal service while remaining under the control of the governor. These missions are funded by the federal government but, depending on the type of activation, may or may not receive many of the benefits of national service.

    Most of the Guardsman activated for homeland duty since September 11 have been activated under Title 32 at the request of the Secretary of Defense. They have many of the same benefits as if they had been called up for national service under Title 10, but they do not gain veterans status, which brings with it certain benefits.11 Clearly, these men and women are as much a part of the war on terror as those who are deployed elsewhere in the world, and they should receive the same veterans status as was granted in World War II.12 Providing veterans status would send a clear message that the United States places homeland security on a par with service for other missions overseas.13

  • Provide adequate funding to support the National Guard and Reserves in their homeland security mission. The vulnerability of the U.S. homeland makes it a theater of combat for which the United States must prepare. The war on terror has blurred the lines between national service (Title 10), national service under the command and control of the state governor (Title 32, Section 502[f]), and state service (Title 32). The federal government may provide funding for some Title 32 missions, but most are funded by the states. While this should remain the case for traditional Title 32 missions, missions that support the Total Force, as describe above, should be funded under Title 32, Section 502(f).
  • Use the State Area Commands to administer the Guard's new homeland mission. The STARC is the peacetime headquarters of the Air and Army National Guard unit for the governor and the adjutant general, and has its own integral administration, logistics, and command and control facilities. The STARC can recall a state's National Guard for state service; and because it controls all of the National Guard units in a state, as well as the armories and bases, in the event of a localized attack or major incident, the governor would likely use the STARC to call up the National Guard to assist or supplement local first responders. To facilitate this role, all STARCs should:
  • Have activation rosters for units and personnel that also identify which personnel are first responders with skills critical to a community (for example, the chief of a fire department), so that these key people are not called up;
  • Know the training, equipment readiness, and personnel strength status of all units; and
  • Establish a command and control center with redundant communications capabilities that can supplement or replace destroyed fire or law enforcement links.
  • Provide funding for expanded combat support services among the active forces in the Defense Department's budget request. The active force relies heavily on the National Guard and Reserves to carry out its missions. The reserve components cannot be easily extracted from support duties and redeployed for homeland security without expanding the active force rosters to provide that support. To further alleviate the operational strain on the National Guard and the active forces, instead of deploying the Guard and Reserves to help active forces to meet the operations tempo of continuous deployments for nation-building and peacekeeping missions, President Bush should commit U.S. forces only to missions that advance America's vital national interests.
  • Use National Guard resources wisely. National Guard resources should be focused on homeland security and not on missions that are better handled by the private sector or other government agencies. For example, the National Guard should not be guarding airports or the nation's borders. Those responsible for airports should provide adequate security. The same is true for the borders. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) should hire and train the guards it needs to secure America's borders. National Guard members have specialized training and legal standing that gives them a unique role in homeland security that should not be squandered.


Americans can no longer assume that their homeland is safe from attack. September 11, 2001, turned the homeland into a theater of war. The National Guard is well-suited to serving as the lead military agency for homeland security; it should receive adequate funding to train and equip its units for homeland security, and to help train state and local officials to respond to a WMD event, while continuing to prepare to support the active forces in a general war.

Because Guard members live and work in a community, they are likely to be the first federal agents to assist local first responders in the event of an attack on the homeland. Indeed, they may well be the first responders. The United States should update the Total Force Concept initiated in the 1970s to assure that the active forces are adequately staffed and equipped to carry out their missions abroad in the event that the National Guard is called up for homeland security missions.

Jack Spencer is Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, and Larry M. Wortzel is Director of the Asian Studies Center, at The Heritage Foundation.

1. The reserve component includes the Army National Guard, Air National Guard, Army Reserves, Air Force Reserves, Naval Reserves, Marine Corp Reserves, and Coast Guard Reserves.

2. National Guard Bureau, "Army Guard History," at For a brief history of the Guard's contribution to America's wars, see

3. David L Snook, "The Total Force Policy: History of the Iowa National Guard," at

4. Robert Holzer, "U.S. Army, Marines to Gauge Deployment Cost," Defense News, July 17, 2000, p. 1.

5. U.S. General Accounting Office, Military Operations: Impact of Operations Other Than War on the Services Varies, GAO/NSIAD-99-69, May 1999, p. 13 (cited hereafter as GAO Report).

6. Congressional Budget Office, Making Peace While Staying Ready for War: The Challengers of U.S. Military Participation in Peace, December 1999 (cited hereafter as CBO Report); see esp. Chapter 1 at

7. See GAO Report; CBO Report; and Center for Strategic and International Studies, "American Military Culture in the 21st Century," January 2000. For a detailed analysis of the U.S. military's readiness problems in the late 1990s, see Jack Spencer, "The Facts About Military Readiness," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1394, September 15, 2000.

8. U.S. Department of Defense, "Total Force Integration," at

9. Lieutenant General Thomas J. Plewes, Chief, Army Reserve, "Army Reserve Overview," statement before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, 107th Cong., 1st Sess., July 18, 2001.

10. Lieutenant General Roger C. Schultz, Director, Army National Guard, "Army National Guard Personnel Posture," statement before the Committee on Armed Services, U.S. House of Representatives, 107th Cong., 1st Sess., July 18, 2001.

11. While their service under a Title 32 call-up qualifies them for federal pay and access to military benefits, these Guard members do not have access to important veterans supplements, such as extra points on the civil service test when applying for a federal job, deductions on home loan funding fees, educational benefits like the Montgomery GI Bill, and access to quality veteran medical facilities. Giving these Guardsmen veterans status would require significant administrative oversight by the Defense Department, but that can be done efficiently by ensuring that the appropriate framework is in place to monitor and prevent abuse.

12. According to the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, one way to give veterans status to those protecting the homeland would be to amend Title 38 USC, Section 5303A(3), by adding a paragraph that includes members of the National Guard who are called to active duty under Title 32 "for other purposes." For a full analysis of the issue of veterans status for Guard homeland deployments, see Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, "Veterans Status for Title 32 Active Duty," Point Papers, at (March 29, 2001).

13. Ibid.


Jack Spencer
Jack Spencer

Senior Research Fellow for Energy and Environmental Policy

Larry Wortzel
Larry Wortzel

Adjunct Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College