Since the early part of the 20th Century, the United States maintained only a minimal army and relied on state militias to supply most of its troops, with the training and readiness of the latter varying widely.  Because of the Spanish–American War and the performance of the militias and other volunteer units during that conflict, Congress was called upon to reform and regulate the training and qualification of state militias.


In 1903, with passage of the Militia Act of 1903, the predecessor to the modern-day National Guard was formed. It required the states to divide their militias into two sections. The law recommended the title "National Guard" for the first section, known as the organized militia, and "Reserve Militia" for all others.


State Defense Forces or State Guards are paramilitary units that operate under the sole authority of a state government. State defense forces are authorized by state and federal law and are under the command of the governor of each state.  Nearly every state has laws authorizing state defense forces, and 22 states, plus the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, have active SDFs with different levels of activity, support, and strength. State defense forces generally operate with emergency management and homeland security missions.


Most SDFs are organized as army units, but air/aviation and naval/maritime units also exist in some states.  As governors often use state defense forces to augment their state's Army National Guard and Air National Guard units, state defense forces have been both officially and informally called National Guard Reserves.  


The federal government recognizes state defense forces, in accordance with the Compact Clause of the U.S. Constitution, under 32 U.S.C. § 109 which provides that state defense forces may not be called, ordered, or drafted into the armed forces of the United States, thus preserving their separation from the National Guard.


The former Florida State Guard


Before the United States entered World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted a peacetime draft, and federalized various National Guard units, including Florida’s National Guard. As a result, states which had previously counted on their National Guard to maintain peace, quell riots, protect against sabotage, or repel a potential invasion were given the alternative of creating their own state-level military forces under the State Guard Act signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on October 21, 1940.


In 1941, the Florida Legislature and Florida Governor Holland created the Florida Defense Force, later to be rebranded as the Florida State Guard.  Membership was open to all men in Florida aged 18 to 63 and the commitment lasted for three years.  


By 1943, the Florida State Guard numbered 2,100 men in 36 units, many were world War I veterans who were too old to serve again or people who were not qualified to serve in the federal military services.  During the war, the First Air Squadron of the Florida State Guard regularly patrolled the coast of Florida, searching for German U-boats. The squadron was also used to assist in search-and-rescue missions.

                                               Picture Courtesy of: Florida

The Florida State Guard was disbanded in 1947 after the Florida Army National Guard was released from Federal Active Duty during World War II.


The Mission of SGAUS


The mission of the State Guard Association of the Unites States is to advocate for the advancement and support of regulated state military forces established by state governments under the authority of Title 32, Section 109, of the United States Code. These units are typically called state defense forces, state guards, or state military reserves and are regulated by state law and operational guidance provided by the U.S. Army’s National Guard Bureau.


Benefits of a State Guard or State Defense Force


For many years, State Guards stood ready to provide protection for armories, or as “Honor Guards” for local events or military funerals, when National Guard personnel were unavailable.  As National Guard units were called to serve overseas in the Global War on Terror, State Guards/SDFs were once again realized as an important force multiplier in state emergency management.  


In most states, after the 9/11 attacks, the types of missions that State Guards/SDFs increased their focus on local emergency response, disaster recovery, and critical infrastructure protection.  Though National Guard units have returned home with the draw-down of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, continuing conflicts and threats from across the globe – including expanding terrorist threats – prove that things are in no sense “back to normal.”

A Department of Defense report entitled, “Evaluation of Department of Defense Interaction with State Defense forces” by theU.S. Deputy Inspector General, Special Plans and Operations, found that in April 2014, 23 states and Puerto Rico maintained State Guards with an estimated strength of 14,000.  Just months after this report, Arizona became the 25th state or territory to organize a State Guard.


While state governors can call on federal aid and support, trained State Guard personnel – already stationed within the state – can respond much more quickly than federal resources, which can be bureaucratically slow to respond.  Statewide catastrophes – whether natural or man-made – will require personnel trained in emergency management response and recovery, including roadway evacuation support, the logistics of food distribution and emergency shelters, local security, damage assessment, and even urban, wilderness and water search and rescue.


The Modern State Defense Force


State militias have been seen as an essential component of the defense of America since the time of its founding. Building on English and Colonial experience, and reflecting their concerns about maintaining a large standing federal army, the Founding Fathers inscribed their belief that a well-regulated militia was “the ultimate guardian of liberty”.


SDFs serve solely as Title 32 (state) forces.  This status gives SDFs a very important advantage. SDFs are continually resident within their respective states and can be called up quickly and easily in times of need. In recent years, SDFs have proved their value as a vital force providers to homeland security and emergency responses.


After 9/11, for instance, the New York State Guard, the New York Naval Militia, along with the New Jersey Naval Militia were activated to assist in response, recovery, and critical infrastructure security.  

An estimated 2,274 SDF personnel participated in recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina. SDF personnel were activated in at least eight states, including Texas, Maryland, Virginia, and Tennessee.


They assisted directly with recovery efforts or stayed in their states to fill the roles of the state National Guard units that were deployed to assist in the recovery.  SDFs have also offered critical infrastructure protection. In Operation Noble Eagle, a homeland defense and civil support operation after 9/11, the Alaskan SDF helped protect the Alaska oil pipeline.

SDFs and State Guards Today

The missions and activities of all the state forces in the various states is too lengthy to list here.  However, many state forces have been mobilized for extended periods to support the various Covid-19 responses around the country in addition to a wide variety of other missions that are unique to each state.