By Jena Baker McNeill
Homeland Security Policy Analyst at The Heritage Foundation
Last week, Time Magazine led with the story, “Locked and Loaded: The Secret World of Extreme Militias.” Page after page, the article describes renegade, anti-government militia groups. The article, in its coverage of militia groups, however, makes one glaring omission: State Defense Forces (SDF).
If you haven’t heard of them, don’t worry. Most Americans have not. These forces receive little press and little public attention and largely operate under the radar. However, in the hours after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the New York Guard, New York Naval Militia, and New Jersey Naval Militia, all state defense forces, were found aiding first responders – saving lives and property. Following Hurricane Katrina, some 2,274 members of the nations SDFs, from as many as eight states, were there supporting recovery and response. At 14,000 individuals strong, SDFs should not be overlooked.
SDFs are a far cry from the militant forces described by Time. In fact, State Defense Forces are authorized by state law and are under the control of state governors and senior state military leaders. Their missions vary from state to state, but they exist largely to back the National Guard in emergency response situations. Yet, unlike the National Guard, they receive no federal funding or support and remain under state control at all times.
Twenty-three states and territories have already created them. Yet, in some states they remain under funded and under supported. This may seem to make sense in the face of state budget cuts, but SDFs are actually a low-cost means for states to enhance homeland security efforts without relying on the bureaucratic federal apparatus.
A recent survey by the Heritage Foundation showed that only four of the thirteen responding SDFs pay their members and then only when they were called to active duty. The rest rely solely on volunteers – something that often appeals to former military folks – but also retired or even current professionals like doctors, chaplains, lawyers, and law enforcement officers (even clinical psychologists).
Creating and maintaining State Defense Forces is a simple and effective way for states to enhance the safety and security of its citizens. The federal government should support states in these efforts, maybe even provide training and technical support where possible. But the beauty of SDFs is that they operate entirely separate from the feds. This is especially true for high-risk areas, those prone to natural disasters and acts of terrorism, but many of these states have yet to create an SDF.
It’s a common phrase in homeland security circles that state and locals are in charge of their own disaster response. At times, many doubt whether this is actually true, as FEMA continues to subsidize more and more routine disasters. The creation and support of SDFs, however, is an additional step towards putting state and locals back in the driver’s seat.