Can States Have Their Own Army?
Can states have their own army? In a way, states can have their own armies. “State Defense Forces” are military units under the exclusive control of individual U.S. states. Unlike the National Guard, state defense forces are not part of a broader national network and cannot be federalized.
How do State Defense Forces Work?
According to the Heritage Foundation, 23 states and territories have state defense forces. They may go by a number of different names, such as “state militia” or “state guard,” but they are all essentially the same construct.
We say that states have their own armies because state defense forces have a narrow mission and are only commanded by the state governor or executive. State defense forces trace their historical lineage back to colonial militias, which were organized locally and played a major part in the formation of the Continental Army which beat the British and won the Revolutionary War.
State defense forces are authorized by 32 U.S. Code § 109 which states:
In addition to its National Guard, if any, a State, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, Guam, or the Virgin Islands may, as provided by its laws, organize and maintain defense forces. A defense force established under this section may be used within the jurisdiction concerned, as its chief executive (or commanding general in the case of the District of Columbia) considers necessary, but it may not be called, ordered, or drafted into the armed forces.
State defense forces operate as independent guard units. They are empowered to protect the state, respond to natural disasters, and perform missions pertinent to state security. The units cannot be commanded by the federal government and in times of war they cannot be integrated with the United States military. State defense forces are fully independent of federal control.
They are all-volunteer forces and are generally not paid for training.
State Defense Forces vs. The National Guard
While state defense forces may seem similar to the National Guard, they are completely separate entities. The primary difference is command; the National Guard can be called to federal service and deployed across the country; state defense forces are only under state command and must remain deployed in their own state.
The National Guard is, as its name suggests, national. Although each state has its own section of the National Guard, the President is empowered to federalize them. State defense forces are explicitly for their states and are not subject to such federalization.
How Powerful are State Defense Forces?
Most state defense forces are not particularly large or powerful. In 2005, there were only 14,000 total members of state defense forces nationwide. According to the Heritage Foundation report, state defense forces are generally lightly equipped and lightly-trained.
That being said, state armies have provided invaluable support during many state crises. The New York Guard has been deployed during disasters like the 9/11 attacks, Superstorm Sandy, and the coronavirus pandemic. The Texas state defense force responds to flash floods, storms, and other local emergencies along with augmenting the security operations for other military units in the state.
Do State Defense Forces Promote Liberty?
State defense forces provide states a method for developing autonomous armed forces. In the American system of federalism, the existence of armed state militias preserves state sovereignty and (in theory) limits the coercive power of the federal government. However, since fewer than half of U.S. states have defense forces and because the ones that do exist are small, they likely do not play a major role in the state/federal balance of power. Ultimately, while states can have their own armies, most do not exercise this right to its fullest extent.