Cover: Sizing the National Guard in the Post–Cold War Era

Sizing the National Guard in the Post–Cold War Era

Published 1995

by Roger Allen Brown, William Fedorochko, John F. Schank

Research Brief

Like other elements of the U.S. armed forces, the National Guard is undergoing a reduction in strength reflecting the easing of global tensions after the dissolution of the Soviet bloc. Sized to meet federal mission responsibilities with a force of roughly 570,000 in 1989, the National Guard is shrinking by about 15 percent to a planned force level of 480,000 in 1999.

But the National Guard is not just a federal resource. Its use by the states in a recent series of domestic disasters and other emergencies, coupled with the explicit acknowledgment of such missions in the Secretary of Defense's Bottom-Up Review, has led some state governors to question the wisdom of decreasing the Guard's size. These concerns and the assignment of several new domestic initiatives to the Guard have led other observers to wonder whether an organization with both federal and state missions should be sized to meet the federal mission only.

Concerned that a smaller National Guard could be insufficient to serve both missions, Congress required the Secretary of Defense to provide for a study of that and related issues. The study was carried out by a team of researchers headed by Roger Allen Brown at RAND's National Defense Research Institute. Brown and his colleagues examined pertinent statutes, reviewed all recent uses of the Guard, studied heavy-use situations intensively, analyzed force structure and requirements, and surveyed Guard commanders in all jurisdictions. Their core findings are as follows:

  • The current and planned 1999 National Guard structures are adequate for both federal and state missions, including the unlikely possibility of simultaneous peak federal and state demands.
  • There is no compelling reason for the National Guard structure to be based, even partly, on state emergency response requirements.
  • State concerns over the adequacy of federal support in emergencies might be allayed by giving the President access to the federal military reserves for such a purpose, by encouraging the formation of interstate compacts to share Guard resources, and by establishing contingency stocks.

Federal Mission Demands

The researchers concluded that the planned 1999 National Guard force structure would not be fully employed even in the most demanding of federal missions—i.e., in response to the occurrence of two nearly simultaneous major regional conflicts. As much as half of the Army National Guard and a smaller portion of the Air National Guard would be available to perform state missions. Other federal missions include provision of a strategic reserve and a hedge against evolving threats, international peace and humanitarian relief operations, and domestic disaster relief and emergency operations under federal control. All of these tasks can be achieved with even smaller portions of the full Guard force structure.

State Mission Demands

State laws generally require that the National Guard provide military support to civil authorities for defense against disorder, for emergency and disaster relief, for humanitarian assistance such as aeromedical evacuation, and for certain community activities. Guard support to state and local authorities is funded by the state (although federal reimbursement is possible). Another set of state-controlled missions is required by federal law and funded by the federal government. Examples are the drill periods, exercises, and annual training of Guardsmen and Guard participation in several recent domestic initiatives relating to the war against drugs and the provision of youth opportunities and medical service in disadvantaged communities.

Guard responses to disaster and disorder are the most stressing of these state missions. The NDRI researchers established that such responses do not involve the employment of large numbers of Guardsmen on state active duty for any lengthy period. For example, in 1993, when the Midwest floods contributed to the highest level of domestic National Guard activity in more than a decade, only 6 percent of the nation's Guardsmen were called up, for an average period of 14 days each. There are three reasons for this low level of Guard employment: (1) the Guard usually supplements law enforcement and other state agency resources, (2) only a portion of the Guard can be used at once if members are to be rotated and their civilian jobs preserved, and (3) states cannot afford anything more extensive.

On a nationwide basis, then, state demands are very modest. Of course, state active duty tends to be concentrated in states experiencing emergencies. In the days and weeks following an emergency, substantial portions of a state's National Guard force structure may be employed—over 45 percent, for example, in Florida following Hurricane Andrew.

Implications for Sizing the Guard

The research team thus established that the most demanding federal mission would leave much of the National Guard force structure undeployed and that Guard support for state and local authorities involved only 6 percent of the total force in a heavy-use year. Thus, the planned nationwide force structure appeared adequate, even if the peak federal mission occurred in a year of heavy use at the state level.

In an individual state, the demand for Guard support could exceed the supply in the highly unlikely event that a disaster of unusual magnitude occurred at the same time as two nearly simultaneous major regional conflicts. The RAND researchers were reluctant to recommend sizing force structure based on such an unpredictable coincidence. Demand could also exceed supply if a major disaster occurred in a small state. But big state or small, emergencies that have required employing large parts of a state's Guard have also entailed an early realization that state resources would be insufficient, followed by invocation of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's response system. Clearly, incremental changes in the planned Guard structure would be unlikely to change that sequence of events.

As for state-authorized, federally funded missions, activities such as drills and training can be preempted by disaster relief or overseas contingency response and should thus not be considered in sizing the Guard. Participation in drug-related and other domestic initiatives is largely voluntary and, again, subordinate in priority to other missions.

In sum, then, the NDRI team concluded that it would be sufficient to continue sizing the National Guard on the basis of its federal missions without taking into account the demands of state missions.

Mitigating Unusual State Requirements

Brown and his colleagues nonetheless recommended that several actions be taken to address the concerns of governors worried about meeting emergency demands at the time of a Guard-supported overseas conflict:

  • Congress should clarify and extend the President's authority under existing federal law to call on the federal reserves of the four military services for timely response to domestic emergencies. In the Florida case, federal law restricted access to an Army Reserve engineer battalion that was stationed closer to the affected area than were equivalent National Guard and active-component units that eventually arrived on the scene.
  • States should join in a nationwide mutual-support compact to provide greater access to various state emergency response resources, including the National Guard. A nationwide compact is more likely to assure broader response and more equitable sourcing than a set of regional compacts.
  • Congress and the Department of Defense should establish federal-level contingency stocks of common and special-purpose items for National Guard use during domestic emergencies. They should also remove regulatory impediments and funding constraints hindering Guard participation in federal-state emergency response plan exercises.

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