Skip to main content

By Miguel Alejandro Laborde

Miguel Alejandro Laborde is a former NCO in the 160th SOAR (A), and a subject matter expert on defense aviation programs, capabilities and platforms, with decades’ worth of experience in the aerospace industry supporting the joint force. 

One of America’s most flexible tools of military power and capability – for defense of the nation abroad and in supporting domestic missions at home – is the U.S. National Guard. Composed of elements from both the Army and Air Force, our National Guard is a unique entity in our arsenal of national power and emergency response. That said, despite the positive presence of the Guard across all 54 states and territories, and widely held public understanding of the Guard’s patriotic contributions to the country, the exact structure of the National Guard and the legal authorities that it operates under are not as broadly known.

U.S. National Guard

2020 and 2021 saw record deployments of Guard forces across the nation for a wide variety of missions, from border security to covid-19 response, to quelling civil instability. And, we may be seeing more of that now in 2022. Recognizing the growing role that the Guard has played in so many enduring aspects of current American life, a refreshed understanding of the various legal authorities that allow the National Guard to be activated and deployed may be of increased importance to the citizenry.

The National Guard operates under three different legal authorities – State Active Duty, Title 32 National Guard Duty and Title 10. Each of these duty status types is largely determined by how the Guard is activated or requested for activation for specific missions, how that duty is paid for, and under what governmental command Guard units operate.

Photo by: Florida National Guard

Photo by: Florida National Guard

At the most local level, a Governor can activate National Guard units or personnel to “State Active Duty” (SAD) for things like natural disasters, or other domestic operations. SAD is predicated on State statute and policy and under this status, Guard expenses are covered entirely by State budget funding – no federal money is used for Guard operations. Moreover, Guardsmen and women remain entirely under the command and control of the Governor under SAD.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

The next type of status is under Title 32 of the U.S. Code. Title 32 gives the President or the Secretary of Defense the authority to put the National Guard in full-time duty status under the command and control of the Governor – but their state mission is federally funded, rather than funding from State coffers. This activation status has often been in support of major natural disasters or similar wide-arcing crises in the homeland where the deployment of Guardsmen and women is for extended duration. Most importantly here, Title 32 activation requires a request from a Governor with approval from the Department of Defense.

Trees burn within eyesight of a California National Guard hand crew with Joint Task Force 578 during the Dixie Fire, Aug. 16, 2021, in Northern California. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by 1st Sgt. Harley Ramirez)

Trees burn within eyesight of a California National Guard hand crew with Joint Task Force 578 during the Dixie Fire, Aug. 16, 2021, in Northern California. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by 1st Sgt. Harley Ramirez)

Lastly, the third status falls under Title 10 of the U.S. Code – Active Duty under Federal government missions. This status essentially gives the President the authority to “federalize” National Guard units. Under Title 10 authority, Guard units can be called into Federal service, ordered to active duty with command and control over units transferred to the President from State Governors. It is Title 10 that is the primary statutory title that authorizes the National Guard to be activated for military operations abroad.

The specifics of how Guardsmen and women are paid – or what benefits they accrue from activated service – changes from status to status. Additionally, the chain of command that Guard units must follow is also determined by activation status. While this may appear to be a bit murky, the explicit delineations are crystal clear. Of course, this doesn’t prevent conflicts between States and the Federal government regarding the National Guard from occurring. But if the National Guard is in a SAD capacity, it is under the command and control of the State Governor – full-stop.

How the public often views the Guard – particularly given the kinds of missions they are often observed performing – has led to some common perceptions about the service, which may or may not be entirely accurate. Leaders at multiple levels of government can probably do a better job of helping to describe and show what differentiates the National Guard from other military branches – and in doing so, some of these perceptions may be somewhat clarified.

In any case, the National Guard is unique in how it can be activated and operate in service to the country. This uniqueness gives the service immense flexibility and multi-mission capability as either a combat-ready warfighting service – or as a highly capable, highly-equipped response force for urgent challenges in the homeland. But like any government entity, strict guidelines, legal parameters and founding documents like our Constitution – in particular, its specific language on federalism and enumerated powers – help to ensure that organizations like the Guard aren’t misused and that lines and powers of authority aren’t misunderstood.

Knowing a bit more about the legal guidelines that determine how the Guard can be activated to assist our communities or the nation at large is always a positive thing. In the end, whether deployed under State Active Duty to bring calm to a city besieged by instability, or Title 32 National Guard Duty to assist citizens impacted by a devastating disaster across several states, or under Title 10 to fight hostile forces oversees – the National Guard will fulfill its charge and obligations with speed, honor and professionalism.

Miguel Alejandro Laborde is a former NCO in the 160th SOAR (A), and a subject matter expert on defense aviation programs, capabilities and platforms, with decades’ worth of experience in the aerospace industry supporting the joint force.