The Use of Naval Militias in Homeland Defense

Because of the increase in operational tempo (OPTEMPO) imposed on the nation’s armed forces–the Guard and Reserve components as well as the active-duty forces – to fight the Global War on Terrorism, there is a growing concern that the defense establishment as a whole may now be somewhat too “thin” to carry out all of the missions imposed on it.

An area of particular concern in the field of homeland defense is the protection of U.S. ports and waterways and the surrounding maritime infrastructure. The defense of ports and waterways is one of the primary missions assigned to the U.S. Coast Guard, but that service, which has been overworked and underfunded for many years, also plays a key role in narcotics and migrant interdiction, icebreaking, the protection of U.S. fisheries zones, and the saving of lives – not only at sea but also, as happened immediately after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, on and along the U.S. East, West, and Gulf Coasts, and occasionally far inland.   

To augment their presently meager maritime assets, a small but growing number of states are returning to the use of naval militias – which, like their land counterparts (called State Defense Forces, or SDFs), are volunteer military organizations under the command of the governor of the state to which they belong.   

Augmenting the Active Force

The nation’s naval militias, although not much in the public eye in recent years, have a long and distinguished history of service, with the high point of their use stemming from the late nineteenth century to the second decade of the twentieth century. They have been used primarily to provide harbor security, but also have participated in foreign wars – the New York Naval Militia sent several ships to patrol the waters off Cuba during and for a short period after the Spanish-American War.   

At present, there are active naval militias in only four states – Alaska, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio, but reorganization initiatives have started in California and Wisconsin as well. The legal underpinning for the naval militias, spelled out in Titles 10 and 32 of the U.S. Code (USC), requires that most militia members must be drilling reservists of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, or U.S. Coast Guard, but civilian volunteers also are accepted under certain circumstances. Like their SDF counterparts, the naval militias usually operate under the USC statutes.   

Nonetheless, they provide another contingency asset – and a large dimension of highly trained capability – for state governors. In addition to their harbor-security duties, various members of the naval militias have been used to provide medical and legal (JAG) support, to man EOCs (emergency operations centers), participate in search-and-rescue missions, and to serve as ceremonial guards.     

Expertise and Experience

More than 90 percent of the approximately 5,000 personnel enrolled in the four active militias have prior service experience, so training costs for militia personnel are minimal. But the value of the service they provide is incalculable. Alaska’s relatively small but highly capable Naval Militia, for example, has been called out – on short or no notice – on a number of occasions: to help the state cope with the Exxon Valdez oil spill; to provide on-site assistance during avalanche recovery operations; and to provide backfill personnel for the Alaska National Guard.   

The record is much the same for the other three militias now active. The Ohio Naval Militia routinely carries out maritime-security patrols for the state, focusing special attention on the restricted area in the vicinity of Camp Peary on Lake Erie, which is popular as a national rifle marksmanship site. The Ohio militia also was placed on state active duty recently to support a regatta boating event on Lake Erie.   The New Jersey Naval Militia, which has six patrol boats available to it, routinely carries out maritime security patrols in the waters near several power plants, the naval facilities in Lakehurst, and the Earle Naval Weapons Station – all of which would be attractive targets for terrorists. The New Jersey militia, which has conducted joint operations with the New Jersey Army National Guard, responded immediately during the 9/11 crisis by serving as an ad hoc transportation unit to help ferry rescue workers into and out of Manhattan, easing the load on the active-duty forces and city and state first responders who were engaged in numerous other emergency chores.   

Help When It Is Most Needed

The New York Naval Militia, the largest by far of the four now active, also was used extensively during the response to the 9/11 attacks: supplying medical and legal help to city, state, and federal forces, for example; carrying out security patrols at train stations, bridges, tunnels, and other transportation hubs and links; and providing maritime security in the vicinity of the nuclear power plant at Indian Point, N.Y. Members of the New York militia also served at the New York City EOC during the 9/11 crisis, and at the National Guard Joint Operations Center.   

The adjutants general of the four naval-militia states have nothing but high praise for the organizations and the work they have done to augment the various other security/protection assets within each of the states. The fact that two other large states already have taken the first steps needed to reorganize their own naval militias is encouraging. The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast, not only in New Orleans and points south but also in southern Mississippi, suggests that Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabaman, Florida, and Texas also might want to investigate the possibility of forming naval militias as well. Given the likelihood of a continuing drain on active-duty forces and all of the nation’s Guard and Reserve components, the availability of low-cost/high-value naval/military units immediately responsive to orders from the state governor would seem to be an asset impossible to ignore.

Brent Bankus

Brent C. Bankus retired as a promotable Lieutenant Colonel from the Army National Guard Active Guard Reserve Program with over 25 years service. His military career, beginning in 1979 as an Armor/Cavalry officer encompassed command and staff positions in the U.S. Army, Army National Guard, and the Army Reserve. He has served in assignments within the United States and Germany as well as missions to Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, Sinai, Eritrea, Guam and Hawaii. He has a BS from Bloomsburg University, PA, an MS in Information Management from Strayer University, VA and an MS in Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College. He is a graduate of the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps Command and General Staff Colleges and the U.S. Army War College. He is a consultant with Resource Consultants, Inc.



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