What Is The US National Guard?

A 25,000-strong representation of the US National Guard has been on duty during Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Twelve members of the force were removed from duty ahead of the ceremony, with the FBI vetting Guardsmen and women entering Washington DC.

Having already been called into the city to secure the US Capitol after the building was stormed earlier this month, the oldest component of the country’s military has been under the world spotlight like never before.

Here is what you need to know about the National Guard.

What Is It?

The organisation was formed on 13 December 1636 and exists as part of the United States military.

Militia regiments were originally established to defend the Massachusetts Bay colony, forming the Army National Guard.

The history of the organised militia goes hand-in-hand with US history, as the National Guard took on prominent roles in the American Revolution against the British Empire in the 18th century.

Four descendent units from these regiments – 101st Engineer Battalion, the 101st Field Artillery Regiment, the 181st Infantry Regiment, and the 182nd Infantry Regiment – share the title of the oldest in US military history, around for longer than the US Army itself.

The Air National Guard was born later, on 18 September 1947, and welcomed units from the air contingent of the Army National Guard to become a resource pool for the American air force.

It is important to distinguish the National Guard forces from the Active and Reserve branches of both the Army and Air Force services.

Volunteer airmen and soldiers from each US state and some US territories form the National Guard, living a predominantly civilian life with full-time jobs outside of the force.

The organisation does not have a naval component, but reservist sailors and marines are able to join the federalised Naval Militia under particular states.

DC National Guard in front of the west front of the US Capitol the day after unrest by President Donald Trump supporters (Picture: PA).
DC National Guard in front of the west front of the US Capitol the day after unrest by President Donald Trump supporters (Picture: PA).

How Does The US National Guard Work?

US citizens and residents between the ages of 17 and 35 must meet physical, moral and medical standards to enlist and have the education level of a high school 'junior' – equivalent to a college or sixth form entry candidate in the UK.

Basic training lasts 10 weeks, while job-specific training for more than 150 roles (including special forces) can last from four weeks to more than a year.

The rank structure for the Guard mirrors its parent Air Force and Army services and pay increases alongside rank and active deployment time. It is possible to become a Commissioned Officer or a Warrant Officer through the National Guard.

The force operates under the dual control of the state and the federal government.

The governor of each US state serves as commander-in-chief of the air and army National Guard divisions and decides whether or not to deploy them.

The governor does not need permission from the US Government to send in the reservists and is not required to notify the White House when the force is activated.

However, the US President can mobilise the Guard on federal missions, during which they take orders from the Combatant Commander in the theatre they are sent.

Volunteers are required to attend one drill (training) weekend per month, and one two-week training period per year.

National Guard members in the US prepare food boxes as part of COVID support efforts in Louisiana (Picture: US Department of Defense).
National Guard members in the US prepare food boxes as part of COVID support efforts in Louisiana (Picture: US Department of Defense).

What Does It Do?

The National Guard has participated in all major US conflicts, from the US Civil War to Iraq. 

History has seen involvement in both World Wars and the Korean War, but governors often deploy the force in localised emergencies.

Infrequent deployments include disaster relief missions during storms, fires, earthquakes and more recently the COVID-19 pandemic, but civil unrest has also led to a National Guard presence.

The force has been used to maintain control during some key, racially-fueled events in US history – such as the nationwide riots in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and in 2020 when protests against the death of George Floyd escalated into violence.

About 25,000 National Guard airmen and soldiers are set to support the 59th Presidential Inauguration of Joe Biden, after a smaller number were originally sent to secure the US Capitol earlier in January.

The building was stormed by a large number of people, many of whom had been in the area supporting outgoing President Donald Trump.

Cover image: National Guard soldiers and airmen from several states have travelled to Washington to provide support to federal and district authorities leading up to the 59th Presidential Inauguration (Picture: US National Guard).