Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to relaunch the Florida State Guard, a volunteer state defense force to support the Florida National Guard. In next year’s budget, he’ll push for $3.5 million to start a force of 200 service members.
Twenty-two other states have something similar, along with Puerto Rico. The key difference is the National Guard can be "federalized" to be directed by the President’s Department of Defense. A state guard would report only to the governor and his executive branch.
The law authorizing a state guard in Florida already exists but has not been funded since the late 1940s.
DeSantis’s office says a major reason for relaunching the organization is to have more control and additional resources when responding to disasters. Per his office, the Florida National Guard has spent three times as much time on federal missions over state missions in the past five years. Currently, some units of the Florida National Guard are deployed to Ukraine amid a buildup of Russian forces along the border of the two countries.
“We want to make sure that we have the flexibility and the ability needed to respond to events in our state in the most effective way possible,” DeSantis said.
This also comes after U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned National Guard members may soon be banned from training and getting paid unless they are vaccinated against the COVID-19. DeSantis has fought against vaccine mandates.
The governor said relaunching the state guard would allow the state to respond “in ways that are not encumbered by the federal government.”
The Florida State Guard would act similar to the National Guard in the state per the law, meaning they could be trained and armed with protective equipment and weapons.
DeSantis’s three opponents in 2022 don’t trust him creating this new force.
“No Governor should have his own handpicked secret police,” wrote Rep. Charlie Crist.
“Florida doesn’t need a paramilitary force,” wrote Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. “Millions of Floridians know what it’s like to live under regimes like this — and came to our state to escape them.”
“Wannabe dictator trying to make his move for his own vigilante militia like we’ve seen in Cuba,” wrote state Sen. Annette Taddeo.
In response, DeSantis’s press secretary Christina Pushaw wrote their accusations were “disrespectful, not only to the service members who assist states in emergencies, but also to people who have experienced firsthand the violence and trauma inflicted by actual paramilitary forces in other countries.”
If the state legislature passes his desired budget, the Florida State Guard could begin recruitment and training as early as the second half of 2022.
How They Work Elsewhere
State guards usually fall under the command of an adjutant general who reports to the governor. The vast majority of guard members are unpaid volunteers but can be reimbursed by state or federal budgets. State defense force members usually have a week of training before being deployed and have an additional training day each month.
State guards across the country have teams dedicated to fire response, cyber security, search and rescue, legal, medical, along with other duties.
Each organization has a mission statement, usually to augment and support the state’s National Guard. Then a military structure is built. Two types of people join, according to Retired Brigadier General David Warager, who now leads the State Guard Association of the United States: people who could not serve in the traditional military for job or family reasons, and retired service members who want to stay involved. Most work without pay.
“It’s a real bonus,” Warager said.
For instance, the National Guard may not have many lawyers in a given state, but volunteer members could spend time with legal issues or writing wills.
“We can become the subject matter experts on these state-level missions,” said Warager. “That frees up the National Guard service members to focus on their warfighting capabilities.”
At 200 members, Florida would have a smaller force compared to its peer states.
The New York Guard has 400 members but is authorized to go up to 804 with an annual training budget of $60,000.
The New York State Guard has been deployed for more than 600 days responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Director of Public Affairs for the NY Guard Eric Durr told NBC 6 their duties revolve around logistics, staffing tactical operation centers, and working as medical personnel inside the state’s nursing homes during a chronic staffing shortage. The organization was crucial in responding to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and helped inspire a renewed interest in state guards around the country.
The New York Guard is not armed and does not perform law enforcement duties.
According to state budget documents, the Texas State Guard has 1,925 members and an operating budget of more than $1 million. The TX State Guard has ten ongoing operations, including assisting on the border and a rabies vaccination program. In the past, they’ve responded to civil disturbances, cyber attacks, and many Hurricanes and floods including Hurricane Harvey.
The organization’s website states the TX Guard does not train or carry weapons and does not have law enforcement authority.
The California State Guard currently has 1,225 service members with an ongoing operating budget of $1.3 million.
Chief of Media Relations Lt. Colonel Jonathan Shiroma told NBC 6 the California State Guard was activated for three operations in 2020: providing staff, vaccines, and testing centers during COVID-19; fighting wildfires; and working food banks across the state. The most common deployment for the California State Guard has been to combat the state's many wildfires.
Shiroma said there are no armed state guard units but they do have armed individual guard soldiers serving as security guards.
Many states also have army guards and air guards, along with state guards.
History of State Defense Forces
America has a long tradition of state defense forces. In the 1800s, they were the backbone of the military. The modern concept was authorized by Congress in 1916. During World War II, nearly every state had a state guard totaling up to 168,000 members, according to an inspector general report. Their goal was to serve stateside as the National Guard deployed to fight Nazi Germany of Imperial Japan.
In July 1947, Congress took away state authority to maintain troops, and the Florida State Guard was disbanded along with others. States were returned the power temporarily in the Korean War. Then in 1955, Congress authorized state defense forces in their current form and they became more popular in the 1980s.
State guards grew dramatically in size and scope after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC. The revitalized forces have since conducted hundreds of missions, oftentimes responding to natural disasters. More than 2,000 members from eight states responded to Hurricane Katrina, according to the IG report. The 2014 report estimated there were 14,000 members nationwide and found most were limited to emergency response, operation management, and ceremonies.
The idea of restarting the Florida State Guard has been floated before, detailed in a USA Today article from 2003. Back then, state military affairs department spokesman Jon Myatt, under former Gov. Jeb Bush, said the force wasn’t needed because the 13,000 Florida National Guard troops usually remained in the state. That’s since changed, according to DeSantis’s office, as Florida National Guard troops have been deployed much more by the federal government.
Every decade or so a controversy in one of the states brings new scrutiny to state defense forces. However, concerns about what could happen detailed by USA Today about “warrior wannabes” have largely not become reality. Warager said people who want to be soldiers instead sign up for one of the major military branches to fight overseas.
“Are you going to occasionally get someone who goes off the reservation? Yes, and they’re dealt with. Usually dealt with pretty harshly,” Warager said.
Many state guards operate under the military system of justice, according to the inspector general report.
In the late 1980s, Utah’s governor disbanded all but a select few to reorganize after neo-Nazis were discovered in the state guard, per the Washington Post. Utah disbanded its state guard completely in 2001.
In 2008, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin ordered the state force to disarm after its leader stepped down amid an investigation. At the time, most other states did not have armed units, according to local news reports.
In 2015, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott mobilized the Texas State Guard to monitor the military training exercise Jade Helm after a town hall meeting. His critics saw this as a nod to a conspiracy theory alleging the Obama Administration planned to implement martial law in the state. Martial law was not imposed. Abbott said his critics were overreacting.
DeSantis announced the plan at a news conference while proposing $100 million for three new National Guard armories, a new headquarters for the National Guard Counter Drug Program, and money for guardsmen pursuing college degrees. The legislative session begins in January.
In the past, DeSantis deployed the National Guard in response to protests and vandalism after the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, to guard the inauguration of President Joe Biden after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and to assist Texas while an influx of immigrants crossed over from Mexico. The Florida National Guard has also deployed to administer COVID-19 tests and distribute vaccines during the pandemic.
DeSantis aims for the new Florida State Guard to have “civilians from all over the state to be trained in the best emergency response techniques and have the ability to mobilize very, very quickly.”