NATIONAL GUARDWhat Does the U.S. National Guard Do?

By Anshu Siripurapu and Noah Berman

Published 2 June 2023

The National Guard is a special part of the U.S. military that answers to both state governors and the president, as it routinely responds to domestic emergencies such as natural disasters. It also supports military operations overseas. It began as a “strategic reserve,” but the guard has grown into a pivotal partner in military operations. An intelligence leak by a National Guardsman has raised concerns over the guard’s role in critical military functions, including surveillance and intelligence work.

The National Guard is an integral component of the U.S. military that is uniquely empowered to respond to both domestic crises and overseas conflicts. Over its nearly four-hundred-year history, the guard has transformed from a loose collection of colonial militias into a well-trained and equipped force of civilian soldiers that often serves side by side with active-duty military personnel. 

The guard is also distinctive in that it can be controlled by both state and federal leaders. It has been called upon in recent years to respond to many domestic events, including natural disasters, the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-racism protests, and border security challenges. As its domestic role has grown, the guard has also become more integral to international U.S. military operations. The Air National Guard in particular carries out critical military intelligence analysis, including in Ukraine and the Middle East.

What Is the National Guard?
The National Guard is unique among the U.S. armed forces in that it can perform state as well as federal functions. The guard is generally called up to respond to state-level emergencies, such as natural disasters. But, unlike most of the other military forces, it can also serve a domestic law enforcement role. Additionally, it can serve missions overseas, which it has done more frequently in recent years.

The guard’s organization is somewhat convoluted. It consists of two parts: the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard, which are both considered U.S. military reserve components but are distinct from the army and air force reserves. The guard is overseen at the federal level by the National Guard Bureau, the head of which is a four-star general and member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the military’s top advisory body.  

As of January 2023, there are about 450,000 guard members in total, serving in fifty-four separate organizations across the fifty states; Washington, DC; and three U.S. territories: Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.


How Does the National Guard Stack Up?
Number of active-duty and reserve personnel, fiscal year 2022


Active duty – 466,000
Reserve – 176,000

National Guard

Active duty –
Reserve – 435,000


Active duty – 344,000
Reserve – 55,000

Air Force

Active duty – 324,00
Reserve – 68,000


Active duty – 175,000
Reserve - 45,000 in drill pay units; 80,000 in the Individual Ready Reserve

Space Force

Active duty – 8,600
Reserve -

Source: U.S. Department of Defense