As governor, Palin oversees military units whose duties include serving overseas, search-and-rescue missions across the state's vast landscape and manning key elements of the U.S. missile defense system at Ft. Greely.
But foreign deployments of Guard units and the operation of national defense assets like the Ft. Greely missile interceptors are not the responsibility of state governors. Those functions come under the regular U.S. military chain of command.
Commanding the Alaska National Guard is hardly an insignificant job, military officials say. Still, they acknowledge that it provides little, if any, foreign policy experience.
Overseeing a state Guard is a "chief executive role" with real management responsibilities, said Mark Allen, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau, the federal office that coordinates state National Guards.
"I don't think people should think it is a casual relationship, or is like the king putting on the medals," Allen said. "It is not that at all. But the role of the governor is to use the Guard to help the citizens of a state, as opposed to declaring war on a neighboring state."
The Alaska National Guard is unusual in that its jobs include manning part of the U.S. missile defense system. The 49th Missile Defense Battalion works on interceptor missiles designed to shoot down intercontinental missiles.
Members of the Alaska National Guard also were deployed to Iraq, and Palin visited their unit in July 2007. The McCain campaign has pointed to that experience as an example of Palin's foreign policy background.
"She's been the commander of Alaska's National Guard, who's been deployed overseas," Tucker Bounds, a McCain spokesman, said on CNN in one of several recent references to Palin's gubernatorial responsibility for the Guard. "That's foreign policy experience."
Since governors have no role in overseeing Guard members federalized for service in Iraq, military experts said that should not count as foreign policy experience.
National Guard officials said visits such as Palin's trip to Iraq may be important because state officials can lobby the federal government for better training and more equipment if they are needed. There is no indication that during her trip Palin found major problems with how the Alaska Guard was trained or equipped.
Closer to home, the bread-and-butter duties of most state National Guards are natural disasters. During Palin's 21 months in office, there has been one declared disaster: widespread flooding in June and July this year. Palin quickly signed a disaster declaration, officials said. The Guard's role was limited to providing two water tanks and 30,000 sandbags to local authorities.
The Alaska Air National Guard, with 1,946 service members, is involved in an exceptional number of search-and-rescue missions. Since Palin became governor in December 2006, the Air Guard has flown 521 missions, saving 200 lives and assisting with the rescue of 77 more people, said Kalei Brooks, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
"Our rescue squadron is the busiest in the nation," she said.
In recent years, the department has overseen a reorganization of the 1,900-member Army National Guard. Following a U.S. Army restructuring plan, officials have helped assign soldiers to new units.
But training requirements for Guard units are established not by governors, but by the Army, the Air Force and the National Guard Bureau.
"That requirement comes down from the United States Army and Air Force," Allen said. "But that training and that equipment become very important when they are needed within the states."