Reader Maggie 100 has a question:
So. The civilian Department of Defense has SefDef, with individual Secs below that, SecNavy, etc. What is their responsibility? As opposed to the military side Chief of Staff for each service? Is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs roughly analogous to the SecDef?
If the Joint Chiefs and SecDef are not in the chain of command, to whom does the Commander in Chief, in real life actually give the ‘go’ order?
As a side note, where does the Coast Guard and the uniformed National Health Service fit here? Not to mention the Merchant Marine?
As always, I have the answer.
We looked at the upper echelons of the chain of command in this post. SecDef is in the chain of command. Sorta. He gives orders to the Regional and Functional Commanders, but only to implement policy from the President. If the President says, “Invade France,” SecDef then turns around and gives the specifics of that to the Commanders. In effect, he’s the conduit by which the President passes his orders to the field.
But he has a second role as well, outside the operational chain of command. He is the primary guy for setting policy for the entire defense establishment. He’s the guy who decides whether the US military will focus on preparing to fight near-peers like China, or will they focus on fighting a series of small insurgencies like Iraq and Afghanistan. That decision will drive the procurement of weapons. He also decides policy on things like manpower (Congress sets the limits on total numbers) and how folks should be allocated.
Each of the individual service secretaries performs a similar function for their branch. The run the procurement programs and personnel programs. They run the institutional side of the services.
Realize this. Only about half the services are in units that deploy to battle. The other half is on the “institutional” side. When you have an organization as large as the Army, you have to have not only infrastructure to support them, but institutions as well. There are the basic training posts, the recruiting stations, the ROTC detachments, West Point, all the Army schools that teach MOS skills to young soldiers, advanced MOS schools for each job, the higher level schools for officers, like the Command and General Staff School and The Army War College.
Then there’s the parts of the Army like the Tank and Automotive Command, and the Missile Command that actually run the procurement programs for individual weapon systems, and the supply folks who buy all the rations, ammunition and spare parts. It is a huge enterprise. That’s the day to day function of the Chief of Staff of the Army. And each of the services has the same institutional structure that builds and supports the forward deployed forces.
As to the Coast Guard, they are part of the Department of Homeland Security (though they used to be under the Department of Transportation). Only in time of war do they transfer to the Department of Defense. Nonetheless, they are organized much like the other armed services. They have a seat at the table for the Joint Chiefs when it addresses matters directly concerning the Coasties. In peacetime, as a matter of law, they are treated more like a law enforcement agency (which they are) than as an armed serviced (which they sorta are).
The Merchant Marine isn’t in any way a member of the DoD. They were coordinated by the Department of the Navy back in WWII, but today, there isn’t an agency or entity that you can point to and say, “That’s the Merchant Marine.” There’s just privately owned shipping. Now, there is a Merchant Marine Academy, at King’s Point, NY, and it does offer a commision in the Navy Reserves to its graduates, but that is hardly unique.
The Uniformed Public Health Service (who’s head is of course the Surgeon General) is not under the DoD and is outside the scope of this discussion.