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Overview of National Security Structure

Numerous governmental organizations are involved in the formulation and implementation of U.S. national military strategy. To set the stage for an explanation of the role of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in national security, we begin with information on those organizations and agencies responsible for the planning and execution of military operations, including their history, organizational structure, and command relationships.

National Command Authorities (NCA)

Constitutionally, the ultimate authority and responsibility for the national defense rests with the President. Since the passage of the National Security Act of 1947, the President has u sed the Secretary of Defense as his principal assistant in all matters relating to the National Military Establishment (NME) -- later the Department of Defense. The Secretary has statutory authority, direction, and control over the Military Departments and is responsible for the effective, efficient, and economical operation of the department.

The National Command Authorities (NCA) are the President and Secretary of Defense together with their duly deputized alternates or successors. The term NCA is used to signify constitutional authority to direct the Armed Forces in their ex.ecution of military action. Both inter-theater movement of troops and execution of military action must be directed by the NCA. By law, no one else in the chain of command has the authority to take such action.

National Security Council (NSC)

The National Security Act of 1947 established the National Security Council to consider national security issues that require Presidential decision. It has four statutory members: the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, and the Secretary of Defense. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff(CJCS)and the Director of Central Intelligence serve as statutory advisers to the NSC.

Department of Defense (DOD)

World War II and its aftermath furnished the impetus for unification of the Military Departments under a single cabinet-level secretary. Anticipating the needs of a peacetime military organization, an in-depth review by congressional, executive, and mili tary groups began even before the end of the war. The studies were influenced by Service interests that reflected the opinions of experienced wartime military and civilian leaders with vastly different views of the postwar future. Issues that dominated the search for a consensus included retention of air power in the Navy, maintenance of a separate Marine Corps, and the form and responsibilities of the new Department of the Air Force.

The National Security Act of 1947 was monumental legislation. After almost 50 years that included overseas wartime experience beginning with the Spanish-American War, a modern military organization came into existence. Unification of the Services und er a single department was law and the powers of the Secretary of National Defense were identified but subject to broad interpretation. The roles and missions of the military Services were defined by Executive Order but would not be statutorily defined u ntil 1958. The act created the NME under the leadership of a civilian secretary and created secretaries for the new Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force.

In 1949, the National Security Act was amended to change the name of the NME to the Department of Defense and to recognize it as an executive department. Further, it changed the role of the Services to Military Departments within DOD. The DOD Reorgani zation Act of 1958 strengthened the Secretary of Defense's direction, authority, and control over the department and clarified the operational chain of command from the President and Secretary of Defense to the combatant commanders.

The role of the Secretary of Defense has changed since the position was established in 1947. Originally, the Secretary had only general authority over the NME, an authority shared with the civilian secretaries of the Military Departments. In 1949, h is position was strengthened with his appointment as head of an executive department, reduction of the role of Military Department heads, and his assumption of budgeting responsibilities. Today, he is the principal assistant to the President for all matt ers relating to the Department of Defense. He has nearly plenary authority, direction, and control of the entire department. Moreover, the Goldwater-Nichols DOD Reorganization Act of 1986 makes clear his position in the operational chain of command.

Military Departments

The Military Departments (Department of the Army, Department of the Navy, Department of the Air Force) are organized separately under civilian secretaries who are responsible for and have authority to conduct the affairs committed to their departments. T he service secretaries are not in the operational chain of command.

The Military Departments have been significantly altered by legislation and Executive Order since the National Security Act of 1947. The Key West Agreement of March 1948 clarified the roles of the Military Departments and amplified their responsibili ties. In 1953, the President and the Secretary of Defense agreed to designate a Military Department to function as "executive agent" for the unified commands. The Reorganization Act of 1958 removed the Military Departments from the operational chain of command and clarified their support and administrative responsibilities for the unified commands.

Agencies of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

The diversity of offices and organizations within the Joint Staff illustrates a wide range of functions and responsibilities. Among other organizations reporting to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are the CJCS representatives to international negotiations, including treaties and agreements, and activities involved with politico-military affairs and defense in the Western Hemis phere and NATO. Other activities include the National Defense University, the Joint Materiel Priorities and Allocations Board, the Joint Tra nsportation Board, and the Joint Requirements Oversight Council.

Organizations Reporting to the Secretary of Defense Through CJCS

By Presidential directive, the combatant commanders communicate to the Secretary of Defense and President through the CJCS. Several Defense agencies that report to the Secretary of Defense also support CJCS. CJCS has certain operational responsibilities with regard to the Defense Information Systems Agency, the Defense Nuclear Agency, the Defe nse Logistics Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Defense Mapping Agency, and the Central Imagery Office. CJCS gives policy guidance and direction to other supporting organizations, including the Joint Tactical Comm and, Control, and Communications Agency, the Electromagnetic Compatibility Analysis Center, the Military Communications Electronics Board, and the Joint Doctrine C enter.

Combatant Commands

The term combatant command means a unified or specified command. The commander of a combatant command is designated commander in chief (CINC). Unified and specified combatant commands were first described by statute in the National Security Act of 1947.

Unified Combatant Command. A command which has a broad, continuing mission under a single commander composed of forces from two or more Services, and which is established and so designated by the President through the Secretary of Defense with the advice and assistance of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Specified Combatant Command. A command which has a broad, continuing (usually functional) mission normally composed of forces from a single military department, and is established and so designated by the President through the Secretary of Def ense with the advice and assistance of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Currently, there are no specified commands.

Chain of Command

By the Goldwater-Nichols DOD Reorganization Act of 1986, Congress clarified the command line to the combatant commanders and preserve civilian control of the military. The Act states that the operational chain of command runs from the President to the Se cretary of Defense to the combatant commanders. The Act permits the President to direct that communications pass through CJCS. This authority places CJCS in the communications chain. Further, the Act gives the Secretary of Defense wide latitude to assi gn the Chairman oversight responsibilities over the activities of the combatant commanders.


The effective use of the nation's Armed Forces requires a unity of effort in the operation of diverse military resources. This goal is achieved through:

    strategic direction of the Armed Forces,
    operations under unified command,
    integration into an efficient team of land, naval, and air forces,
    prevention of unnecessary duplication of efforts or resources, coordination of operations, and
    effective combined operations.

Commensurate with the responsibility placed on combatant commanders to achieve unity of effort, they have been given increased authority by law (Title 10, U.S. Code) and DOD Directive.

The DOD Reorganization Act of 1986 makes the combatant commanders accountable to the NCA for performing their assigned missions. With this accountability comes the assignment of all authority, direction, and control that Congress considers necessary to execute the responsibilities of the combatant commanders. The Act defines the command authority of the combatant commanders to give authoritative direction to subordinate commands, including all aspects of military operations, joint training, and logi stics:

    prescribe the chain of command within the command;
    organize commands and forces to carry out assigned missions;
    employ forces necessary to carry out assigned missions;
    coordinate and approve administration, support, and discipline; and
    exercise authority to select subordinate commanders and combatant command staff.

NOTE: List not complete; see UNAAF (Joint Pub 0-2) page III-3.

This authority is termed "combatant command" and resides only in the combatant commander.

Combatant Command (COCOM)

Combatant command (COCOM) is the command authority over assigned forces vested in the CINCs by Title 10, U.S. Code, Section 164, and is not transferable.

COCOM is exercised only by the commanders of unified and specified combatant commands. It is the authority of a combatant commander to perform those functions of command over assigned forces involving organizing and employing commands and forces, ass igning tasks, designating objectives, and giving authoritative direction over all aspects of military operations, joint training, and logistics necessary to accomplish the missions assigned to the command. COCOM furnishes full authority to organize and em ploy commands and forces as the CINC considers necessary to accomplish assigned missions.

COCOM is not shared with other echelons of command. It should be exercised through the commanders of subordinate organizations, normally the Service component commanders, subordinate unified commanders, commanders of joint task forces, and other subo rdinate commanders.

Directive authority for logistics supports the combatant commander's responsibility to execute effectively operational plans, maintain effectiveness and economy of operation, and prevent duplication of facilities and resources. Military Departments a re still responsible for logistics and administrative support of forces assigned or attached to the combatant commands.

In peacetime, the scope of the logistic and administrative authority exercised by the CINC is consistent with legislation, Department of Defense policy or regulations, budgetary considerations, local conditions and other specific conditions prescribed by the Secretary of Defense or the CJCS. The combatant commander refers disputes to the military department, if he fails to receive timely resolution there, the CINC may forward the matter through CJCS to the Secretary of Defense for resolution.

During crisis or war, the CINCs' authority and responsibility are expanded to include use of facilities and supplies of all forces under their command. Joint logistics doctrine developed by CJCS establishes wartime logistics policy.

The CINCs have approval authority over Service logistics programs that affect operational capability or sustainability within their theaters (e.g., base adjustments, force beddowns). Disputes in this area may be settled by the Secretary of Defense th rough CJCS.

Operational Control (OPCON)

Operational control is another level of authority used frequently in the execution of joint military operations. OPCON authority may be delegated to echelons below the combatant commander. Normally, this is authority exercised through component commande rs and the commanders of established subordinate commands. Limitations on OPCON, as well as additional authority not normally included in OPCON, can be specified by a delegating commander.

OPCON is the authority delegated to a commander to perform those functions of command over subordinate forces involving the composition of subordinate forces, the assignment of tasks, the designation of objectives, and the authoritative direction nece ssary to accomplish the mission. It includes directive authority for joint training. Commanders of subordinate commands and joint task forces will normally be given OPCON of assigned or attached forces by a superior commander. OPCON normally provides fu ll authority to organize forces as the operational commander deems necessary to accomplish assigned missions and to retain or delegate OPCON or tactical control as necessary. OPCON may be limited by function, time, or location. It does not, of itself, in clude such matters as administration, discipline, internal organization, and unit training.

Tactical Control (TACON)

The term tactical control is used in execution of operations and is defined as: "the detailed and usually, local direction and control of movements or maneuvers necessary to accomplish missions or tasks assigned."

Role of CJCS

The role of CJCS in the chain of command of the combatant commands is threefold: communications, oversight, and spokesman.

- Communications between the NCA and the combatant commanders may pass through CJCS. The Goldwater-Nichols DOD Reorganization Act of 1986 permits the President to place the Chairman in the communications chain and the President has in fact directed th at such communications pass through the Chairman.

- Oversight of the activities of combatant commands may be delegated by the Secretary of Defense to CJCS.

- CJCS is the spokesman for the combatant commanders on the operational requirements of their commands.


The Goldwater-Nichols Act requires that forces under the jurisdiction of the Military Departments be assigned to the combatant commands, with the exception of forces assigned to perform the mission of the military department, (e.g., recruit, supply, equip , maintain). In addition, forces within a CINC's geographic area of responsibility fall under the command of the combatant commander except as otherwise directed by the Secretary of Defense.

Organizational Relationships

The unified command structure is flexible, and changes as required to accomodate evolving U.S. national security needs. A classified document called the Unified Command Plan (UCP) establishes the combatant commands, identifies geographic areas of respon sibility, assigns primary tasks, defines authority of the commanders, establishes command relationships, and gives guidance on the exercise of combatant command. It is approved by the President, published by the CJCS, and addressed to the commanders of co mbatant commands.

Five combatant commanders have geographic area responsibilities. These CINCs are assigned an area of operations by the Unified Command Plan and are responsible for all operations within their designated areas: U.S. Joint Forces Command, U.S. Central Command, U.S. European Command, U.S. Pacific Command, and U.S. Southern Command.

The CINCs of the remaining combatant commands have worldwide functional responsibilities not bounded by any single area of operations and they are U.S. Space Command, U.S. Special Operations Command, U.S. Strategic Command and U.S. Transportation Command.