DOD (United States Department of Defense)

DOD (United States Department of Defense)


Although it originated only in 1947, the United States Department of Defense (DOD) comprises elements that date back to the Revolutionary War. Some 3.2 million people, including active military, reservists, National Guard, and civilian personnel, work for DOD, making it one of the nation's largest employers. DOD manages some 600,000 individual buildings or structures worldwide, the most notable of which is the vast five-sided structure in Washington, D.C., whose name is sometimes used to designate the Department as a whole: the Pentagon. Led by the president, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, with the advice of the secretary of defense and the National Security Council (NSC), DOD is made up of the military services and the unified commands, whose deployment is coordinated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).

Historical Background

The roots of DOD lie in the establishment of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps in 1775, at the outset of the American Revolution. In 1789, the new federal government created the War Department, and in 1798 the Department of the Navy, which also includes the Marine Corps. Both the War Department, today known as the Department of the Army, and the Department of the Navy remained Cabinet-level executive departments until 1947.

Another military service, and the only one under DOD control during peacetime, had it roots in the formation of the Revenue Cutter Service in 1790. By 1915, this would become the U.S. Coast Guard, which is today part of the Department of Homeland Security, except in wartime, when it is assigned to DOD. Finally, the U.S. Air Force—which is centered on technology of which the nation's founders could not have conceived—began life as an element of the Army. In 1947, it became a service in its own right.

The statutory foundation of the modern DOD, along with much of the national security apparatus, is the National Security Act of 1947. It created a civilian secretary of defense position, along with a Department of the Air Force. The act transformed the War Department into the Department of the Army, and placed the three major services—Army, Navy, and Air Force—under the secretary of defense. An amendment to the act in 1949 officially created the Department of Defense itself.

The Pentagon. Six years before the National Security Act, just prior to U.S. entry into World War II, the War Department built the structure that today symbolizes DOD: the Pentagon. Prior to its construction, War and Navy department operations were housed in some 17 buildings. The site chosen for the new military headquarters was an area of swamps and garbage dumps at the edge of Washington, D.C., where construction began on September 11,1941. Just 16 months after the groundbreaking, on January 15, 1943, the building was dedicated. The entire cost of the project, including outside facilities, was $83 million.

A vast structure, the Pentagon covers 29 acres (11.74 hectares) and comprises three times as much floor space as the Empire State Building in New York City. Any one of its five wedge-shaped sections would hold the entire U.S. Capitol Building. Workplace for some 23,000 civilian and military employees, it has 17.5 miles of corridors, yet it takes only seven minutes to walk between any two points in the building. On September 11, 2001—exactly 60 years to the day after construction began on the building—terrorists flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the side of

Department of Defense photo showing the Nassr Engineering Manufacturing facility in Iraq destroyed in 1998, and rebuilt in 2002. Analysts at the Defense Department determined that the rebuilt facility had the capability to produce precision components for nuclear missiles. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS.
Department of Defense photo showing the Nassr Engineering Manufacturing facility in Iraq destroyed in 1998, and rebuilt in 2002. Analysts at the Defense Department determined that the rebuilt facility had the capability to produce precision components for nuclear missiles.

the Pentagon, killing over one hundred personnel inside, as well as the people aboard the plane.

DOD Resources

Since the time of the terrorist attacks, DOD has been tasked with the protection of national security through a number of operations, most notably Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan during late 2001 and 2002, and Iraqi Freedom in early 2003. Always important, its significance has become vastly greater since September 2001. Americans following the course of the wars overseas have seen their tax dollars put to use through the deployment of highly trained and equipped troops assisted by the most advanced military technology on Earth.

In almost every regard, the resources available to DOD are remarkable. First among those are the human resources, including 1.4 million active-duty military personnel and 654,000 civilian employees as of 2002. In addition, some 1.2 million serve in the National Guard and Reserve forces. The DOD workforce is also highly trained: whereas 79 percent of working-age Americans have high-school diplomas, 95 percent of DOD employees do, and 5.6 percent of all DOD personnel have master's degrees, as compared to 4.9 percent of the total U.S. work force.

DOD's civilian and active-duty workforce of 2 million makes it among the nation's largest employers, while its budget of $371 billion in 2002 gives it a bottom line far beyond the scope of corporations in the private sector. For comparison, Wal-Mart, with its vast reach, had annual revenues of $227 billion, with 1.3 million employees, in 2001.

When it comes to ownership and management of property, no entity in the private sector can compare with DOD, whose comprehensive inventory of facilities and installations in August, 2002, showed that it was landlord to some 600,000 individual structures at more than 6,000 different sites worldwide. These ranged from tiny unoccupied stations housing a single navigational aid to the Army's enormous White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, which comprises over 3.6 million acres (5,625 sq. mi.; 14,569 sq. km.)—about the size of Connecticut. In all, DOD controls some 30 million acres (46,875 sq. mi.; 121,406 sq. km.), an area a little larger than Pennsylvania.

Leadership. Ultimate leadership of DOD rests with the commander-in-chief, the president of the United States. According to the U.S. Constitution, it is the president, the senior military authority, who is responsible for protection of the nation against all enemies, foreign and domestic. The president exercises that authority through two entities that did not exist at the time the Constitution was written: the secretary of defense and the NSC.

Working with these two, the president determines the priorities of national security, and then takes action to ensure that those needs are met. The authority of these executive entities is checked and balanced by that of Congress, which has the power to approve or reject budgets, and whose various committees oversee funding, military operations, and intelligence. Congress exercises over-sight in areas ranging from major troop deployments to pay raises.

The Secretary. "National Command Authority" (or "national command authorities") is a term referring to the president and the secretary of defense together. They constitute both a chain of command and, in certain cases, a single commanding entity, though of course the president always has the power to override the secretary.

Notable secretaries of defense have included George C. Marshall (1950–51) under President Harry S. Truman; Robert S. McNamara (1961–68) under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson; Caspar Weinberger (1981–87) under President Ronald Reagan; and Richard Cheney (1989–93) under President George H. W. Bush. In 2001, Cheney became vice president for President George W. Bush, with Donald Rumsfeld—who had served as secretary of defense for President Gerald R. Ford becoming the first secretary to serve nonconsecutive terms.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense carries out policy by assignments to the military departments, which train and equip the military forces; the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), who plans and coordinates military deployment and operations with other JCS members; and the unified commands, which conduct and carry out military operations.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Joint Chiefs of Staff consists of a chairman, vice chairman, and the four heads of the DOD military services (Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines), each of whom is a four-star general. The chairman sits on the NSC, to which he is principal military advisor. Assisted by the other members of JCS, he plans and coordinates military operations at the National Military Command Center, commonly called "the war room."

During times of military action, the JCS chairman often serves as a public face for the military, conducting high-level media briefings either alongside the secretary of defense, or on his own. Thus, during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, Americans became accustomed to seeing General Colin Powell, as they would a later JCS chairman, Richard Myers, during operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. (Powell, by then secretary of state for George W. Bush, remained a visible figure.)

Unified commands. Actual fighting during wartime is over-seen, not by the services themselves, but by the nine unified military commanders. In peacetime, the secretary of defense, acting through the three service secretaries (of the Army, Navy, and Air Force) exercises authority over the training and equipping of troops. In wartime, he exercises authority through the unified commanders, with the advice of the JCS chairman.

On October 1, 2002, DOD established a new Unified Command Plan to prepare it for the wars of the twenty-first century, including the action in Iraq for which U.S. forces were already preparing. The new plan solidified a trend toward unified command that had been taking place in the military for several decades, as leaders recognized the need for integrated warfighting capabilities.

Geographic commands. Of the nine unified commands, five have specific geographic responsibilities. Largest among these is the European Command, whose area of operations extends well beyond Europe, and encompasses 93 nations across 13 million square miles (33,669,850 sq. km.) between the North Cape of Norway and the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa, and from the eastern half of the Atlantic Ocean to the Caspian Sea.

Central Command is a name familiar from Operation Iraqi Freedom and other Mideastern deployments, but the word "central" in the title does not mean that it is central command for the entire U.S. military. Rather, it refers to the command's area of operations, in the center of the Eastern Hemisphere, a region that encompasses the Middle East, northeastern Africa, western Asia, and part of the Indian Ocean.

The Northern Command encompasses the continental United States, Canada, Alaska, Central America, and the Caribbean, while the Southern Command is responsible for South America. Finally, the Pacific Command, which covers the largest geographic area—about 50% of Earth's surface, most of it ocean—includes east Asia, Oceania, and the Pacific islands, and shares responsibility for Alaska with the Northern Command.

Non-geographic commands. DOD describes the Joint Forces Command as the "transformation laboratory" for the U.S. military. It is concerned with finding new solutions for future challenges, for developing joint warfighting capabilities through joint training, and for delivering joint forces and capabilities to warfighting commanders.

Strategic Command controls missile, deterrence, space, and satellite systems. The Special Operations Command comprises a number of special support teams, including the Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces, Delta Force, and so on. Finally, the Transportation Command is responsible for moving personnel and materials around the world.

Field activities and defense agencies. In addition to the four services and unified commands, DOD includes seven field activities and 15 defense agencies. The field activities are the American Forces Information Service, Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, Defense Human Resources Activity, DOD Education Activity, TRICARE Management Activity, Office of Economic Adjustment, and Washington Headquarters Services.

Notable defense agencies include the Defense Intelligence Agency, National Imagery and Mapping Agency, and National Security Agency, which, along with the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine intelligence components, constitute a majority among the 14 agencies and organizations of the U.S. Intelligence Community. Also significant, from a national security standpoint, are the Defense Security Service, Defense Security Cooperation Agency, Missile Defense Agency, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Defense Information Systems Agency, and Missile Defense Agency.



Cordesman, Anthony M. Terrorism, Asymmetric Warfare, and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Defending the U.S. Homeland. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002.

Gilmour, Robert S., and Alexis A. Halley. Who Makes Public Policy?: The Struggle for Control Between Congress and the Executive. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, 1994.

Ripley, Randall B., and James M. Lindsay. U.S. Foreign Policy after the Cold War. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.

Trask, Robert R., and Alfred Goldberg. The Department of Defense, 1947–1997: Organization and Leaders. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1997.


U.S. Department of Defense. < > (April 28, 2003).


Air Force Intelligence, United States
DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)
Defense Information Systems Agency, United States
Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, United States
Defense Security Service, United States
DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency)
Enduring Freedom, Operation
INSCOM (United States Army Intelligence and Security Command)
Iraqi Freedom, Operation (2003 War Against Iraq)
Joint Chiefs of Staff, United States
Korean War
Military Police, United States
National Command Authority
National Military Joint Intelligence Center
Navy Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS)
NIMA (National Imagery and Mapping Agency)
NMIC (National Maritime Intelligence Center)
NSA (United States National Security Agency)
NSC (National Security Council)
Persian Gulf War
Special Operations Command, United States
USSTRATCOM (United States Strategic Command)
Vietnam War

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