Defense Department

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Defense Department

The Department of Defense (DOD) is the executive department in the federal government that is responsible for providing the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of the United States. The major elements of the military forces under its control are the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, consisting of about 1.5 million men and women on active duty. They are backed, in case of emergency, by 1 million members of reserve units. In addition, the DOD employs approximately nine hundred thousand civilians.

Although every state has some defense activities, the central headquarters of the DOD is in northern Virginia at the Pentagon, the "world's largest office building."

The National Security Act of 1947 (50 U.S.C.A. § 401) created the National Military Establishment, which replaced the War Department and was later renamed the Department of Defence. It was established as an executive department of the government by the National Security Act Amendments of 1949, with the secretary of defense as its head (5 U.S.C.A. § 101). Since 1949, many legislative and administrative changes have occurred, evolving the department into the structure under which it currently operates.


The DOD includes the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the military departments and the military services within those departments, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Joint Staff, the unified combatant commands, the DOD agencies, the DOD field activities, and such other offices, agencies, activities, and commands as may be established or designated by law or by the president or the secretary of defense.

Office of the Secretary

The secretary of defense is the principal adviser on defense policy to the president. The secretary is responsible for the formulation of general defense policy and DOD policy and for the execution of approved policy. Under the direction of the president, the secretary exercises authority, direction, and control over the DOD. The deputy secretary of defense has full power and authority to act for the secretary of defense.

Three positions are designated as undersecretary of defense. The undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology chairs the Defense Acquisition Board and advises the secretary of defense on all matters relating to the acquisition system, research and development, test and evaluation, production, logistics, military construction, procurement, and economic affairs. The undersecretary of defense for policy advises the secretary of defense on policy matters relating to overall international security and political-military affairs, including North Atlantic Treaty Organization affairs, arms limitations agreements, and international trade and technology.

The undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness develops policies and administrative processes to ensure that the military forces have sufficient readiness to execute the National Military Strategy; develops civilian and military personnel policies including health and drug policies, equal opportunity programs, and family issues and support; and oversees matters concerning the reserve components.

The comptroller and chief financial officer of the DOD is the principal adviser and assistant to the secretary of defense for budgetary and fiscal matters, including financial management, accounting policy, and systems and budget formulation and execution.

The director of operational test and evaluation serves as a staff assistant and adviser to the secretary of defense, prescribing policies and procedures for the conduct of operational test and evaluation within the department, including assessments of operational effectiveness and of the suitability of major defense acquisition programs.

The assistant secretary of defense for command, control, communications, and intelligence agence (C3I) is the principal staff assistant and adviser to the secretary of defense for C3I, information management, counterintelligence, and security countermeasures.

The assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs is responsible for maintaining a direct liaison with Congress, coordinating departmental actions relating to congressional consideration of the legislative program of the department, coordinating responses to requests for information by members of Congress, and arranging for witnesses from the DOD and the various military departments at congressional hearings on defense matters.

The general counsel is the chief legal officer of the DOD and is responsible for the preparation and processing of legislation, executive orders, and proclamations, and reports and comments thereon. The general counsel also serves as director of the Defense Legal Services Agency, providing legal advice and services for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, its field activities, and the defense agencies. The general counsel also administers the Defense Industrial Security Clearance Review Program and the Standards of Conduct Ethics Program.

The inspector general serves as an independent and objective official in the DOD. The inspector general is responsible for conducting, supervising, monitoring, and initiating audits, investigations, and inspections relating to programs and operations of the department. The inspector general coordinates activities designed to promote economy, efficiency, and effectiveness in the administration of such programs and operations, and to prevent and detect Fraud and abuse in them.

The assistant secretary of defense for public affairs is responsible for the functional areas of the DOD, which include public and internal information, audiovisual activities, community relations, and security clearance. The assistant secretary also reviews information intended for public release, and implements programs under the Freedom of Information Act (5 U.S.C.A. § 552) and Federal Privacy Act (5 U.S.C.A. § 552a) within the DOD.

The assistant secretary of defense for intelligence oversight conducts independent oversight inspections of DOD intelligence and counterintelligence operations to ensure compliance with legal requirements, and reviews all allegations that raise questions of legality or propriety involving intelligence and counterintelligence activities. The director of administration and management serves as the principal staff assistant to the secretary and deputy secretary of defense on matters concerning department-wide organizational and administrative management, and also serves as the director of the Washington Headquarters Service.

Joint Chiefs of Staff

The Joint Chiefs of Staff consists of a chair and vice chair, the chief of staff of the U.S. Army, the chief of naval operations, the chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, and the commandant of the Marine Corps.

The chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the principal military adviser to the president, the National Security Council, and the secretary of defense. While serving, the chair holds the grade of general or admiral and outranks all other officers of the armed forces.

The chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff helps the president and the secretary of defense to provide for the strategic direction and planning of the armed forces, including resource allocation, the assessment of the military strength of potential adversaries, and the preparation of both contingency plans and joint logistic and mobility plans. In addition, the chair coordinates military education and training, represents the United States on the Military Staff Committee of the United Nations, and convenes and presides over regular meetings of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The Department of Defense in the Response to Terrorism

Recent acts of Terrorism have required the Department of Defense to reconsider some of its methods for protecting the United States from foreign threats. The September 11th Attacks perpetrated by the terrorist organization al Qaeda not only destroyed the World Trade Center towers in New York City but also severely damaged the Pentagon building in Virginia. In the months following these attacks, the U.S. military engaged in operations in Afghanistan, which had harbored suspected al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Since the campaign against Afghanistan, the secretary of defense under President george w. bush, Donald Rumsfeld, has become a central figure in the American media.

The War on Terrorism, dubbed Operation Enduring Freedom by President Bush, has required the Department of Defense to work closely with other nations. The department has assisted in rebuilding Afghanistan after the former regime, known as the Taliban, was toppled. Since that time, the department has focused much of its attention on nations that have been suspected of assisting and harboring terrorist organizations—especially Iraq. In 2002 and 2003, the United States maintained a campaign calling for the disarmament of Iraq, a campaign that led to the second armed conflict between the two countries in twelve years when the United States attacked Iraq on March 19, 2003.

The Department of Defense also restructured other operations and developed new defense strategies in light of new threats against the United States. In 2002, the department redrafted the Unified Command Plan as part the largest restructuring of the military since World War II. The revised structure places more emphasis on terrorism and other threats, with considerable focus on the development of technologies to assist in fighting these threats. Homeland security has also been a primary focus for the department. In 2002, more than 10,000 members of the National Guard provided security at the nation's airports and borders.

Field Activities

The American Forces Information Service, established in 1977 under the supervision of the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, is responsible for the department's internal information program and visual information policy. The Armed Forces Radio and Television Service and Broadcast Center and the American Forces Press and Publications Service (which includes among its many products the Current News Early Bird) function under the director of the American Forces Information Service. Current News Early Bird is a Pentagon-produced newspaper that contains clippings and analysis of defense-related articles from newspapers around the country. The American Forces Information Service provides policy guidance and oversight for departmental periodicals and pamphlets, the Stars and Stripes newspapers, military command newspapers, and the Defense Information School, among other projects.

The Department of Defense Civilian Personnel Management Service was established on August 30, 1993, and functions under the authority, direction, and control of the under-secretary of defense for personnel and readiness. It provides services in civilian personnel policy, support, functional information management, and civilian personnel administration to DOD components and their activities.

The Department of Defense Education Activity (DODEA) was established in 1992, and also functions under the authority, direction, and control of the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. It consists of three sub-ordinate entities: the DOD dependents schools, the DOD section 6 schools, and the Continuing Adult and Post-Secondary Education Office. The DODEA formulates, develops, and implements policies, technical guidance plans, and standards for the effective management of defense activities and programs both stateside and overseas.

The Office of Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Services (OCHAMPUS) was established as a field activity in 1974. The office administers a civilian health and medical care program for retired service members and the spouses and dependent children of active duty, retired, disabled, and deceased service members, and also administers a program for payment of emergency medical and dental services provided to active duty service members by civilian medical personnel.

The Defense Medical Programs Activity develops and maintains the department's Unified Medical Program to provide resources for all medical activities, including planning, programming, and budgeting construction projects for medical facilities. It also provides information systems and related communications and automated systems in support of the activities of the DOD Military Health Services System (MHSS), the Defense Enrollment Eligibility and Reporting System, the Tri-Service Medical Information System, the Reportable Disease Database, and other department-wide auto-mated MHSS information systems.

The Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Office was established on July 16, 1993, under the authority, direction, and control of the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. It provides centralized management of prisoner of war–missing in action (POW-MIA) affairs with the DOD. The office provides DOD personnel to negotiate with officials of foreign governments to achieve the fullest possible accounting of missing U.S. military personnel and also assembles and administrates information and databases on U.S. military and civilian personnel who are, or were, prisoners of war or missing in action. The office declassifies DOD documents and maintains open channels of communication between the department and Congress, POW-MIA families, and veterans' organizations.

The Defense Technology Security Administration was established on May 10, 1985 and functions under the control, direction, and authority of the undersecretary of defense for policy. This office is responsible for reviewing the international transfer of defense technology, goods, services, and munitions, consistent with U.S. foreign policy and national security objectives.

The Office of Economic Adjustment is responsible for planning and managing the DOD's economic adjustment programs and for assisting federal, state, and local officials in cooperative efforts to alleviate any serious social and economic side effects resulting from major departmental realignments or other actions. The office supports the secretary of defense in his or her capacity as chair of the Economic Adjustment Committee, an interagency group established to coordinate federal economic adjustment activities.

The Washington Headquarters Service is headed by the director of administration and management. It provides administrative and operational support to certain DOD activities in the Washington, D.C., area. This support includes budgeting and accounting, personnel management, office services, security, travel aid, information and data systems, and other services as required.

Web site:

Further readings

Defense LINK-Official Web Site of the US Department of Defense. Available online at <> (accessed November 20, 2003).

U.S. Government Manual Website. Available online at <> (accessed November 10, 2003).


Armed Services; Arms Control and Disarmament; Military Law.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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