Branches of the military

This has been a question that has bothered me for years.

Why are there different branches to our military?

Why are we the only (that I can think of) nation that splits up the duties of offense/defense into air, sea, land, etc.? Isn’t more efficient to have one entity handle all aspects of war, like the other nations of the world?

One friend speculated that it had to do with coup’s. Spliting the military into segments makes it harder for one group to try and overthrow the ruling party on its own. Presumably, the other branches would object and stop it, making our system a checks and balances kind of thing. While his reasoning seems logical, we dismissed it, thinking it had to be something more mundane.

Any thoughts?

The Department of Defense is the “one entity” you refer to. And practically every nation I can think of (Japan being a prominent exception) divides the duties into branches.
The worlds-apart needs of the Army and the Navy are obvious. Marines are a sort of hybrid of the two; since Roman times they have been considered something of an elite force who receives special training in boarding ships and fighting in close quarters etc. Their equipment is more Army-like but their mission lies at sea. The US Marines are run through the Dept. of the Navy.
The US Air Force used to be a part of the Army, but after WW2 the flyboys chafed at being under Army jurisdiction and so used political leverage to get their own branch. It was justified by the fact that planes were developing so fast, long-range jets etc. that the Army was not clued in to their special needs and abilities. When all those planes first belonged to the Army their mission was seen as more of a ground-support/attack role. But with the B17 raids on Germany etc. it began to become clear that planes and soldiers were apples and oranges.

I was going to toss out the flippant speculation that the military is unified and always has been under the War Department and later the Department of Defense. Then I remembered that there were also cabinet positions for the Secretaries of Army and Navy, so I think I’ll just shut up and lurk.

Well, okay, before I merely lurk, I will add that much of this likely stems from Oliver Cromwell’s coup (if it can be called that), and the fact that our progenitor, England, has since abhorred a standing army. There is no question that the several branches of the military compete with each other for funding and prominence. Where was it said “Japanese hell, the Navy is our biggest enemy!”?

Canada, like Japan, has a unified military. But most countries have “branches”. The basic idea is that the central roles of the different services are sufficiently unique, that there’s no reason for them to be a single service. In reality, what often happens is that the individual services expand beyond their central roles and begin to duplicate functions.

I can’t think of a single country that does not have a division between, say, land forces and sea forces. Pour example, in Britain there’s the British Army, and there’s the Royal Navy, and there’s the Royal Air Force, all under the Ministry of Defense.

Perhaps there are some militaries that are not divided in such a way… I doubt the Afghan navy is a very signifiant service unto itself.

Sofa King:

Should have trusted your instincts. The Secretary of the Army, Secretary of the Navy, and Secretary of the Air Force are sub-cabinet positions, subordinate to the Secretary of Defense.

  • Rick

FYI, there was recently a Great Debate about armed forces unification, “2 Armies, 2 Navies & 4 Air Forces?”

People had some interesting points on this question.

FWIW, and with no disrespect to the marines, the marine corps is part of the navy, not a separate branch of the service. Also not that long ago the coast guard was part of the dept. of transportation.

We don’t view that as anything to be ashamed about. We are a Department of the Navy; thats why we are a “Corps.” Its just like in WWII when the predicessor to the Air Force was called the Army Air Corps, it was part of the Army and not its own entity.

Prior to the DOD, our military was under a cabinet post called War Department. The British military also is part of a single cabinet entity, that of the Ministry of Defence (yes, I know, but that’s how the English spell the word). FWIW, in the US Executive Department, the Secretary of Defense is a voting member of the Cabinet and the Service Secretaries are not.

Japan’s Self Defense Forces are divided into three outfits, therefore, like the US military, they’re not “unified.” The three outfits are:

(1) Ground Self Defense Forces (equivalent to the Army)
(2) Maritime Self Defense Forces (equivalent to the Navy)
(3) Air Self Defense Forces (eqivalent to the Air Force)

There is also the Maritime Safety Agency which is equivalent to the Coast Guard.

And adding some information about the US Uniformed Services…

The Uniformed Services are as follows:

Armed Forces include

Department of Defense Uniformed Services
–which includes the Marine Corps
-Air Force

& one non-DOD Armed Force
-Coast Guard

The other Uniformed Services are:
-Public Health Service (Commissioned Officers Corps only)
-National Oceanographic and Areonautic Administration (Commissioned Officers Corps only)

All but the PHS uses the traditional military rank titles. The PHS uses Navy rank abbreviations for its unique titles (equivalent ranks, of course). Thus the Assistant Surgeon General (if I recall correctly) has the rank abbreviation of RADM. I won’t swear that’s the correct equivalent rank but you can check the PHS Commissioned Officers Corps page if you like.

Just a few really minor quibble about your answer, Monty.

  1. Prior to 1947 (I believe) our military was under two cabinet posts. The Army (including what was then the Army Air Corps or Army Air Forces) was under the Department of War, while the Navy and Marine Corps were under the Department of the Navy. In 1947 they unified the forces under one cabinet department, the Department of Defense, and made the Secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force sub-cabinet positions.

  2. The US Marine Corps is a separate unformed service from the Navy. Both are subordinate to the Department of the Navy, but each is a different service, though they work closely together.

  3. The Coast Guard was formed in 1915 from an amalgamation of several federal agencies, including the Revenue Cutter Service, Steamboat Inspection Service, and U.S. Lifesaving Service. It was then in the Department of the Treasury, but in 1967 it became part of the newly-formed Department of Transportation. However, in times of war or national emergency, the President can transfer the Coast Guard to the Department of the Navy, where it becomes a third uniformed service in that department.

  4. Cecil wrote about the Public Health Service and their uniforms in his column Why does the U.S. surgeon general wear a uniform?.

Some good information’s been posted. All of the above causes me to wonder: where does the National Guard fall on the organizational tree?

the National Guard falls under the Army, it’s the Army National Guard, set up as state militias that actually need the Governor’s permission to be used by the President except in times of war. Like the Army Reserves, they train on average of one weekend a month, and 2 full weeks straight at once during the year as well. The Army Reserves however falls under the Federal Jurisdiction, and is not used for state emergencies where the National Guard is. The National Guard also takes on the added responsibility of not just defending against enemies foriegn, but domestic as well, like out police departments. In addition to the Army National Guard, there is a National Guard Reserves, a much smaller scale division, formed of mostly retired vets in case the ArmyNG ever has to leave US land for war. There are in some cases also strictly State Militias belonging only to the state, and not useable by the President even during war time, though those units are mostly tradition and honorary positions now, and quite small.
I have served under the Active duty Army, 11Bravo (Infantry), and now under the National Guard, NYARNG to be exact.

OK. How about the Air National Guard?

Air National Guard falls under the Army as well. The Air Force has a Reserves.

That’s strange. When I was in the Air National Guard, they told us we were part of the Air Force Tactical Air Command. And they gave us Air Force insignia to wear on our uniforms. Obviously, they were mistaken. You’d better go inform them of that fact.

Thanks to all that responded, I’ve learned quite a bit.

That said, however, I feel I need to clarify the gist of the original questions meaning. It should have read something like this: ‘I’m starting a country and I want to protect myself and fellow cronies (Government). What are the advantages/disadvantages to a unified/seperate military?’

Is one set more effective at achieving my goals than the other? And, is this why our military is set-up the way it is today? Or, is it a result of politics, tradition, or a clear-cut cost savings to the government?

Well, speaking to dis/advantages to unification, it somewhat depends on the size of your projected opponents and their likely methods of attack. Small countries with potential enemies on the borders, like Israel have very different needs from large, isolated countries, like the United States.

A perfect example of the mobilize-quick-and-fight-like-hell force is the Israeli Defense Force, pound for pound the best “small” armed force in the world, in my humble opinion. The IDF is unified and specifically designed for defense, and offense, at all points of their borders. They can mobilize fast, coordinate air and ground units quite well, and deliver considerable firepower to specific areas in need of holding, all under a tight, unified command structure. Thus, Moshe Dayan was able to commit all available forces to blunting the suprise attacks of the 1973 Yom Kippur War without having to worry about interdepartmental squabbling and resource allocation. Within a week or two, the IDF had reversed the attacks of Egypt and Syria, was across the Suez Canal, and blasting its way down the road to Damascus before the Russians started rumbling about nuclear defense.

But, like many nations out there today, the IDF is a UN-dependent force: their intention is to be able to defend themselves for a relatively short length of time, and blitzkrieg areas of enemy territory for the purposes of post-battle negotiation. They depend heavily on outside intervention by either the UN or other interested parties, as happened in 1973. A large protracted war could be fatal, as it is unlikely that Israel can replace their material needs themselves.

Disturbingly, both India and Pakistan have built their armed forces on a similar principle. Both nations have opted for fast-mobilizing forces with large offensive potential, with streamlined command structures and fast-moving forces that rely heavily on armaments procured elsewhere. Both nations appear to have offensive strategies designed to snap up as much enemy territory as possible within a few weeks on the assumption that foreign nations will step in to moderate the conflict. Unfortunately, both also have The Bomb, and it is now unlikely that foreign nations will be able to threaten the combatants into an armistice. That’s a recipe for the worst kind of disaster the human world has seen.

America, Russia, and to some extent England, on the other hand, are very different. All enjoy a certain amount of isolation (Russia through vast distances of frontier country, the others courtesy of the oceans). All produce a majority of their own weaponry. Therefore, the largest immediate threat these countries face, arguably, is from within: all three nations have experienced civil war, two of them comparatively recently. The primary objective is therefore to prevent the military from being able to threaten the government, or at least reduce that threat. Keeping large divisions between branches is one way of doing that.

In the event of war, these countries have the luxury of carefully assembling overwhelming force which, while appearing on the field much later, can shift the balance of any coalition war. But they are often delayed by requirements of production, training, and transit. In World War I, the United States declared war two and a half years into the conflict and didn’t arrive on the field in force until almost a year later. When they did, the war was over in six months. The US was a declared combatant for only three years eight months of the six years of WWII, and didn’t begin exerting any appreciable pressure against their enemies for some nine months after Pearl Harbor, but they played a major role. Similarly, the Soviet Union could do little but defend itself for a year after Germany’s invasion during WWII, but war production stepped up enough to counter Germany’s forces and eventually totally destroy them.

Desert Storm, which might be characterized as a “big guy” style war in character, required months of Desert Shield to make overwhelming victory possible. In that war each branch of the DOD made its own arrangements for transit to Saudi Arabia, although unprecedented cooperation was implemented.

So, to sum it up, if you are a small country facing immediate threat, follow the model of the IDF and back it up with a crack diplomatic staff and some big, mean friends. If you are a large isolated country, follow the example of the Brits and protect yourself from threat within by subdividing your military. I wouldn’t dare claim that I’ve touched on all of the reasons for subdivision, but the above is a prominent facet.


i won’t be taking part in your sarcasm…

The Air National Guard used by my unit from Long Island wore US Army patches, Uniforms, and Rank, and fell under Army jurisdiction. It may be possible that there are branches i don’t know about belonging to the Air Force, most likely becuase i have never had to deal with them. The Air National Guard provided us with c-130’s, shinooks(sp?), and Blackhawks for our missions. So the unit you were in very may well have been under the Air Force Tac. Comm., and if so, i stand corrected.

The situation you are familiar with is in the minority by far. Air National Guard troops are actually under the jurisdiction of the Governor of the state unless activated for federal duty. There is a National Guard Bureau under the DOD that serves in an advisory capacity for the entire Guard, Army and AF. The NGB is not directly a part of command structure, but their policies are widely adopted as a matter of course, although any Adjutant General has the juice to say “We’ll do it this way instead.”

When it comes to uniforms, the unit’s gaining command (the organization under whose command structure the guard unit will fall when activated federally) is the one that sets policy. I have been active duty AF and an Air Guardsman for 14 years, and I’ve never seen a situation such as the one you describe, but I suppose you may have an Air Guard unit that is attached to an Army unit when activated, but I suspect that they are actually part of the Army’s National Guard, and not actually part of the Air National Guard.

I should note that base and unit commanders have some leeway with uniform policy, at least in the AF side. They can authorize what patches and insignia can be worn within the regulations.