Procedurally, how does a President implement a war plan?

Does he issue an executive order to the Secretary of Defense? Or a military order to the joint chiefs, in his capacity as C-in-C? Or some other method?

What exactly constitutes “implementing a war plan?”

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, while by statute having the highest positions in the military, are not in the direct operational chain of command. Their function is to serve as the primary military advisors to the President .

When the President wants to order an actual combat operation, he’ll talk to the commanders of the Unified Combatant Commands in question, or he’ll tell the Secretary of Defense to talk to them.

This structure dates back to the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. Prior to that act, the Joint Chiefs had a much more direct role in combat operations, and the services were not as integrated.

Although the technical definition of “implement” is pretty much “to carry out the details of,” implement is more typically used in government as a “linking verb.” Linking verbs are used to connect a noun subject with a following predicate phrase, and doesn’t necessarily indicate action. Bob is happy. We’re not really going into the nitty-gritty about how bob is experiencing this emotion, we just want the reader to think Bob = happy.

An example of use in government-speak to connect the ideas in the reader’s mind without going into the how and why would be:

“This subject <the President> is somehow connected to this predicate <war plan,> but we don’t want to get pinned down on exactly how.”

The President implements the war plan.


If “implement” is a barrier to understanding, let me try again: How does a President put into operation a war plan, such as that which Obama announced the other night? Suppose the President decides to send X number more troops to Afghanistan. How does he formally make that happen?

friedo’s link answers part of my question (thanks!). I see from Goldwater-Nichols that the chain of command runs through the Secretary of Defense.

But how does the President formally exercise that command authority? The SecDef is a civilian, right? Is he subject to military orders, or would the President’s order to him be a (civilian) executive order? Or does the President issue military orders to the appropriate combatant commands, and the SecDef passes them through?

The Secretary of Defense, like all cabinet members, is a civilian, and he works for the big boss. He has to follow executive orders (which are legal and pursuant to his duties as Sec Def.)

In a case like Obama’s recent announcement which establishes a change in doctrine, he (or rather, White House lawyers) will draft a lengthy executive order detailing all the changes to be carried out, and will probably direct that order to the Secretary of Defense.

The SecDef will then work with senior Pentagon officials to plan all the details of how to carry out the President’s orders: logistics needs, which reserve components to activate, how to transport the additional troops, how to house them, etc. The military brass at the Pentagon will then issue the necessary orders transferring the needed units and stuff to US Central Command for deployment to the Afghanistan theatre.

Once they’re there, any specific operational instructions that the President wants to issue can be given directly to Gen. Patreus, or through the Secretary of Defense to him. But most Presidents tend to let the military leadership handle the nitty-gritty details (that’s what they’re good at) and only issue specific orders when their assent is required to begin a major operation.

Excellent. Thanks.