Why do we (the U.S.) have 5 seperate military branches?

This thread - http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=607175 got me thinking. Why does the U.S. Military have five seperate branches? The Navy has pilots. They all have “special forces” units. The navy can guard our coasts, etc. It seems that there is a lot of duplication of skills, and you would think that combining the branches would result in basic “economies of scale” would lead to a cheaper and more effective force, and would streamline joint missions.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of multiple, overlapping forces?

Oops - Moderator, please fix my spelling error in the title. And I apologize if this is in the wrong forum - it may turn into a great debate.

We did this debate recently. Let me see if I can dig up the old thread.

eta: Here is an older thread on the topic.

Keep in mind that the US Military employs roughly 3 million active duty and reserve servicemembers. When you’re dealing with an organization that large, there’s nothing (IMO) inherently wrong with dividing up basic duties.

That said, there’s been a huge push over the last couple of decades, or at least since I joined, to improve joint operations and reduce redundancy. Where I work now as a civilian (essentially in personnel) we just witnessed a massive attempt to consolidate the disparate personnel databases (the idea being the HR is HR is HR). It didn’t go well.

Despite having a massive budget to work with, the DoD is aware of the waste of having 4 or 5 different versions of things and is constantly making baby steps towards consolidation. It depends on the program. Sometimes consolidating works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Most of it is historical. The army was on land, the navy at sea. The marines were the equivalent of army stationed on boats. The coast guard was for home defense, but primarily used during peacetime to help when there were shipwrecks and to prevent smuggling. The Air Force spun off from the army (It was previously the Army Air Corps).

Nowadays, that sort of differentiation is often more of a hindrance than a help, but the various corps didn’t want to give up their traditional roles and there are cases where it makes sense to differentiate.

Bob Hope had a joke back in the late 50’s that the Navy has developed a new missle that can shoot down the Air Forces’ new missle. So this is nothing new.

The trend now is to go with Joint Commands and services. As steronz said, somethings meld well, somethings don’t. With the pending military budget cuts I believe that reduction in redundancy will be significantly scrutinized as a way to cut fat and not muscle.

I agree with what’s already been said, and would note that attempts to standardize equipment for interoperability and cost savings also don’t always work out well: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F-111

Specifically, a number of Unified Combatant Commands have been established. Each is responsible for a geographic area of the world or some aspect of military operations (like transport) and has appropriate air, land and sea assets from the various services subordinated to it. There has been discussion in the government of taking this process farther, possibly winding up with geographic area commands more-or-less replacing the separate services, but this sort of thing is still mostly a discussion topic for now.

I know it is traditional, but I would not mind seeing the Navy and Coast Guard combined, and the Army combined with the Marines, giving us 3 services. [Land, Sea and Air] and the air units of both Army and Navy combined into the Air Force.

I see no reason that would keep Air Force planes off Navy Carriers, other countries seem to manage with a unified force … and reducing duplicate services might make our military spending decrease a bit.

Historically, there was the Army and the Navy. When the Marine Corps was founded, it was naval infantry along the lines of the Royal Marines in the UK, so it was considered part of the Navy.

Similarly, when airplanes were invented, they fell under the Army.

At some point after WWII, the Air Force and the Marine Corps were split out into their own separate services with the rationale that their missions are sufficiently different to require their own service. One interesting thing is that while there’s a DoD department for the Army, Navy and Air Force, the Marine Corps is under the Department of the Navy, so it’s somewhat less separate from the Navy than the Air Force is from the Army.

The Coast Guard is one of the seven uniformed services, but not part of the Department of Defense, and they don’t have a seat on the Joint Chiefs either, so I’m not sure they’re really considered military for the purposes of this discussion.

I suspect that when the US moves into space in the future, the space forces will initially be under the Air Force, but if they get big enough, they’ll become their own service as well.

Add into the mix the fact that fighter pilots have zero sense of what is needed for ground assault, and sub captains know nothing of aerial refueling, etc. times a million, and the different branches make a lot more sense. Different weapons for different missions.

Not only that, but individual commanders (Generals/Field Marshalls/whatever) typically favor the service they are most familiar with.

I can imagine an Air Force General who feels that the big expensive carriers don’t bring anything to the table that a “properly funded” ground based bomber air wing couldn’t do, and recommend downsizing and reduction in force along those lines.

Thing is, as long as the U.S. is going to be the World Police, it’s going to need as many different tools in the tool box as it can get.

Said it before I could - the USAF part. They already manage surveillance satellites. My sometimes SO is in the USAF and that’s what he does. I can’t imagine him ever supporting a consolidation with the Army, though. :dubious: I try to get secret info from him, but I suspect he’s jerking my chain about aliens and militarizing space.


Other way around: You’d be putting Navy planes on ground-based runways. Air Force planes generally can’t take off and land on carriers. Then again, though, the Air Force also has planes that can do things no Navy plane can (I don’t think either the B-2 or the F/A-117 can operate from a carrier, for instance).


Not just “generally” – not at all. Planes require lots of special equipment to perform carrier takeoffs and landings, which Air Force planes do not have. Furthermore, pilots require lots of training to do the same, and Air Force pilots don’t get it.

The B-2 is probably too big to adapt to a carrier. Smaller Air Force planes mostly have the advantages of a bigger payload and longer range. All that special equipment for carrier operations takes away from how many missiles/bombs/rounds/fuel the planes can carry.

I think the point is that the Air Force already has a broad variety of aircraft: flighters, bombers, transports, stealth craft, etc. Adding an additional class - carrier planes - wouldn’t be that difficult.

One of the weirder features of US military spending is that for the last forty-odd years, there’s been an unwritten rule that spending has to be equally divided between the three major branches. One consequence of this is that moving around large sub-divisions from one branch to another (like moving carrier planes under the air-force) is more difficult then otherwise, since your now required to find some new projects for the branch that lost a sub-division so that their total funding doesn’t drop relative to the other two.

Similarly, if circumstances require some new capability be added to one force, then you have to find an excuse to add capabilities to the other two forces, even if those capabilities would make more sense being placed under a different branch (or arguably not existing at all).

There’s your problem right there. Money should be allocated according to need, not in order to avoid offending people. The military is a government office, and if Congress decides to give one department more than another, they should just suck it up. It’s not like it’s their money.

Here are three older threads on the topic:

[POST=11873647]Army/Marines integration[/POST]
[THREAD=592031]Inter-service rivalries in the military[/THREAD]
[POST=13354332]Does America need to maintain the Marines[/POST]

They’re so cute when they’re young and naive, aren’t they? It’s almost a shame they have to grow up. :wink:

Seriously, the branches of the Armed Forces, like other long-established government organizations, are first and foremost an entrenched bureaucracy that views their primary enemy as being the other forces, and individual commands are often vying with one another for funding for their particular pet project or activity. See Catch-22, James Burton’s The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard, et cetera.