Constitution Daily

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The Joint Chiefs of Staff: An Explainer

June 10, 2011 by Michael DelBene


On Monday May 30, President Barack Obama appointed a new Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff .

General Martin E. Dempsey, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Such a changing of the guard -- always important -- is especially significant at a time when the United States is involved in several conflicts around the world.

So who are the Joint Chiefs, why do they need a Chairman and Vice Chairman and how does this change impact our servicemen and women in uniform?

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is the highest ranking military officer in the United States Armed Forces. He (or maybe she, someday) is the foremost military adviser to the President, the National Security and Homeland Security Councils and the Secretary of Defense.

The Chairman coordinates the efforts of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) which consists of:

  • Chief of Staff of the United States Army
  • Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force
  • Chief of Naval Operations
  • Commandant of the Marine Corps

It is the Chairman’s job to convene the Joint Chiefs, gather information and intelligence about combat readiness, combat personnel and weapons systems, the status of conflicts and the outcomes of various battles and operations. Once this information is made available to the Chairman, he can then brief the President to make informed decisions about the use of military force.

When Push Comes to Shove…

Although Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is considered a very important and highly prestigious position, neither the Chairman, the Vice Chairman, nor the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a body has any command authority over combatant forces. They can’t send troops into battle, launch a missile, fire a shot or declare victory.

They are simply an advisory body that represents equally the branches of our Armed Forces and ensures that important and necessary information flows freely to the President, enabling him (or maybe her, some day) to make the best decision possible regarding our military.

Army or Navy?

It’s interesting to note that almost twice as many Chairmen have come from the Army than from any other branch. Here is the breakdown:

Army: 8

Navy: 5

Air Force: 4

Marines: 1

A Whole Lotta Brass…

Harry Truman appointed the first Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in 1949. He selected highly  regarded and WWII-decorated Army General Omar Bradley. Since 1949 there have only been 17 high-ranking and influential men who have held the post of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. On Monday President Obama selected Martin Dempsey – a decorated Army General who has previously served as the Army Chief of Staff.

Most notable among recent Chairmen is Colin Powell who was appointed by President George H.W. Bush and held the position from 1989 to 1983. He was the only Chairman of the Joint Chiefs to move into a Cabinet position when he became Secretary of State under George W. Bush in 2001.


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