The Joint Chiefs of Staff Celebrates 71 Years Today

From the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Public Affairs

Here’s what you need to know about the origin and current duties of the Joint Chiefs and how they support national security.

On July 26, 1947, the National Security Act was signed into law by President Harry S. Truman, which officially established the Joint Chiefs of Staff as strategic planners and advisers to the president on matters of national security.

On July 26, 1947, the National Security Act was signed into law by President Harry S. Truman.

This key act also merged the War Department – which was renamed the Department of the Army – and the Department of the Navy into the National Military Establishment led by the secretary of defense. The act also moved the Air Force from being a subordinate command under the Army to being its own independent service. Finally, the act also recognized the Marine Corps as a separate service under the Department of the Navy.

The National Security Council (NSC) and Central Intelligence Agency were also established under the National Security Act.

Who makes up the Joint Chiefs of Staff?

The Joint Chiefs of Staff consists of the chairman, the vice chairman, the chief of staff of the Army, the chief of naval operations, the chief of staff of the Air Force, the commandant of the Marine Corps and the chief of the National Guard Bureau, who became a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2012.

The collective body is headed by the chairman, who sets the agenda and presides over their meetings. The chairman’s official position was created in an amendment to the National Security Act in 1949. In the chairman’s absence, the vice chairman – whose official position was created in the Goldwater-Nichols DOD Reorganization Act of 1986 – will preside over their meetings.

What do their responsibilities and authorities look like?

The first formal meeting of the Joint Chiefs dates back to World War II on Feb. 9, 1942, to coordinate U.S. military operations between the War and Navy Departments.

Joint Chiefs of Staff at a luncheon meeting (circa 1943). Counterclockwise: Adm. William D. Leahy, chief of staff to the commander in chief of the Army and Navy; Gen. George C. Marshall, chief of staff of the U.S. Army; Adm. Ernest J. King, commander in chief, U.S. Fleet and chief of naval operations; and Gen. Henry H. Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces. National Archives photo

The original National Security Act of 1947 saw the Joint Chiefs as strategic planners and advisers, not as commanders of combatant commands. In spite of this, the 1948 Key West Agreement allowed members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to serve as executive agents for unified commands, a responsibility that allowed them to originate direct communication with the combatant command. Congress abolished this authority in a 1953 amendment to the National Security Act. Today, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have no executive authority to command combatant forces, but they do work together to organize, train and equip the Joint Force.

The issue of executive authority was resolved by the Goldwater-Nichols DOD Reorganization Act of 1986, which states: “The secretaries of the military departments shall assign all forces under their jurisdiction to unified and specified combatant commands to perform missions assigned to those commands…”; the chain of command “runs from the president to the secretary of defense; and from the secretary of defense to the commander of the combatant command.”

In present day, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the principal military adviser to the president, secretary of defense and the NSC. That said, all the Joint Chiefs of Staff are by law military advisers, and they may respond to a request or voluntarily submit, through the chairman, advice or opinions to the president, the secretary of defense or the NSC.

For the service chiefs, their responsibilities as members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff actually take precedence over their duties within their individual services; however, they do not report directly to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Each service chief works directly for their respective service secretary.

From left: Gen. Paul Selva; vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. Mark Milley, chief of staff of the Army; Adm. John Richardson, chief of Naval Operations; Gen. Robert Neller, commandant of the Marine Corps; Gen. David Goldfein, chief of staff of the Air Force; and Gen. Joseph Lengyel, National Guard Bureau chief.

How often do they meet?

It depends. They meet monthly in “The Tank,” but this can fluctuate based on the needs of the secretary of defense and as national security topics emerge. The secretary of defense and the president also join the Joint Chiefs for a “tank” session from time to time. The commandant of the Coast Guard may also attend meetings, based on the topic.

Where did “The Tank” get its name?

“The Tank” is a term referring back to the original meeting location used in the early 1940s. Members likened the austere entrance to the conference room – located down a flight of stairs through an arched portal with exposed cables and pipes – as something that resembled entering a tank. The moniker remains in use today.

A little known fact is that within “The Tank,” a copy of the 1868 painting by George P.A. Healy titled “The Peacemakers” is displayed prominently.  It depicts the historic March 28, 1865, strategy session with then-President Abraham Lincoln, Army Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, Army Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, and Navy Rear Adm. David Dixon Porter during the final days of the American Civil War. This was the sole time these leaders met over the course of the Civil War and captures the first time a sitting president met with his service chiefs.

A copy of the 1868 painting titled “The Peacemakers.” Photo courtesy of the White House Historical Association

How does the Joint Staff differ from the Joint Chiefs of Staff?

The National Security Act of 1947 also established the Joint Staff:

“There shall be, under the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a Joint Staff to consist of not to exceed 100 officers and to be composed of approximately equal numbers of officers from each of the three armed services. The Joint Staff, operating under a director thereof appointed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, shall perform such duties as may be directed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The director shall be an officer junior in grade to all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”

Statute prohibited the Joint Staff from operating or organizing as an overall armed forces general staff; therefore, the Joint Staff has no executive authority over combatant forces.

In present day, the Joint Staff assists the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in accomplishing his responsibilities for the unified strategic direction of the combatant forces, their operation under unified command and their integration into an efficient team of land, naval and air forces.

The Joint Staff is composed of over 2,300 civilians and service members from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, National Guard and Coast Guard. Nearly 35 percent are civilians.

Read more about the history of the Joint Staff and the role of the chairman.

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The Joint Chiefs of Staff Celebrates 71 Years Today