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Ask Civics 101: What is the role of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?

Ask Civics 101
Sara Plourde
/

This week, a listener asks: what is the role of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?

At the top of the United States military hierarchy, there’s the President – the Commander in Chief – and then one step below, the Secretary of Defense. But there’s another key individual who exercises great influence over military policy and plays a central role in planning military operations, like Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and the mission to find and capture Osama bin Laden in 2011: the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the highest-ranking military officer in the U.S. Armed Forces. The Chairman is also the principal military adviser to the President of the United States, the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Council, and the Homeland Security Council. General Mark A. Milley is the 20th and current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

As the title suggests, the Chairman heads the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a collective body of the most senior military leaders within the Department of Defense. This group of eight includes top officers of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. As a whole, the Joint Chiefs advises the President, the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Council, and the Homeland Security Council on military matters. The Chairman calls the meetings and organizes the activities of this advisory body.

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was established as a permanent office in 1949 with amendments to the National Security Act of 1947. The primary responsibility of the Chairman was the same in 1949 as it is today: serve as an adviser to the President, offering military advice to the Commander in Chief.

But it was the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 that made the Chairman the principal military adviser to the President and recognized the official as the most senior ranking member of the U.S. Armed Forces.

The Chairman is appointed by the President, with the consent of the Senate, for a single four-year term at the President’s pleasure. The President can nominate someone from any of the six service branches of the U.S. Armed Forces to the position, but the Chairman can only be reappointed to another term during periods of national emergency or war. Since they take office on October 1st of odd-numbered years, the Chairman could serve two different presidents. The office resides in the Pentagon and reports to both the President and the Secretary of Defense. The Chairman is a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Department of Defense, and the National Security Council.

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The Goldwater-Nichols Act further established the operational chain of command from the President to the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commanders. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is prohibited by law from holding military command authority over any combatant forces. Instead, the Chairman can gather advice from and consult with members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and combatant commanders. When presenting their advice and recommendations, they introduce the full range of opinions received from within the Joint Chiefs.
The Chairman also aids the President and the Secretary of Defense in exercising their military command duties, relays communications from the President and the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commanders, and allocates more funding to commanders when necessary.

Mitchell Scacchi is an intern with the Creative Production Unit. He’s from Goffstown, New Hampshire, the place he has called home for all 21 years of his life. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of New Hampshire in 2021.

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