Interservice rivalry has existed as long as there have been different military organizations employing different means of fighting. It has been especially pronounced, however, in maritime powers, where the navy has long been equal to or superior in status to the army. These were joined in the twentieth century by a third independent service, the air force. In the United States, interservice rivalry has been further institutionalized by the peculiar nature of the American political system, particularly the separation of powers in the federal government, which has given the services opportunities to protect their rival interests. Each U.S. military service has been supported by particular constituencies in Congress and in American society.
Traditionally, support for the army was centered upon the South, with its military bases suitable for training throughout the year, and upon the Midwest, with its heavy industry producing artillery, tanks, and military vehicles. Support for the navy, conversely, was centered upon the East and the West Coast, with their ports and their shipbuilding industries. The air force was centered upon the Southwest, the location of the best bases for all‐weather flying and of the majority of the major aircraft manufacturers. During the long Cold War era, however, these regional distinctions largely faded, and the military services became more national in their constituencies.
Interservice rivalry has been most intense in the immediate aftermath of a major war, when the large wartime military budgets are contracting but the large wartime scale of the military services is still in place. In addition, the development of new weapons technologies that occurred during wartime has had unequal impact upon the different services, and this has shifted the balance of power between the services or even within them. Interservice rivalry was intense after both wars and has revived since the Cold War.
During World War II, the U.S. military services fought the war against Germany and Japan according to their own doctrines. Each had its own version of the war. The army focused on a “Europe‐first” strategy, a ground war against the German Army; the navy's role was transporting and supporting the army. Conversely, the navy focused on a “Pacific‐first” strategy. There, the navy would be the dominant service, with the army in a peripheral role of conquering islands, a role that could be duplicated by the Marines, “the Navy's Army.” The U.S. Army Air Corps used the experience of World War II as an opportunity to obtain its independence from the army. In 1947, it became an autonomous third military service. Its emphasis in the 1930s had been on strategic bombing—seen as a war‐winning strategy—rather than on tactical airpower, which would make it primarily a ground support arm.
The aftermath of World War II was an especially intense period of interservice rivalry. Within three years, the gigantic military forces and military budgets of the United States were reduced by more than 80 percent. In this context, the struggle between the services over roles and missions was fierce, consuming far more of their time and energy than the emerging Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union.
With the full and formal independence of the U.S. Air Force in 1947, the army lost its major air mission. Indeed, in the Key West Agreement among the services in 1948, it lost any fixed‐wing combat aircraft and was left with only helicopters. For a time, the army sought to compensate for this loss of air combat forces by achieving a monopoly of land combat forces, that is, by seeking to eliminate the Marines. The Marines, however, were solidly entrenched in public opinion and Congress and were able to maintain themselves, although on a reduced scale. Throughout the 1950s, the army tried to reenter the realm of airpower by exploiting the new technology of ballistic missiles. It had some initial success, but this route back into airpower was finally blocked by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who canceled the army intercontinental ballistic missile program, giving land‐based missiles solely to the air force.
In the same postwar period, the navy saw the air force's aspirations to a monopoly of airpower and the delivery of nuclear and conventional bombs and warheads to be a threat to its aircraft carriers, which had become the core force of the navy. It quickly moved to make carriers capable of the strategic bombing mission by proposing a supercarrier, the USS United States. But, deferring to the air force, President Harry S. Truman canceled this ship in 1949, leading to public protests and enforced resignations of several top‐ranking naval officers, an episode that was dubbed “the Revolt of the Admirals.”
The air force was the chief winner in these interservice conflicts of the late 1940s. During the next decade, through the Strategic Air Command (SAC), it continued to monopolize the strategic bombing mission, and under the Eisenhower administration it normally received fully half of the defense budget. The air force was supported by the new and politically influential aerospace industry. But the navy's development in the late 1950s of the submarine‐launched ballistic missile (SLBM) broke the air force monopoly of strategic nuclear weapons.
Similarly, the army's development in the late 1950s of a conventional war doctrine for the defense of Western Europe (termed Flexible Response) was aimed at breaking the air force monopoly of ways in which to defeat the Soviet Union. President Eisenhower rejected the new doctrine, leading to the public protests and forced resignations of its principal advocates, Gen. Maxwell Taylor and Gen. James Gavin, or a “Revolt of the Generals.” This revolt and its doctrine, however, had powerful supporters, first the leading Democrats in Congress and later the next president, John F. Kennedy, and this gave final victory to the army. These successes by the navy and the army in their struggles with the air force meant that since the early 1960s the budgetary shares of the three services have proved far more equal.
The aftermath of the Cold War produced renewed interservice rivalry over allocation of roles, missions, and budgetary shares. The army rapidly sought to become the premier service in the new conflicts characterizing the post–Cold War era, again seeking to reduce its combat competitor, the Marines. The intervention in Panama (1989) was commanded and largely monopolized by the army. The Persian Gulf War (1991) was also fought under army command, with that service largely monopolizing the ground war and delegating a peripheral role to the Marines. The air war was largely monopolized by the air force, with the navy playing a peripheral role (via cruise missiles). Once again, the air force claimed to have made the other services obsolete.
It is now a half century since the modern tripartite allocation of roles and missions—what might be termed the military constitution—in the aftermath of World War II. Although there were a few major amendments to that constitution in the course of the Cold War (the navy acquiring a strategic nuclear mission with its SLBMs; the army briefly acquiring in the late 1960s a missile defense mission with its antiballistic missile system and in the 1990s seeking it again with ballistic missile defense), the fundamental structure has remained the same, firmly institutionalized, grounded in the support provided by Congress and by the economic interests and political associations of the wider society. The prospects are that interservice rivalry in the foreseeable future will be conducted on the margins of budgetary shares.
The existing balance of power between the services is largely a product of military technologies that date from World War II and the early Cold War. However, the services are now developing and deploying new weapons systems that are based upon the most advanced integration of computers, telecommunications, and lasers. In the future, these weapons systems will integrate and even transcend the old distinctions between land, sea‐, and airpower, and they may not readily fit into the old services of the army, navy, and air force.
Predictably these established services will seek to master the new technologies, and each will try to demonstrate that it is more suited to shape the future than its rivals. But the victor is likely to discover that the price of nurturing such a radical new technology may be utterly to change the nature of the service itself.
[See also Air Force, U.S.: Since 1947; Army, U.S.: Since 1941; National Security Act (1947); Navy, U.S.: Since 1946; Panama, U.S. Military Involvement in; World War II: Military and Diplomatic Course.]
Samuel P. Huntington , The Common Defense: Strategic Programs in National Politics, 1961.
Graham T. Allison , Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1971.
Richard A. Gabriel , Military Incompetence: Why the American Military Doesn’t Win, 1985.
David C. Kozak and James M. Keagle, eds. Bureaucratic Politics and National Security: Theory and Practice, 1988.
Michael E. Brown , Flying Blind: The Politics of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Program, 1992.