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National Command Authority

National Command Authority

The national command authorities of a nation are the persons or officeholders (or their duly deputized alternates or successors) who have the legal power to direct military activities. In almost all national governments, ultimate national command authority rests in a single office or individual, but there are almost always others involved in carrying out military policy. In the United States, the national command authorities are the president, the secretary of defense, and/or their duly deputized alternates or successors.

One of the hallmarks of the American system, and that of virtually all constitutional democracies, is civilian control over the military. Therefore, ultimate military authority rests in the civilian chain of command, the national command authority. Highest in the chain of command, of course, is the president. However, the chief executive oversees so many aspects of national policy that even in wartime, his duties necessarily force his attention to be directed toward other matters. Therefore, the secretary of defense plays a critical role in the oversight of military action. He or she answers to the president, and in turn guides military action along two lines of authority.

On the one hand are military forces not specifically assigned to combatant commands. These answer to the chiefs of the services, who report to the secretaries of the military departments (Army, Navy, and Air Force). The secretaries are in turn subordinate to the secretary of defense. On the other hand, there are combatant commands, whose commanders answer directly to the secretary of defense. During the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the distinction between these two lines of authority became particularly noticeable in the form of the war's two most prominent military figures: General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of allied forces on the ground, and General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.



Gilmour, Robert S., and Alexis A. Halley. Who Makes Public Policy? The Struggle for Control Between Congress and the Executive. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House Publishers, 1994.

Richelson, Jeffrey T. The U.S. Intelligence Community, 4th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.

Trask, Roger R., and Alfred Goldberg. The Department of Defense, 19471997: Organization and Leaders. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997.


DoD (United States Department of Defense)
Joint Chiefs of Staff, United States
Persian Gulf War

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