What Is the Role of the Department of Defense?

department of defense role u.s. politics dod

Department of Defense (DOD) traces its root back to times before the American Revolution.

However, it no longer resembles the disjointed entity it once was. Over the many years, it has transformed following the evolution of the federal state itself.

The first defining trait of DOD is it belongs to the executive branch of government. That is to say, it falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Federal Government. It’s composed of various military services and departments.

The overarching Department is the institutional nexus we’re going to focus on. It supervises and coordinates all agencies involved in Armed Forces and national security in general.

As such, DOD is the source and provider of military power in the U.S. The chief mission is to keep Americans safe.  However, the Department does also more than that.

It has to communicate, plan, and coordinate a vast range of activities. Thus, its role has serious economic, political, and scientific implications.

As you can see, there’s a lot of ground to cover here. So, let’s take a closer look at what DOD does and why.


Department of Defense as an Executive Hand 

DOD was established in 1949 as an executive part of the government.

It’s the oldest and the largest government agency in existence. Today, it grew beyond what the founding fathers could ever conceive. It employs 1.7 million active-duty service members (male and female).

They are the agents of deterring war and preserving the security of the country. Some of them serve outside the borders of the U.S, as they are stationed overseas. There is also a reserve corps 1 million strong and a payroll of around 1.1 million civilian servants.

We should add to that 2 million veterans and their families are receiving income from DOD. It’s estimated the number of beneficiary retirees and military members is 9.5 million.

This is a fair price for rewarding risky service: the military is one of the most perilous occupations. 

Fortunately, job and activity hazard analysis can detect dangerous situations before they take place.

All of these missions give DOD an important societal and economic dimension.

In fact, it’s the largest employer in the world and a huge healthcare provider. What is more, around 95% of its liabilities stem from retirement and employment benefits.

The central headquarters is at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. This building is one of the largest office compounds in the world.


The Unbreakable Chain

The Department’s supply chain spans the globe and is fueled by billions of dollars.

But, we have to stress one even more vital chain. We’re talking about the strict operational chain of command, upon which the entire Department rests on.

Supreme authority springs from the President of the United States, who acts as a commander in Chief. The Secretary of Defense is the top-ranking official within the DOD. It exerts authority and control over the whole Department. 

This position is appointed by the president, and the Secretary of Defense serves under and reports to him directly. One other key responsibility is advising the President on military policies.

Both the president and the Secretary can institute offices, agencies, commands, and activities. We will go into more detail with the list of departments presented below.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning one more thing.

In practice, the President isn’t the one calling the shots all the time. He has other crucial duties, while Secretary handles most of the day-to-day workload.


The Administrative Workings

DOD consists of the following subordinate military departments: 


  • Armed Forces
  • Navy (Marine Corps and Naval Aviation)
  • Air Force

These three breaches administer their areas with a degree of autonomy. They are tasked with training, educating, and equipping military units. The list includes other activities linked to ensuing combat-readiness.

The command structure tends to be unified, which means it oversees more than one branch. 

Command units are organized either on a functional or geographical basis.

Note that the next year, the Department will also expand to the ultimate frontier— space. The budget is already in place to support the launching of the U.S. Space Force. This department will encapsulate U.S. Space Command and Space Development Agency.

In addition to three main and one future pillar, the Department has these sub-instances:


  • Reserve Corps
  • Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • Defense and Security Agencies (NSA, DIA, NRO…)
  • Office of the Secretary of Defense
  • Office of the Inspector General
  • Combatant Commands

Each of these departments is part of the whole, but have their own secretaries who answer to the Secretary of State.

As for Joint Chiefs of Staff, this body takes on operational direction over unified commands. You can check out Defense.gov to find more military information about any of these departments.


The Essence of the Department’s Role

For the most part, DOD is there to thwart and dissuade security threats. 

It preserves national resources and safeguards all its citizens. But, the ties between the military and the society at large aren’t always apparent.

How the Department affects U.S. citizens is implied. In other words, the Department “protects” us from things that haven’t yet happened (or they did but in the past).

To meet these goals, DOD harnesses the defensive capacities of various facilities and installations. They have to be in the right place and equipped with the right weapons in order to fulfill their function.

This is no small feat considering the scope of the defense parameter. DOD owns property at over 5,000 different locations and sites. Combined, they covered around 30 million acres of land. 

These are launching pads for various domestic missions and overseas endeavors.


The Nature of Military Operations

Preparation and participation in military operations play a big part in how DOD operates.

Afghani and Iraqi interventions are the epitome of this function. But, we’re only scratching the surface here.

Often times, the command would decide to carry out preemptive strikes. They are designed to eliminate emerging threats that could escalate in the future.

This brings us to another point. The world around us is changing and security threats evolve. In the aftermath of the aforementioned interventions, DOD had to engage in widespread stabilization activities.

In recent years, these efforts have declined in scale. This downward trend is the result of mounting political and fiscal pressures. DOD seeks to alleviate them by relying on many partners across the globe.

Nevertheless, stabilization continues to be one of the strategic priorities. DOD recognizes the fact that numerous (potential) security threats originate from failed and war-torn states.


Beyond Warfare

We should underline warfighting is just one of the ways of projecting military power.

DOD also fills physical support roles, as well as planning and coordination.  Some threats aren’t always as tangible and glaring as terrorist groups and rogue states.

Namely, most of the military assets come in the form of equipment, inventory, and plants. In 2017, DOD identified climate change as a “direct threat” to them. For instance, some military bases are exposed to rising sea levels and extreme weather.

Another key operational component is related to military intelligence. DOD is supposed to be the source of accurate and timely information on its functions, operations, policies, etc.

This role can entail DOD communicating with the:


  • American public
  • Congress
  • News Media
  • DOD Civilians
  • Military personnel and family members

Let’s also not forget the Department of the Army, which employs a Corps of Engineers. These civil servants perform duties that somewhat deviate from typical military operations.

For instance, they may assist in improving infrastructures such as waterways and harbors. They also help with flood control and other disaster-control projects.

A long spectrum of diverse roles calls for a comprehensive approach and unified coordination. These priorities are work in progress.


Big Numbers Game

The base budget for the fiscal year 2020 sits at whopping $576 billion.

This figure dwarfs all other agencies in comparison. A lion’s share of the pool is allocated to three main military departments and the contractors. 

Notice there’s a separate budget for financing war efforts too. It’s called Overseas Contingency Operations Fund. Emergency funds are in place for certain departments, such as Homeland Security and State Department.

When we add all these expenses together, we reach the $989 billion watermark. This means U.S. military budget is second only to Social Security when it comes to size.

In the short term, DOD has a stimulating effect on the economy. Alas, over the long haul, lavish spending spells problems. Among other things, it increases the budget deficit and public debt. 

It remains to be seen how the government will address these risks. For now, it doesn’t seem like the budget for the military is going to decrease. External pressures and internal interests prevent this scenario from materializing.


The Ever-Vigilant Guardian

The Department of Defense keeps threats to national security at bay.

It deters war, supervises military forces, and protects all Americans. It’s a giant ecosystem of services, agencies, departments, and other moving parts. You could call it an administrative and infrastructural leviathan in every sense of the word.

Yet, contrary to popular belief, DOD isn’t just in charge of the military. Other functions and roles stem from this main purpose.

Policy priorities also encompass processes such as stabilization and communication. Additional roles cover a wide range of other activities, such as supplying people with income, retirement and medical benefits.

Therefore, it would be hard to even imagine a free and safe U.S. without Department as its warden. Keep an eye on our other article sections to stay in the know. More power to you!

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