US Armed Forces
February 4, 2005 2:33 PM   Subscribe

I would like to know about the rationale behind the splitting of the US Armed Forces into its four major branches: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines. [more inside, soldier]

To refine the question: What I mean is that (as I understand it, which is, admittedly, minimally) all of the branches have, for instance, significant air capabilities: air-based attacks are not the sole domain of the Air Force. Do, for instance, Army pilots and Navy pilots perform significantly different tasks? Is the training different? Are different branches called into military action for different reasons and occasions?

I'm not suggesting that it doesn't make sense that there's not just one big TEAM AMERICA, comprised of all four branches and then some. I appreciate that each branch has its own history, and were initially designed for specific purposes (i.e., Navy for sea battles, Air Force for air battles, etc). And I realize that the immense bureaucracy of the military-industrial complex militates (ha!) against this possibility, anyway. The thrust of my question is: what are the different responsibilities of these branches? How and why do they overlap and/or interact, and to what degree are they entirely separate entities?

I realize this is a large and complicated question, and I ask it for no other reason than to satisfy a recent curiosity. (And I wasn't sure which search terms to use in Google.) Thanks in advance for your answers.
posted by Dr. Wu to Law & Government (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

Response by poster: Thanks for that link, Saucy Intruder (must remind self: check the damn wikipedia), but the information on that page (and its linked pages) doesn't really answer my specific questions about the interrelationships and shared responsibilities of the different branches. Maybe someone can illustrate by reference to recent military actions? Thanks.
posted by Dr. Wu at 3:02 PM on February 4, 2005

One side note that I am sure someone will also point out later is that the Marines are actually a part of the Department of the Navy.

My understanding is this:

Army - Land based warfare. Includes close air support (i.e. helicopters), artillery, tanks and other tracked vehicles, and at its most basic the infantry.
Air Force - Air and Spacecraft (Astronauts are typically Air Force personnel) warfare. Based from land, fly fixed wing and rotary aircraft including bombers, fighters, and other support aricraft.
Navy - Water based warfare. Naval pilots typically fly from carriers in support of the carrier battle group, which differentiates them from the Air Force.
Marines - As mentioned, they are a part of the Department of the Navy. Their primary responsibility has been land based fighting from naval ships, i.e. amphibious assaults and landings.
Coast Guard - Waterbased protection of US soil.

I am not a military historian or even buff, but my dad is a former Marine who still calls and sings me the Marine Corps Hymn every November 10th.

One side note. Never, ever call a Marine a soldier. It's a point of pride that they are Marines not soldiers. Soldiers are Army troops.

On Preview: Saucy Intruder's link to the wikipedia is a good one for more detail.
posted by ..ooOOoo....ooOOoo.. at 3:03 PM on February 4, 2005

Similarly, Navy pilots are called aviators.

There were originally only two banches of the military: the Navy (fighting at sea) and the Army (fighting on land). The Marines started out as soldiers guys with guns that were stationed on ships to shoot the enemy's crewmen during battles. That progressed to boarding enemy ships, then to boarding parties and amphibious attacks (which is why the Marines were mostly involved in the Pacific theater during World War II), then to expeditionary missions. For example, the first US combat troops in Vietnam were Marines sent to secure the Danang airport.

The Air Force was originally part of the Army (probably since taking of from the ground was easier than taking off from a carrier). The Air Force became a separate branch of the armed forces in 1947.

Military planning used to be quite chaotic, with each branch making its own plans within its own chain of command. This was changed in 1986; there are five regional commands, and the Regional Combatant Commander within each command requests the air, land, and sea units that he needs for a particular operation. The combatant commanders report to the Secretary of Defense.

For example, the recent invasion of Iraq was run by the US Central Command, commanded by General Tommy Franks, so he was responsible for planning the invasion and requesting the necessary units.
posted by kirkaracha at 3:51 PM on February 4, 2005

Another military tip - "pilots" are those who steer ships, "aviators" fly aircraft (fixed-wing and rotary wing).

Following up on o0 -

Marines - Marine Aviators main responsibility is support missions in support of Marine Infantry troops, that is, close air support. Carrier and land based.

Coast Guard - During wartime they can be activated and placed under control of the Navy. Used during Vietnam and also during the current Iraq War to patrol oil refineries and some waterways.

And I realize that the immense bureaucracy of the military-industrial complex militates (ha!) against this possibility, anyway.

Two outstanding books on this topic - The Power Game by Hendrink Smith & Wastrels of Defense by Winslow T. Wheeler (I should qualify that - "Wastrels" looks outstanding I will be reading it during vacation).

There was an excellent WSJ article in 2002 that dealt with close air support and the Air Force & Army trying to work more closely together.

This Pulitzer Prize winning series from the LAT also illustrates how the preferences of members of Congress, defense contractors and Generals & Admirals have deadly results for those who wear the uniform.

The problem is a bipartisan one. Republicans and Democarts both want whatever keeps the jobs in their district, not necessarily what is best for the service branches.

The defense contractors want to make money.

Senior Generals & Admirals want lucrative positions with defense contractors when they retire.

When all three groups get together to discuss "business" the concern is not what is best for soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen. An excellent cognac and a fine cigar puts everything in perspective.
posted by mlis at 3:54 PM on February 4, 2005

.oO is exactly right. if there's anything in particular you might need to know, ask away. otherwise, there's not much else to add.

Army - occupy
Air Force - bomb
Navy - transport
Marines - invade
posted by taumeson at 3:56 PM on February 4, 2005 [1 favorite]

And my agency exists to serve them all. Though each branch has a separate procurement machine - mostly for weapons systems - we buy all the food, clothing, medical supplies and spare parts used by all the services. Our agency was originally the Defense Supply Agency but really, doesn't 'logistics' sound so much better?
posted by fixedgear at 4:39 PM on February 4, 2005

How and why do they overlap and/or interact, and to what degree are they entirely separate entities?

W.E.B. Griffin, in his Brotherhood of War series, has extensive plots around the creation of helicopter forces in the Army in the 1950s and 1960s, because the Army had lost its aviation function to the Air Force, and thought that the Air Force wasn't interested in close air support. (Which was correct - as this wiki page says: The A-10s were an unwelcome addition to the Air Force arsenal. Air Force officials prized the high-flying, high-performance F-15 and F-16 jets, and were determined to leave the dirty work of close air support to Army helicopters.)

A similar question could be asked about (say) the various cabinet departments in the US Federal Government - how did they end up doing what they do? The answer, of course, is that today's organizational structure and responsiblities is the result of a mix of historical accident, strident politics, and reasonable decisions (as, for example, with the Department of Homeland Security).

And, by the way: Canada has had a single, unified military since 1968.
posted by WestCoaster at 4:42 PM on February 4, 2005

There is also a great deal of history and tradition behind each branch, that would make any kind of consolidation very unlikely unless there was a damn good reason for it.
posted by smackfu at 5:01 PM on February 4, 2005

I've been told by history teachers (and it seems to make sense) that the original Army and Navy of the U.S. were seperate because the Founders/Framers were worried about the power one unified force could wield.
posted by thebabelfish at 5:13 PM on February 4, 2005

One unmentioned distinction--the Army is forbidden to operate fixed wing aircraft (airplanes), hence their reliance on helicopters.

(ah, WestCoaster touched on this.)
posted by NortonDC at 5:46 PM on February 4, 2005

This is interesting. If Marines are a division of the Navy for land based fighting from naval ships, then what are Navy SEALS used for? I understand that SEALS are particularly elite, etc. but why aren't they Marine SEALS?
posted by rorycberger at 6:44 PM on February 4, 2005

I'm not aware of Marines serving on subs, unlike SEALS.
posted by NortonDC at 6:57 PM on February 4, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone, for your answers. I have a few follow-up questions, if you're still game:
- to what degree are the Marines autonomous, if they're a division of the Navy?
- why is the Army forbidden from operating airplanes?
- if the US has a multi-branch military and Canada has a single, unified branch, what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of each?
- though they all obviously play for the same team, clearly there is some sort of interbranch rivalry, yes? Is this all in good fun, or does this actually limit the branches' effectiveness at times? Related question: is there a conventional-wisdom hierarchy of "toughness" among the branches? I feel like the Marines have a rep for being the toughest of the tough, but I really don't know.

Thanks again. I know literally nothing about the military, and this is pretty fascinating to me.
posted by Dr. Wu at 7:08 PM on February 4, 2005

"is there a conventional-wisdom hierarchy of "toughness" among the branches? I feel like the Marines have a rep for being the toughest of the tough, but I really don't know."

First off, for reference, I have experience with the Merchant Marines. They don't count, but the proximity to the Navy and Marine Corps. has given me a good base of general knowledge in regards to this junk. There is a sort of unofficial hierarchy, but the order of that would depend upon who you ask. I think few people would disagree that it follows this sort of order (from wimpy to badass)

Coast Guard - Doesn't fight on account of the fact that there have been no recent naval attacks on U.S. soil.
National Guard - Same reason as above.
Air Force
Special Forces (be it Rangers, Seals, or Green Berets)

It is my theory that the two main factors here are the amount of combat duty encountered and the difficulty of training/admissions. But then again, I am a moron.
posted by mervin_shnegwood at 7:33 PM on February 4, 2005

I'd swap Navy and Air Force in that list.
posted by NortonDC at 7:39 PM on February 4, 2005

Second NortonDC.

If we are going to get into this, I can safely say that Air Force PJ's are the toughest operators in the US military. There training is more rigorous than SEAL's, Green Berets, or any other units in the Special Ops community.
posted by mlis at 7:43 PM on February 4, 2005

According to a buddy of mine, a former Marine, the Marines guard the reactors and missiles on nuclear submarines.

to what degree are the Marines autonomous, if they're a division of the Navy?

I suppose that'd depend on if you asked a Marine or a Navy person. Take this quote from A Few Good Men (by Kiefer Sutherland's character, a Marine):
I like all you Navy boys. Whenever we gotta go someplace to fight, you fellas give us a ride.
All of the branches have their own special operations forces. Toughness, I'd say (1) special ops, (2) Marines, (3) Army, (4) Navy and (5) Air Force, although consider this quote from Tom Wolfe's excellent book The Right Stuff:
Combat had its own infinite series of tests, and one of the greatest sins was "chattering" or "jabbering" on the radio. The combat frequency was to be kept clear of all but strategically essential messages, and all unenlightening comments were regarded as evidence of funk, of the wrong stuff.

A Navy pilot (in legend, at any rate) began shouting, "I've got a MIG at zero! A MIG at zero!" – meaning that it had maneuvered in behind him and was locked in on his tail. An irritated voice cut in and said, "Shut up and die like an aviator."
posted by kirkaracha at 7:56 PM on February 4, 2005

Being in the Air Force, I'm quite used to being placed last in the "tough guy" ranking of the military branches. We all know that the friendly inter-service rivalry is a good thing, and humorous comparisons like that always bring chuckles.

On the other hand, if you asked most people to rank-order the services according to intelligence, from dumbest to smartest:

Air Force

And the Navy/Marines could be inverted, as they are held in roughly the same regard in terms of being smart.

And I remind you that these kinds of observations are vast generalizations intended to get a laugh and create a little esprit-de-corps and good-natured inter-service rivalry -- believe me, there is nothing dumb about most of the soldiers that I've met and worked with, and I know many Air Force personnel who could easily out-tough most Marines, etc. Each branch has a unique culture, history, uniform, language, etc, and by and large we all very much respect our differences.
posted by davidmsc at 8:30 PM on February 4, 2005

why is the Army forbidden from operating airplanes?

Part of the "deal" when the Air Force split off. No better reason than that. So they use helos for aviation.

Trivia: the Army actually does operate one or two fixed-wing aircraft: the ones the Golden Knights, their parachute demonstration team, jump out of.

if the US has a multi-branch military and Canada has a single, unified branch, what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of each?

With a single military, it would be theoretically easier to maintain commonalities (everyone buys the same boot) and to have unified support/logistics services. OTOH, it probably also theoretically makes it harder for the support/logistics people to match up as precisely with the needs of their combat-force clients.

I don't know anyone in the Canadian military, but I can't think that it has much effect on inter-service rivalries. It's just a natural fact that wing-wipers, ground-pounders, jarheads, and squids don't always get along.

Exception: the Marines. You might think of the Marines as a combined (assault/shock) army and air force. I don't know the extent to which the aviation and ground-force sides of the Corps get along or compete with each other, but from all accounts they take their close-air support more seriously than the Air Force does, ergo the Harriers.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:49 PM on February 4, 2005

I can certainly tell you, in the 70's, Air Force basic trainning was tougher than Navy basic. I was Navy, a friend went Air Force.

Nice thing about the Navy: it might get you dead, but you'll almost certainly be clean and had a hot meal recently (I think this was an observation from Heinlein, another Navy man, but I'm not sure)
posted by Goofyy at 8:51 PM on February 4, 2005

though they all obviously play for the same team, clearly there is some sort of interbranch rivalry, yes? Is this all in good fun, or does this actually limit the branches' effectiveness at times?

I can only speak to this from a military healthcare point of view. The US military health system is the largest health system in the world, and one of its biggest problems is that the three Services have a hard time working together. They really need to be able to work together in order to increase the overall efficiency of the system and reduce redundancies and waste. It's really problematic when the Services won't share resources - like when you have an Army and an Air Force healthcare facility near each other and their offerings overlap. Turf wars and lack of cooperation lead to a lot of wasted money, time, and resources.
posted by acridrabbit at 10:28 PM on February 4, 2005

Dr. Wu, you ask a very interesting question. If you want an historical situation that has contributed enormously to the relationship between the services, it is probably the Tehran hostage rescue, Operation Eagle Claw. It was a classic failure, for technical reasons but also for doctrinal and intramilitary political reasons. The planners were forced to include units from different military services for the prestige factor, but the units had no common training and command traditions, which contributed greatly to the problems the mission faced. (Delta Force, part of Army Airborne, was the primary unit, but support units included Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine units.) As a result the Pentagon created a unified Special Operations Command and each force developed its own special forces under its aegis; special forces thus allowed combined arms doctrine to gain a foothold, and today the military continues to struggle with making a 20th century fighting force work under a 21st century strategic doctrine requiring them all to work together.

To take one example, consider the role of the Forward Air Controller. Many SOF teams in Afghanistan and Iraq, who were primarily Army Green Berets, Deltas, and Rangers, included one USAF special-forces member who would be the point of contact for any aerial support such as bombing. Coming from the USAF he would understand the training and doctrine of that service in a way that an army guy wouldn't, but he would also train with the SOF so that he wasn't an outsider tagging along but an integral member of the team.

Another illustrative example is the Cold War era need for each service to demonstrate its utility by developing its very own nuclear deterrent. The Army had the ICBMs, the Air Force had the bombers (B-52s, then the B-1), the Navy had the submarines. The last makes the most sense (although of course there is a point to avoiding a defense monoculture, viz. the Maginot line), but supporters in Congress of each service were always able to send billions their way, and as recently as the 1980s we were trying to develop the MX missile which would have offered the Army a deterrent that for the first time wasn't a sitting duck. Interestingly, btw, the Red Army put Strategic Rocket Forces in its own service, although this was probably largely a matter of trust.
posted by dhartung at 12:32 AM on February 5, 2005

The A-10s were an unwelcome addition to the Air Force arsenal. Air Force officials prized the high-flying, high-performance F-15 and F-16 jets, and were determined to leave the dirty work of close air support to Army helicopters.

For whatever this adds the the discussion: my brother is an Apache pilot in the Army, and just recently he told me there's nothing they like to see more than A-10's working the same battlefield with them. The Army loves those damn things.

As far as the badass hierarchy goes, from the people I know and have met and including everything I've read:

Regular Air Force
Regular Navy
Regular Army
Army Airborne (82nd, 101st, etc.)
Army Rangers
Green Berets
SEAL team six
Delta Force (which, for our non-US friends, is for better or worse associated with the British SAS)

MLIS, there's a History Channel (or some other Make You Learn Stuff station) documentary on Air Force PJ's that you can come across every now and then. They do indeed do an impressive job and their training is longer than most special forces, but I think that they, as far as I know (which is a pretty key phrase when you're discussing special ops) don't do any offensive operations. And I've never met or heard of a special ops guy of any flavor who wouldn't bust his ass to save a downed airman. So maybe they get the short end of the stick. I mean, I know more about Delta Force than I know about those guys.
posted by Cyrano at 7:44 AM on February 5, 2005

Cyrano, good point about the offensive operations. You are also correct about any special ops guy doing whatever it takes to rescue a downed airman.

Some info on PJ's if Dr. Wu or anyone else is interested:

From Sebastian Jungers' The Perfect Storm (pp. 175-77):

"The wartime mission of [PJ's] 'is to save the life of an American fighting man,' which generally means jumping behind enemy lines to extract downed pilots. When pilots go down at sea, PJ's. . .jump with scuba gear. When they go down on glaciers, they jump with crampons and ice axes. When they go down in the jungle, they jump with two hundred feet of tree-rappelling line. There is, literally, no where on earth a PJ can't go."

"The schools [18 months of training PJ's attend] are ruthless in their quest to weed people out. . .candidates are strapped into a simulated helicopter and plunged underwater. If they manage to escape, they're plunged in upside-down. If they still manage to escape, they're plunged in upside-down and blindfolded. The guys who escape that get to be PJ's; the rest are rescued by divers waiting by the sides of the pool."

Also see "Heroes at Mogadishu".

There is tremendous respect in the military aviation community for PJ's. Someone once told me that during the Vietnam era PJ's would always get invitations to eat in the Officers Club and never had to pay for a drink at a bar.
posted by mlis at 8:59 AM on February 5, 2005

The Army had the ICBMs, the Air Force had the bombers (B-52s, then the B-1), the Navy had the submarines

ICBM's belong to the USAF and have since Atlas.

Army nukes have included:
*The Davy Crockett
*Atomic Annie
*The Pershing IRBM (and presumably others I'm too lazy to google)
*Nike-Hercules AA/ABM missiles.

AFAIK, the Army has never played a role in strategic nuclear deterrence.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:15 AM on February 5, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks again, everyone. This thread has turned into a very interesting one, and I'm glad I asked the question. The range of knowledge among MeFi members really is extraordinary.

I've learned quite a lot here.
And, please, if there's relevant information to add, I'd love to know it. I'm going to spend a while checking out the links you all have included here.
Many thanks.
posted by Dr. Wu at 10:54 AM on February 5, 2005

In terms of looking at the Special Forces, be sure to take a look at Blackhawk Down, both the book and movie. The story of Army Rangers, Delta Force, Marine Force Recon, SEALS and Air Force Pararescue working together in the fight of Mogadishu is breathtaking and heartbreaking. A very hard read and movie to watch but gives you a sense of their world and brotherhood they ultimately share.
posted by ..ooOOoo....ooOOoo.. at 9:29 PM on February 5, 2005

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