Key West Revisited: Roles and Missions of the US Armed Forces in the Twenty-first Century

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On March 11-14, 1948, the first secretary of defense, James Forrestal, convened the chiefs of the military services in Key West, Florida to resolve a long and bitter conflict among them about how to allocate responsibilities for military roles and missions. To Forrestal’s regret, the conference resulted in only a weak compromise, giving each service more or less what it wanted; Key West restored a degree of civility among the  services, but in the process built redundancy into the heart of the US military posture.

When resources are ample, redundancy in military capabilities is not all bad, providing an extra degree of insurance. The nation has lived more or less happily with the consequences of Key West throughout the cold war, being willing to accept a relatively high cost for defense in order to contain Soviet military power. Now that the USSR has disintegrated, however, and the defense budget seems likely to reach levels not witnessed since before World War II, the cost of redundancy could be very great. If one assumes that deep budget cuts are inevitable, then the cost of not cutting redundant capabilities will be reductions in unique and, possibly, essential forces.

The time is ripe, therefore, for a new look at the roles and missions of the US armed forces. This report summarizes the results of one such analysis undertaken by The Henry L. Stimson Center. The full study will be published by St. Martin’s Press in the summer of 1993.

The study concludes that the individual armed services are vital national institu­ tions that serve essential social and political roles, as well as their military purposes. These domestic functions are reason enough to preserve the four services as autonomous institutions within the Department of Defense, responsible for organizing, recruiting, training, equipping, and maintaining US military forces.

The study also concludes, however, that major steps could be taken to reduce the redundancy, and therefore added cost, that resulted from the Key West agreement. Generally speaking, these steps would result in the consolidation of support functions, thereby binding the services more closely.Yet they would also foster greater specialization in the services’ combatant roles, thereby strengthening their uniqueness and special contributions to the nation’s security. The study also concludes that the long-standing trend toward a larger role for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Joint Staff, and the unified commands, responsible for the actual conduct of US military operations, should be extended.

The study’s main recommendations are listed below. For convenience, they are divided into three broad categories: protection of the United States, protection of US interests abroad, and participation in multilateral operations to protect collective inter­ national security.

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