Department of Defense

Fact Box

United States Department of Defense

Formed on September 18, 1947
Preceding departments- Department of War
Headquarters- The Pentagon, Arlington County, Virginia
Secretary of Defense -- Ashton B. Carter
Employees (2009) 700,000 civilian, 1,418,542 military, 1,100,000 reserve
Annual budget (2014) $577.9 billion

Representing the largest organization in the U.S. federal government, the Department of Defense (DoD) is responsible for protecting the United States by providing for a national defense. DoD includes all four branches of the armed services—Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines—along with multiple sub-agencies that produce everything from weapons and supplies for military units to intelligence on foreign threats. The George W. Bush administration’s Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) campaign caused the DoD’s budget to balloon to its highest levels ever. The Obama administration’s anti-terrorism undertakings, along with the ongoing war in Afghanistan, have ensured that upward trend. Implementing the GWOT also resulted in multiple controversies for the department, which was led for much of the past decade by a polarizing Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld.


After winning its independence from England in the Revolutionary War, the United States government created the U.S. Department of War in 1789, charged with organizing and maintaining the U.S. Army to provide for the defense of the new republic. The Department of War, headed by the Secretary of War, was a cabinet-level department under the command of the President that did not manage the Navy, which was transferred in 1798 to the U.S. Department of the Navy.

During the 19th century, the War Department supervised various military and non-military responsibilities ranging from the distribution of bounty land to pensions to Indian affairs to the Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War. The outbreak of war between the U.S. and Spain in 1898 resulted in an expansion of the War Department’s powers, and following the conflict, the department was reorganized in 1903. The office of the commanding general of the Army was abolished, and the general staff corps was established to coordinate the Army under the direction of the chief of staff, who was charged with supervising the planning of national defense and with the mobilization of the military forces.

During World War I, the War Department was given supervision over the newly created National Guard, and under the National Defense Act of 1916, the officers’ reserve corps was created within the department. This act also established the office of Assistant Secretary of War to coordinate the procurement of munitions.

By 1941 the War Department had grown into a substantial work force in the Washington D.C., area, numbering more than 24,000 civilian and military personnel. Housed in 17 buildings, the department was expected to reach 30,000 by the beginning of 1942. At the same time the Quartermaster Corps’ Construction Division was struggling to cope with the vast mobilization of Army forces to fight in World War II. The federal government considered constructing temporary buildings to accommodate the growing needs of the War Department. Instead, Brigadier General Brehon B. Somervell, head of the construction division, proposed constructing a single massive building to house all War Department employees. Completed in 1943, the Pentagon was five stories in height and consisted of five concentric pentagons within an outer structure of reinforced concrete walls. Capable of housing 40,000 workers in four million square feet of space, the Pentagon also included a six-acre interior court and parking for 8,000 cars.

Building the Pentagon was just the beginning of the War Department’s challenges. Organizing the Army’s combat duties in the two-front war against Germany and Italy in Europe and Japan in the Pacific required the War Department to coordinate naval efforts with the Department of the Navy, all while mobilizing and training the largest increase is U.S. Army history. Although the U.S. achieved victory against the Axis powers, American policymakers felt the military didn’t always work effectively together in the split capacity between the War and Navy departments.

Believing that better coordination was necessary between the branches of the armed services, President Harry Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947 that created the National Military Establishment (NME). The act combined the Department of War and the Department of Navy into the new NME, headed by the Secretary of Defense. The act also established the Air Force, which until then had been a part of the U.S. Army, as an independent service branch. All three service branches—Army, Navy (including the Marine Corps), and Air Force—reported directly to the Secretary of Defense, who was supported initially by three assistants. Today, the office of the Secretary of Defense employs 2,000, out of approximately 600,000 civilian employees who work for the DoD.

The NME was renamed the Department of Defense (DoD) in 1949. In the succeeding years of the Cold War, the DoD (commonly referred to as the Pentagon) grew into the largest of all U.S. governmental institutions as American military operations became tantamount in U.S.-Soviet jockeying for international dominance. The discovery of nuclear power during WWII resulted in an unprecedented arms build-up by the U.S. as American war planners poured billions of dollars into new generations of strategic nuclear weapons.

At first the focus was on long-range bombers. A new generation of jet-powered aircraft took over Air Force squadrons, most importantly the B-52 Stratofortress. Air wings comprised of B-52s, based both in the U.S. and overseas, were set up on round-the-clock aerial missions to fly toward the Soviet Union until reaching a “fail safe” point at which they turned around unless given the “go codes” from Strategic Air Command (SAC), a key national military command under the authority of the Pentagon. The development of America’s nuclear weapons complex, along with maintaining a large standing Army, Navy, and Air Force in preparation for World War III against the Soviet Union, resulted in the establishment of the “military industrial complex” during the 1950s. Coined by President Dwight Eisenhower, the military industrial complex represented a first-ever commitment to continual arms manufacturing, or procurement. The DoD became the federal arm responsible for overseeing procurement of all conventional and nuclear weapons.

President John F. Kennedy contributed to the Pentagon’s appetite for new weapons when he followed up on his promise during the 1960 presidential campaign to eliminate the “missile gap” that supposedly existed between the U.S. and the USSR. Under the leadership of Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, the U.S. greatly expanded its arsenal of nuclear warheads as it developed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) capable of delivering multiple warheads at targets in the USSR and China. McNamara, an unconventional choice to head the Pentagon, was president of the Ford Motor Company when Kennedy asked him to join his cabinet. Although not a military expert, he immersed himself in defense issues and instituted a number of key changes to U.S. military doctrine, including “flexible response.”

McNamara also implemented programs in counterinsurgency to combat Communist threats in foreign countries, which included creating the Defense Intelligence Agency and expanding Army commando units, called Special Forces, to conduct unconventional warfare. These counterinsurgency efforts were put to great use in the Vietnam War. U.S. involvement in South Vietnam grew exponentially while McNamara led DoD. Military forces went from a few thousand “advisers” to hundreds of thousands of soldiers and Marines. McNamara approved controversial strategic bombing campaigns against North Vietnam and the use of chemical defoliants, such as Agent Orange.

Although he loyally supported administration policy, McNamara gradually became skeptical about whether the war could be won by deploying more troops to South Vietnam and intensifying the bombing of North Vietnam. He traveled to Vietnam many times to study the situation firsthand. He became increasingly reluctant to approve the large force increments requested by the military commanders. In 1967 he left the Pentagon to become the head of the World Bank.

The secretaries of defense that followed McNamara kept a lower profile. These included Melvin Laird, who served under President Richard Nixon, and Donald Rumsfeld, who served under President Gerald Ford as the youngest Secretary of Defense in departmental history. Unlike his second term as secretary under President George W. Bush, Rumsfeld’s time with Ford was not controversial. Rumsfeld’s tenure at the Pentagon was noted mostly for pushing forward new weapons programs intended to modernize America’s nuclear and conventional arsenals. The 1970s saw research-and-development projects evolve into deployable systems, such as the Navy’s F-14 Tomcat, the Air Force F-15 Eagle, and the Army’s M1A Abrams tank.

Procurement programs reached new heights the following decade under President Ronald Reagan. Determined to restore America’s superiority on the world stage, Reagan instructed his defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, to embark on the most expensive arms buildup in the nation’s history, even though Weinberger’s pre-Defense reputation had been that of a budget trimmer. No longer was he “Cap the Knife,” for Weinberger shared the president’s conviction that the Soviet Union posed a serious threat and that the defense establishment needed to be modernized and strengthened. The secretary became a vigorous advocate of Reagan’s plan to increase the DoD budget, which approached $300 billion during the 1980s, for everything from new aircraft carriers to controversial programs like the B-1 bomber and the MX missile.

Efforts to strength America’s military also had their embarrassments. The Sergeant York air-defense gun was supposed to give the Army greater protection from Soviet aircraft. Instead, the weapon became “a symbol of a procurement process gone haywire.” After the Pentagon spent $1.8 billion and ten years developing the tank-mounted, radar-guided gun, field tests showed that it had trouble hitting a hovering helicopter. Another program that proved expensive and troublesome was the B-1 bomber. The B-1 was especially costly due to design flaws that forced Air Force commanders to alter the mission of the plane. Originally purchased to replace the aging B-52, the B-1 was supposed to be able to fly at low altitude in order to penetrate Soviet air defenses. Military planners later realized that the high-tech bomber was vulnerable to such defenses, forcing the Air Force to abandon its plan of replacing the B-52, which continues to serve in USAF squadrons to this day.

Weinberger was also swept up in the greatest scandal of the Reagan era: Iran Contra. The Iran-Contra affair involved the secret sale of weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages held in Lebanon by pro-Iranian terrorists, and the diversion of money from that sale to provide support for anti-communist resistance fighters in Nicaragua known as the “Contras.” Weinberger was charged by independent counsel Lawrence Walsh with four counts of lying to congressional Iran-Contra investigators in 1987 and to Walsh’s prosecutors in 1990. His case involved allegations that he had concealed from Congressional investigators his personal notes that detailed events related to Iran-Contra and that reportedly undermined what President Reagan said about the origins and operations of the covert arms-for-hostages dealings. Weinberger pled not guilty and was ultimately pardoned by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 just before his case went to trial.

With the end of the Cold War, DoD became less of a priority during the two terms of President Bill Clinton, who placed less importance on defense spending and developing new weapons programs. In fact, the Pentagon’s budget shrunk during the decade as defense secretaries Les Aspin, William Perry and William Cohen spent more time determining what shape and role the U.S. military should take in a post-Cold War world. Big budget programs designed to fight the Soviet military, such as the Seawolf attack submarine, were cut back dramatically. Instead, doctrines emphasizing rapid deployment of conventional forces were further developed to address smaller scale conflicts and threats, including the growing danger from terrorist organizations like al Qaeda.

This military approach to combating terrorism ballooned following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. President George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, Rumsfeld, suddenly became the face of America’s tough new world posture designed to hunt down Osama bin Laden and others like him. A leader of the neocons, Rumsfeld and his chief deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, were key architects of the president’s Global War on Terrorism campaign, which included invading Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as planning attacks on Iran and North Korea. Rumsfeld also promoted enormous increases in the DoD budget that eclipsed those of the Reagan years, reaching upward of half a trillion dollars.

Rumsfeld proved to be a lightning rod for controversy as he unabashedly championed the President’s no-holds-barred approach with terrorist suspects or their supporters. Scandals erupted involving detainment of terrorist suspects in offshore military installations (Guantánamo Bay) and the torture of enemy combatants in Iraq (Abu Ghraib). Other hot-button issues involved the proper supplying of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and distortions of high-profile military rescues and deaths to conjure popular support for the war on terrorism.

After six stormy years at the Pentagon, President Bush asked Rumsfeld to resign following the 2006 election that saw Republicans lose control of Congress in a sweeping anti-war fervor by voters. Replacing Rumsfeld was former CIA director Robert Gates, who was brought in to devise a new strategy for the war in Iraq. Shortly after taking over, Gates ordered an increase in troop levels in Iraq—a move that had been resisted by the president but called for by some military commanders. The troop surge also went against sentiments expressed by voters and many Democrats in Congress who argued it was time to pull out from Iraq.

The 2008 election of Barack Obama as president saw him make good on his campaign promise to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq, which was completed in December 2011. However, after much consideration and citing a “deteriorating situation” caused by resurgent al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, he escalated the U.S. presence in Afghanistan in 2010 by adding 30,000 troops to the 68,000 already stationed there. Amid scattered claims of military successes dampened by ongoing insurgent attacks, instability, as well as corruption in the Afghan government—not to mention waning support for the war among the American public—Obama announced a timeline for U.S. and NATO troops to withdraw from Afghanistan by late 2014. Compounding the shaky state of affairs in the country has been an alarmingly high number of ongoing “insider” killings—U.S. troops being killed by their Afghan allies.

In 2011, former CIA director Leon Panetta took over as Secretary of Defense from a retiring Robert Gates. At the same time, the U.S. took a lead role in orchestrating and participating in—with 18 countries, including 14 NATO allies—a massive military operation to support and protect civilians in Libya from strongman Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s attacks on his people. Responding to a UN Security Council Resolution and a request for intervention from the Arab League, the U.S. military took out Libya’s air defense system and provided surveillance and intelligence to its partner nations, which conducted 75% of all aerial missions (the U.S. responsible for the balance).

In May 2011, under the order of President Obama, a number of U.S. military and intelligence agencies collaborated in the coordinated CIA-led assault on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where a team of U.S. Navy SEALs assassinated terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.

As U.S. efforts against terrorist cells and its leaders continue, the Defense Department’s weapon of choice is the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), or drone, which locates and kills its targets through the direction of a pilot and a team of up to 180 operators situated at a base many thousands of miles away. In 2010, Secretary Gates made sure that the Pentagon’s future budgets would spare any cuts to the drone program. There has been a 1,200% increase in in the use of drone patrols since 2005, with the Obama administration’s use of UAVs in Pakistan’s tribal areas seeing a tenfold increase over their use under George W. Bush. There are currently more hours flown by drones than manned attack aircraft, and their use in targeted killings has expanded throughout Afghanistan, and into Yemen and Somalia. A 2009 U.S. Air Force report on projected drone use through 2047 predicts that future drones will be outfitted with artificial intelligence, giving them the ability to make their own shoot-and-kill decisions.

In addition to these global hot spots, Pentagon contingency plans remain in place pending further escalation of the already volatile and deadly hostilities in Syria, and heightened tensions over Iran’s nuclear program.

What it Does

Representing the largest organization in the U.S. federal government today, with an annual budget of more than half a trillion dollars, the Department of Defense (DoD) is responsible for maintaining the national defense of the United States. The DoD includes all four branches of the armed services—Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines—along with multiple sub-agencies that produce everything from weapons and supplies for military units to intelligence on foreign threats.

While DoD operations and offices are located across the country, and the armed services operate in many parts of the world, the Defense Department is primarily centered at the Pentagon, one of the largest buildings ever constructed. In order to operate effectively (although not necessarily efficiently, critics would argue), the DoD maintains a complex organizational structure that segments the hundreds of tasks that are performed both on a day-to-day basis and for long-term strategic planning.

The DoD is led by the Secretary of Defense, a cabinet-level position appointed by the President and subject to confirmation by the U.S. Senate. The Secretary of Defense is assisted by a variety of under secretaries and assistant secretaries who manage specific functions. These include:

  • Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics
    • Assistant Secretary of Defense (Research and Engineering)
    • Assistant Secretary of Defense (Logistics and Materiel Readiness)
    • Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Nuclear and Chemical and Biological Defense Programs)
    • Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Installations and Environment)
    • Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Manufacturing and Industrial Base Policy)
    • Assistant Secretary of Defense (Acquisition)
    • Assistant Secretary of Defense (Research and Engineering)  
    • Assistant Secretary of Defense (Operational Energy Plans & Programs)
    • Director, Human Capital Initiatives Directorate 
    • Director, Acquisition Resources & Analyses Directorate
    • Director, International Cooperation Directorate    
    • Director, Special Programs Directorate    
    • Director, Small Business Programs Directorate       
    • Director, Administration Directorate 
    • Director, Defense Procurement & Acquisition Policy Directorate          
    • Director, Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell        
    • Director, Corrosion Policy and Oversight      
    • Director, Missile Defense Agency
    • Defense Science Board        
  • Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller)/Chief Financial Officer
    • Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller)
  • Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness 
    • Assistant Secretary of Defense (Readiness and Force Management)
    • Principle Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness
    • Assistant Secretary of Defense (Health Affairs)
    • Assistant Secretary of Defense (Reserve Affairs)
    • Military Deputy (Readiness)
    •  Chief of Staff
  • Under Secretary of Defense for Policy
  • Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (Policy)
  • Assistant Secretary of Defense (International Security Affairs)
  • Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction)
  • Assistant Secretary of Defense (Special Operations / Low-Intensity Conflict)
  • Defense Advisor, U.S. Mission NATO
  • Assistant Secretary of Defense (Networks and Information Integration/Chief Information Officer)  
  • Assistant Secretary of Defense (Legislative Affairs)
  • Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)

As a result of the George W. Bush administration’s Global War on Terrorism and the current anti-terror campaign of the Obama administration, which includes ongoing military combat in Afghanistan plus operations in Pakistan and Yemen, the DoD’s budget has ballooned this decade to its highest levels ever. However, it must be noted that the annual budget appropriation for the DoD often does not include emergency spending bills (called supplementals) approved by Congress after the regular budget has been approved. It is estimated that the military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have cost nearly $1.4 trillion since 2001, much of which has been authorized through supplementals. Including the cost of caring for wounded veterans, U.S. military action in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan has, to date, actually cost between $2.3 trillion and $2.7 trillion, according to a 2011 study by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies. The study estimates the final cost of these military engagements to be $3.7 trillion, excluding interest payments and additional anticipated costs.

The budget request for DoD in FY 2013 is $613.9 billion. Some of the key defense activities to receive a portion of this money are:

Fighting Forces

Department of the Army

The United States Army’s mission is to provide ground forces for American military operations and wars. Combat forces generally consist of foot soldiers, or infantry, or soldiers who man tanks and artillery that make up armored units. Other Army personnel provide a variety of support duties, from engineering to medical care to fuel and food. The Army employs a vast array of weapons and equipment as part of its military operations. Examples of its military hardware include aircraft, air defense artillery, anti-armor weapons, indirect fire systems, individual and crew-served weapons and equipment, nuclear, biological, chemical defense equipment, tracked vehicles, and wheeled vehicles. Army forces deployed overseas currently number about 196,248.

Department of the Navy

The Navy Department oversees both the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps. The Navy represents the seagoing branch of the armed services, maintaining fleets of ocean-going surface vessels and submarines capable of extending American sea and air power anywhere in the world. Naval vessels fall into one of seven classes: aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and submarines. Battleships, cruisers, and destroyers have an assortment of guns and missile systems, while aircraft carriers carry both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft.

U.S. Marine Corps

Located under the authority of the Department of the Navy, the Marine Corps serves as a land and air “force in readiness” capable of supporting U.S. military operations and executing national political objectives. Since the late 19th century, Marines have been used by the U.S. government to execute foreign policy objectives and protect American interests overseas. USMC forces have been at the center of major wars and key military operations, garnering them a reputation as an elite fighting force.

Department of the Air Force

The U.S. Air Force (USAF) constitutes the aviation component of the Armed Services, providing tactical, strategic, and logistical air support for U.S. military operations. The USAF also is charged with operational command of U.S. nuclear forces. Some of the most advanced weapons systems in the U.S. military have been developed for the Air Force, often at great costs and involving much controversy.

U.S. Special Operations Command

Located at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) oversees all Special Operations Forces (SOF) in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. Special Operations soldiers are specially trained, equipped and organized to carry out strategic or tactical missions during periods of war and peace. The units continually train to conduct unconventional warfare in any of its forms, such as guerrilla warfare, special reconnaissance, evasion and escape, subversion and sabotage. During the George W. Bush administration, SOF missions expanded in size and importance as part of the Global War on Terrorism campaign. SOF has been increasingly utilized by the Obama administration, and is said to be active in about 120 nations worldwide.

National Guard

Administered by the National Guard Bureau (a joint bureau of the departments of the Army and Air Force), the National Guard consists of both the Army National Guard (ARNG), and the Air National Guard (ANG). The National Guard has both a federal and state mission involving combat and non-combat army and air force units. Throughout its long history, Guard army units have been deployed overseas to fight in America’s wars, including the recent Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) campaign waged by the George W. Bush administration. The National Guard is also charged with assisting state governments during times of natural disasters. However, some state National Guards have reportedly found themselves stretched too thin from overseas deployments of men and equipment to Iraq and Afghanistan, which has prevented Guard units from adequately responding to state emergences. Nearly half of the U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq have been National Guard.

Spying and Intelligence Gathering

Defense Intelligence Agency

The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) is both a major producer and manager of military intelligence for the Department of Defense. Approximately 16,500 men and women work for the DIA worldwide (about 35% military personnel and 65% civilian personnel). The exact numbers and specific budget information are not publicly released due to security considerations.

National Reconnaissance Office

One of the most secretive agencies in the federal government, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) launches the nation’s military spy satellites. The NRO takes orders from both the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence and is funded through the National Reconnaissance Program, part of the National Foreign Intelligence Program. The agency shares its top-secret data not only with military planners, but also members of the Intelligence Community. At one time, the NRO’s technical sophistication was highly regarded, but after a series of blunders in recent years, the agency’s reputation has plummeted. However, its contribution to the hunt for Osama Bin Laden was critical, as its spy satellites helped to determine the master terrorist’s whereabouts in Pakistan, where he was killed by U.S. Special Forces in May 2011.

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) collects, processes and dispenses satellite imagery for national security purposes. This imagery is used to depict the planet’s physical features or activities that are being monitored by the intelligence community. The agency also supports combat troops with tactical data, such as targeting information for precision bombing.

Defense Clandestine Service

The Pentagon announced the creation of this new agency in April 2012. It is designed to beef up U.S. overseas spying operations against such high-profile adversaries as China and Iran. The DCS is to be staffed mainly by military personnel, 15% of which are to be case officers recruited from the DIA. The idea is to move beyond the DIA’s role of intelligence gathering in war zones by expanding to global areas of concern. The House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill in May that authorized funding of the DCS.

Weapons Development and Sales

Missile Defense Agency

The purpose of the Missile Defense Agency is to develop and field a Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) to defend the United States, its military forces, friends and allies against ballistic missile attacks. For more than five decades, engineers have been developing and testing variations of a missile defense to protect U.S. cities from nuclear combat. Current programs being researched and tested include Ground-Based Interceptors, Theater High Altitude Area Defense, Kinetic Energy Interceptor, and Multiple Kill Vehicle Program.

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is a unique research organization established to maintain the U.S. military’s technological preeminence. Essentially, it’s the intellectual sandbox of the Defense Department, freed from many of the constraints imposed on other agencies so it can pursue riskier, more innovative research. Over the years, DARPA has helped develop technologies that have also worked their way into the civilian world, including the forerunner of the Internet. Some of its efforts have also been controversial. The agency faced conflict-of-interest charges in 2011 when it was discovered that its director had awarded lucrative contracts to a company that she had co-founded and which was being operated by family members.

Defense Threat Reduction Agency

The goal of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency is to reduce the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) to the United States by either eliminating foreign stockpiles or mitigating their risk to the U.S. and its allies. Much of its work is done cooperatively with foreign nations, such as the mutual examination of nuclear stockpiles, and the dismantling of weapons and equipment of formerly hostile nations in accordance with treaties like START I. The agency also develops countermeasures against novel threats, both for domestic use and for combat support. 

Defense Security Cooperation Agency

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) facilitates the sale of U.S. weapons to other countries. Working with agencies in the DoD and the State Department, DSCA provides financing, resources and/or contractors for the sale of arms, defense technologies, training, and other services overseas. The agency’s work has contributed to the controversial proliferation of arms and military training to non-democratic, oppressive governments.

Technical Support Working Group

Partly run by the Department of Defense, the Technical Support Working Group (TSWG) is a low-profile multi-federal-agency program with a highly important mission. Working with a vast array of U.S. government departments and agencies, the TSWG helps to rapidly develop the latest in technological solutions to combat terrorism. “Rapid” is a key word in TSWG’s mission, as it is expected to fund projects that can be ready for use by law enforcement, military and other government personnel in two years or less from time of first approval.


U.S. Army Combined Arms Center

Referred to as the “intellectual center of the army,” the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center oversees the operation of, and/or coordinates with, about 50 subordinate organizations—schools and training centers, each of which is responsible for teaching specific skills to Army personnel and members of other armed services. The U.S. Army has a long history of providing specialized training to its soldiers, going all the way back to the Revolutionary War. In recent times some elements of the CAC have drawn public attention for reports and internal debates over the George W. Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war.

U.S. Army Command and General Staff College

The Command and General Staff College is a graduate school for U.S. military and foreign military leaders at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. It is the Army’s senior tactical school and introduces officers to operational and strategic warfare. The college has five subordinate schools. Its main purpose is to synchronize Army leader development and education systems but works as a joint, interagency, multinational school.

International Military Education & Training

The International Military Education and Training (IMET) program provides funding to train military and civilian leaders of foreign countries, primarily at schools and facilities in the U.S. The program is implemented by the DoD’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, but funded by the State Department through the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. The IMET grew considerably during the administration of George W. Bush, from a budget of $50 million in FY 2000 to $85 million in FY 2008, a 70% increase. It has continued to grow during the administration of Barack Obama, with a projected budget of more than $102 million for FY 2013. More than 120 countries were funded by the IMET in FY 2010. The program has a long, controversial history of helping to train foreign military personnel who went on to commit human rights abuses in their home countries. One controversial decision involving the IMET stemmed from an administration policy change that provided military training to someone who had been one of America’s most notorious enemies: the late dictator of Libya, Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation

Formerly known as the School of the Americas, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation has long been the most controversial training center run by the U.S. military. Throughout the Cold War, the school helped train thousands of military personnel from Latin American countries. Some of these graduates went on to commit human rights abuses and other atrocities in their home countries.


Defense Logistics Agency

The largest agency within the Department of Defense, the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) provides support as well as technical and logistic services to the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps and several federal agencies. The DLA has supported every war in the past four decades, from the Vietnam War to Operation Iraqi Freedom and the war in Afghanistan. It is in charge of almost every consumable item, everything from combat readiness, emergency preparedness, and day-to-day operations inside the DoD.

Army Corps of Engineers

More than just a wing of the U.S. Army, the Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has been a leading designer and builder of water projects across the United States since the early 20th century. Corps engineers have been responsible for key flood control systems, including numerous dams, in the Western U.S. and other regions. Known for its skill and expertise, the USACE’s reputation took a hit following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans after investigations showed faulty work by Corps engineers on key levies protecting the city.

Defense Information Systems Agency

Providing global information and technology assistance through online services, the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) helps U.S. military forces communicate with one another, pull information needed for their missions and receive accurate and protected information on any threats they may face. The DISA focuses on delivery of information speed, operational effectiveness and efficiency, and sharing information. Its primary aim is to provide secure and reliable communications networks, computers, software, databases, applications, and other products needed for the processing and transport needs of the DoD.

Money Management

Defense Contract Management Agency

One of DoD’s most critical offices, the Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA) oversees the purchase of high-priced weapons systems. The DCMA is responsible for hundreds of thousands of contracts that have a collective value of $1.65 trillion. The DCMA is the Pentagon’s contract manager, responsible for ensuring that federal acquisition programs (systems, supplies, and services) are delivered on time, within projected cost or price, and meet performance requirements.

Defense Contract Audit Agency

The Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) independently investigates Pentagon contracts to determine the fairness, accuracy and completeness of financial records and reports, as well as the effectiveness of any transactions the DoD has made. In other words, the DCAA reviews business deals to make sure everything is aboveboard and acceptably efficient. The agency also provides financial advice to the DoD at every step of the contracting or subcontracting process, from negotiation to final resolution. In 2008 and 2009, the agency was found to have engaged in some corrupt contractor auditing practices.

Defense Finance and Accounting Services

The world’s largest finance and accounting operation, the Defense Finance and Accounting Services (DFAS) supports the principal advisor to the Secretary of Defense for budgetary and fiscal matters. The agency is responsible for coordination and collaboration with all civilian defense agencies, military services, and combatant commands. The agency provides services primarily for military men and women, including processing military, civilian, retiree, travel, and contract/vendor pay, and managing military health care and benefits.

Office of Economic Adjustment

The Office of Economic Adjustment (OEA) is responsible for managing and directing efforts to assist communities impacted by Defense program changes, including base closures, base expansions, and contract or program cancellations, and for coordinating involvement of other federal agencies in the process. 

Criminal Investigation

Office of Inspector General

The DoD’s Office of Inspector General (DoDIG) serves as a watchdog for the department. The DoDIG is supposed to operate independently of the department to prevent and detect fraud, waste and abuse through audits and investigations. The Inspector General is in charge of keeping the Secretary of Defense and Congress informed about agency problems and deficiencies.

Defense Criminal Investigative Service

The Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS) functions as the criminal investigative arm of the DoD Inspector General. DCIS investigates criminal activities involving terrorism, procurement fraud, computer crimes, illegal technology transfers, and public corruption within the Department of Defense.


Defense Media Activity

Defense Media Activity (DMA) serves as DoD’s public relations and information provider. It creates press releases through a news service and sets policy for internal publications, visual information and audiovisual programs. The DMA also produces media aimed at service members and their families. Previously known as the American Forces Information Service, the agency had been accused by some critics of deception by, for example, releasing press releases that mimic the style of actual news reports.

Arlington National Cemetery

The nation’s most prestigious military cemetery, Arlington National Cemetery is also one of the oldest national cemeteries in the U.S. More than 310,000 people, including military casualties and veterans from every single U.S. war—from the American Revolution through U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq—are buried at Arlington. The cemetery is also the final resting place of many notable civilian, historical, literary and minority figures, including former President John F. Kennedy. 

Where Does the Money Go?

The Department of Defense (DoD) would not be the costly operation it is today without private defense contractors. Covering Army-, Navy- and Air Force-related industries, defense contractors provide everything from combat boots to some of the most advanced, sophisticated technology on the planet. Large weapons systems have price tags that run into the tens of billions of dollars, making the arms trade extremely lucrative for certain companies.

According to DoD documents, the cost of contractor services has increased 137% between 2001 and 2010, compared to a 1% increase for the compensation of active duty military personnel during the same period.

During this past decade—between FY 2002 and FY 2012—the DoD spent more than $3.237 trillion on 13,154,675 contractor transactions, according to  However, the top five companies—Lockheed Martin ($267.5 billion), Boeing ($199.2 billion), General Dynamics ($139.5 billion), Raytheon ($116.8 billion), and Northrop Grumman ($108.3 billion)—received almost one quarter of that money.

In FY 2011 alone, the DoD reportedly spent $536.8 billion on about 170,000 contractor transactions. In FY 2012, to date, it has spent nearly $206 billion on 822,963 transactions, with nearly 25% of the spending going to four of the same top contractors: Lockheed Martin ($18.7 billion), Boeing ($17.3 billion), General Dynamics ($10 billion), and Raytheon ($8.5 billion). The fifth top contractor is L-3 Communications ($3.8 billion).

In the case of Lockheed Martin, Defense Department contracts represented more than half of the company’s $46.5 billion in net sales in 2011.

Some examples of the equipment that this money bought are as follows:

Lockheed Martin

F-22 fighter (shared with Boeing)

Aegis Weapons System for U.S. Navy combat vessels

F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter (Boeing, originally McDonnell Douglas)

Hellfire Missile (shared with Boeing)

Trident Fleet Ballistic Missile

Littoral Combat Ships (shared with General Dynamics)

C-5 transport plane

C-130 transport plane

F-16 fighter

F-35 Lightning II fighter

Lockheed also operates the Global Information Grid networks for DoD’s Defense Information Systems Agency, stemming from a contract it was awarded by DoD in June 2012, which has a potential value of $4.6 billion over a seven-year period. In August it won a $28 million U.S. Navy contract for the procurement of Nuclear Weapon Security system equipment at Navy installations. Also for the Navy, in June it was awarded a no-bid contract for components and servicing of 22 sets of MK54 Vertical Launch Anti-Submarine Rockets.


F-22 fighter (shared with Lockheed Martin)

Harpoon Missile

Hellfire Missile (shared with Lockheed Martin)

B-1 bomber

B-52 bomber

C-17 transport plane

F-15 fighter (Boeing, from McDonnell Douglas)

KC-135 tanker

Harrier jump jet

P-8A Poseidon

Apache attack helicopter (support services from Lockheed Martin)

WGS Satellite System

Since 2001 Boeing has held the Ground-based Midcourse Defense contract, for work designed to protect the U.S. from long-range ballistic missile threats. The original $18 billion 10-year contract was renewed in 2011 with a seven-year, $3.5 billion extension. Boeing has 17 partners on the project, including Northrop Grumman.

Northrop Grumman

E-2 Hawkeye early warning and control aircraft

F-14 Tomcat fighter 

Virginia class attack submarine (shared with General Dynamics)

Nimitz class aircraft carriers

B-2 bomber (along with Boeing, Hughes Radar Systems Group, General Electric Aircraft Engine Group and Vought Aircraft Industries, Inc.)

Global Hawk drones

Northrop Grumman has the job of bolstering cyber-security protections across all DoD and Intelligence Community networks, by virtue of a three-year $189 million contract that it was awarded by the DISA in March 2012.

General Dynamics

M1A Abrams tank

Stryker Infantry Carrier Vehicle

Los Angeles class attack submarine

Virginia class attack submarine (shared with Northrop Grumman)

Sea Wolf class attack submarine

Ohio class nuclear missile submarine

Littoral Combat Ships (shared with Lockheed Martin)

M2 machine gun

BAE Systems

Bradley Fighting Vehicle

Mark 38 25mm machine gun system for Navy ships

M777 howitzer

BAE Systems was awarded a $306 million contract in August 2012 to convert Operation Desert Storm vehicles into a “situational awareness configuration.”


Patriot Missile System

Torpedo - Mark 46

HARM Missile

Maverick Guided Missile 

Tomahawk® Cruise Missile

Sidewinder air-to-air missile

Phalanx CIWS weapon system

United Technologies

Sea Stallion helicopter

H-3 Sea King helicopter

Add to that list China’s first attack helicopter, which owes its existence to United Technologies. In June 2012, the defense contractor pleaded guilty to violating the Arms Export Control Act and making false statements with regard to exports of software to China, which that country used to develop the military aircraft. Two U.S. senators have requested that the DoD to suspend United Technologies from being awarded any further Pentagon contracts.

Bell Helicopter Textron

Super Cobra attack helicopter

Huey helicopter

FY 2013 Program Acquisition Costs by Weapon System (U.S. Department of Defense)

Defense Acquisitions: Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs (GAO Report) 

Top 100 Defense Contractors – 2010 (Government Executive)

Defense Contracts (DoD)

In March 2008 the Marine Corps announced contracts with several different companies for a new type of armored vehicle capable of withstanding attacks involving improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The IED was the most lethal weapon used by guerilla fighters in Iraq, accounting for almost 70% of all casualties suffered by American military forces. Instead of relying on Humvees, the Marine Corps deployed Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, designed to withstand small arms fire, IEDs and other explosive threats. 

The Army also utilizes contractors to provide a variety of logistics and other services. A one-time subsidiary of Halliburton, long known as an oil services provider with strong ties to the George W. Bush administration, was until 2006 providing soldiers with food, shelter, and communications with friends and family back home through a billion-dollar exclusive-rights contract.

The company that the Air Force chooses to build a new plane can be quite controversial. Take for example the task of midair refueling. For decades the Air Force used Boeing’s KC-135 (a rendition of the old 707 commercial jet) to refuel Air Force fighter and bombers on long missions. But with the aircraft reaching its service limits due to age, the Air Force tried to lease a modified version of Boeing’s 767 to replace the KC-135. The deal fell apart after accusations arose over costs and ethical violations.


Managed by the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, the Military Retirement Fund (MFR) (pdf) is part of DoD’s Military Retirement System. The fund paid out roughly $54.86 billion to military retirees and survivors in FY 2011. It received $105.32 in revenue that same year, from the U,S, Treasury, investment income, and cost payments. The MFR owns and manages $372.2 billion in total assets, and has $1.36 trillion in liabilities, calculated for future benefit payments. The Defense Department provides funding as well for educational benefits for eligible DoD employees.

Data for Department of Defense