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A commander-in-chief is the person or body that exercises supreme operational command and control of a nation's military forces or significant elements of those forces. In the latter case, the force element is those forces within a particular region, or associated by function. As a practical term, it refers to military competencies that reside in a nation-state's executive leadership—either a head of state, a head of government, a minister of defence, a national cabinet, or some other collegial body. Often, a given country's commander-in-chief (if held by an official) need not be or have been a commissioned officer or even a veteran. This follows the principle of civilian control of the military.


  • Definition 1
  • Heads of state as commanders-in-chief 2
    • Albania 2.1
    • Argentina 2.2
    • Australia 2.3
    • Austria 2.4
    • Bangladesh 2.5
    • Brazil 2.6
    • Brunei 2.7
    • Canada 2.8
    • People's Republic of China 2.9
      • Hong Kong SAR 2.9.1
    • Croatia 2.10
    • Czech Republic 2.11
    • Denmark 2.12
    • Dominican Republic 2.13
    • Egypt 2.14
    • Finland 2.15
    • France 2.16
      • Pre-1958 2.16.1
    • Ghana 2.17
    • India 2.18
    • Indonesia 2.19
    • Iran 2.20
    • Ireland 2.21
    • Italy 2.22
    • Kenya 2.23
    • Malaysia 2.24
    • Mauritius 2.25
    • Pakistan 2.26
    • Philippines 2.27
    • Poland 2.28
    • Portugal 2.29
    • Republic of China 2.30
    • Russia 2.31
    • Slovenia 2.32
    • Spain 2.33
    • Sri Lanka 2.34
    • Suriname 2.35
    • Thailand 2.36
    • Turkey 2.37
    • United Kingdom 2.38
    • United States 2.39
      • U.S. States 2.39.1
    • Vietnam 2.40
  • Other officeholders as commanders-in-chief or other situations 3
    • Ethiopia 3.1
    • Germany 3.2
      • East Germany 3.2.1
      • Pre-1945 3.2.2
    • Israel 3.3
    • Japan 3.4
    • Netherlands 3.5
    • North Korea 3.6
    • Sweden 3.7
    • Switzerland 3.8
  • See also 4
  • References 5


The role of commander-in-chief derives from the Latin, imperator. Imperatores of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire possessed imperium (command) powers. In its modern use, the term first applied to King Charles I of England in 1639. It continued to be used during the English Civil War.[1] A nation's head of state (monarchical or republican) usually holds the nominal position of commander-in-chief, even if effective executive power is held by a separate head of government. In a parliamentary system, the executive branch is ultimately dependent upon the will of the legislature; although the legislature does not issue orders directly to the armed forces and therefore does not control the military in any operational sense. Governors-general and colonial governors are also often appointed commander-in-chief of the military forces within their territory.

A commander-in-chief is sometimes referred to as Supreme commander, which is sometimes used as a specific term. The term is also used for military officers who hold such power and authority, not always through dictatorship, and as a subordinate (usually) to a head of state (see Generalissimo). The term is also used for officers who hold authority over an individual military branch, special branch or within a theatre of operations.[2]

Heads of state as commanders-in-chief


According the Constitution of Albania, The President of the Republic of Albania is the Commander-in-chief of Albanian Armed Forces. The incumbent Commander-in-chief is President Bujar Nishani.


President Cristina Fernández of Argentina, as the Commander-in-chief of the Argentine Armed Forces.

Under part II, chapter III, article 99, subsections 12, 13, 14 and 15, the Argentine National Congress.[3]

The Ministry of Defense is the government department that assists and serves the President in the management of the armed forces (Army, Navy and Air Force).[4]


Governor General The Lord Gowrie (right) signing the declaration of war against Japan with Prime Minister John Curtin (left) looking on. (8 December 1941)

Under chapter II of section 68 titled Command of the naval and military forces, the Constitution of Australia states that:

The command in chief of the naval and military forces of the Commonwealth is vested in the Governor General as the Queen's representative.[5]

In practice, however, the Governor-General does not play an active part in the Australian Defence Organisation. Section 8 of the Defence Act 1903 states:

The Minister shall have the general control and administration of the Defence Force, and the powers vested in the Chief of the Defence Force, the Chief of Navy, the Chief of Army and the Chief of Air Force by virtue of section 9, and the powers vested jointly in the Secretary and the Chief of the Defence Force by virtue of section 9A, shall be exercised subject to and in accordance with any directions of the Minister.[6]


The Constitution (German: Bundes-Verfassungsgesetz) states, in Article 80, that the President is the Commander-in-Chief of the Federal Armed Forces. However, it further provides that the President may only have the Federal Armed Forces at his disposal to the extent provided in the Defence Act (German: Wehrgesetz); and that the supreme command over the Federal Armed Forces is exercised by the federal minister authorized to serve in this capacity by the Federal Government, i.e. the cabinet under the chairmanship of the Federal Chancellor, as defined in Article 69.[7]


The commander-in-chief is the president, although executive power and responsibility for national defense resides with the prime minister. The only exception was the first commander-in-chief, General M. A. G. Osmani, during Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, who was commander of all Bangladesh Forces, reinstated to active duty by official BD government order, which after independence was gazetted in 1972. He retired on 7 April 1972 and relinquished all authority and duties to the President of Bangladesh.[8]


Former President Lula, with his wife Marisa Letícia, reviews troops during Independence Day military parade in Brasília, Brazil.

Article 142 of the Brazilian Constitution of 1988 states that the Brazilian Armed Forces is under the supreme command of the President of the Republic.[9]


The Sultan of Brunei is the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Brunei Armed Forces.


Rank insignia worn by the Governor General on military uniforms
As a naval officer
As an army officer
As an air force officer

The powers of command-in-chief over the Canadian Forces are vested in the Canadian monarch,[10] and are delegated to the Governor General of Canada, who also uses the title Commander-in-Chief.[11] In this capacity, the Governor General is entitled to the uniform of a general/flag officer, with the crest of the office and special cuff braid serving as rank insignia.

By constitutional convention, the Crown's prerogative powers over the armed forces and constitutional powers as commander-in-chief are exercised by the prime minister and Cabinet, the governing ministry that commands the confidence of the House of Commons. According to the National Defence Act, the Minister of National Defence is responsible and accountable to Parliament for all matters related to national defence and the Canadian Forces.[12] In theory, the Governor General could also use his or her powers as commander-in-chief to stop any attempts to use the Canadian Forces unconstitutionally, though this has never occurred and would likely be highly controversial.

People's Republic of China

According to Article 93 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China, states the authority to direct the Armed Forces of the People's Republic of China is vested with the Central Military Commission; composed of a Chairman, and numerous Vice-Chairmen and members. The same article also states that the Chairman of the Central Military Commission assumes overall responsibility for the work of the Central Military Commission, and that it is responsible to the National People's Congress and the Standing Committee.[13]

Furthermore, Article 80 gives the President of the People's Republic of China (in addition to ceremonial head of state duties) the power to proclaim martial law, proclaim a state of war, and to issue mobilisation orders upon the decision of National People's Congress and its Standing Committee.[13]

The CMC Chairman and the President are distinctly separate state offices and they have not always been held by the same persons. However, beginning in 1993, during the tenure of Jiang Zemin as CMC Chairman and General Secretary of the Communist Party, it has been standard practice to have the President, the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and the General Secretary of the Communist Party to be normally held by the same person; although the slight differences in the start and end of terms for those respective offices means that there is some overlap between an occupant and his predecessor.

Hong Kong SAR

When Hong Kong was under British authority, the civilian Governor was ex officio Commander-in-Chief of the British Forces Overseas Hong Kong. After the territory's handover to the People's Republic of China in 1997, the commanders of the People's Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison are PLA personnel from mainland China.


According to the Croatian constitution, the President of Croatia is the Commander-in-Chief of Armed Forces of the Republic of Croatia. In peace, the commander-in-chief exercises his command through the Minister of Defense. In war and in cases where the Minister of Defense is not fulfilling orders, the commander-in-chief exercises his command directly through the chief of General Staff.

Czech Republic

According to the 1992 constitution, the President of the Czech Republic is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces according to Article 63(1)(c), and appoints and promotes generals under Article 63(1)(f). The President needs the countersignature of the Prime Minister for decisions concerning the above-mentioned provisions as per Articles 63(3-4), or otherwise they are not valid. The Prime Minister may delegate to other ministers the right to countersign these decisions of the President. The political responsibility for the Armed Forces is borne by the Government, which in Article 67 is defined as the "supreme body of executive power". According to Articles 39 & 43, the Parliament must give consent to the dispatch of Czech military forces outside the territory of the Czech Republic.[14]

The Ministry of Defence is the central authority of the state administration for the control of the Armed Forces.[15] The actual day-to-day management is vested in the Chief of the General Staff, the Czech chief of defence equivalent.[16]


The position of the Danish monarch as the head of the military is deeply rooted in tradition. While the 1953 constitution does not explicitly designate the monarch as commander-in-chief; it is implicit, given the general provision in article 12 and the more specific wording of article 19 (2): "Except for purposes of defence against an armed attack upon the Realm or Danish forces, the King shall not use military force against any foreign state without the consent of the Folketing. Any measure which the King may take in pursuance of this provision shall forthwith be submitted to the Folketing".[17]

However, when reading the Danish Constitution, it is important to bear in mind that the King in this context is understood by Danish jurists to be read as the Government (consisting of the Prime Minister and other ministers). This is a logical consequence of articles 12, 13 and 14, all of which in essence stipulates that the powers vested in the monarch can only be exercised through ministers, who are responsible for all acts. Thus, the Government, in effect, holds the supreme command authority implied in articles 12 and 19(2).[18]

The Danish Defence Law (Danish: Forsvarsloven) designates in article 9 the Minister of Defence as the supreme authority in Defence (Danish: højeste ansvarlige myndighed for forsvaret). Under the Minister is the Chief of Defence, the senior-ranking professional military officer heading the Defence Command, who commands the Army, the Navy, the Air Force and other units not reporting directly to the Ministry of Defence.[19][20]

King Christian IV onboard his flagship during the 1644 Battle of Colberger Heide, by Wilhelm Marstrand. The King's personal commitment during the battle, are memorized in first lines of the Danish royal anthem
HDMY Dannebrog, the Danish royal yacht named after the national flag and operated by the Royal Danish Navy, in Vagur, Faroe Islands on 21 June 2005. 

Dominican Republic

According to the Constitution, Article 128, Section II, Title IV, the President is the head of foreign policy, the civil administration and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, the National Police and all other state's security agencies.[21]


In Egypt the President of the Republic holds the ceremonial title of Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. A member of the Government, usually Minister for Defence, is commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the incumbent being Abdul Fatah al-Sisi. The President still remains the only individual capable of declaring war. Until the election of Mohamed Morsi in June 2012, prior Egyptian presidents had all been former military officers, and during the Yom Kippur War the president played a major role at all levels of the planning of the war, and was in a literal sense Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces giving direct orders to the commanders from the headquarters during the war as field marshal of the army, colonel general of the air force and air defence forces and admiral of the navy. Anwar el-Sadat often wore his military uniform, while former president Hosni Mubarak had abandoned this tradition.


According to the Finnish constitution, the President of Finland is the commander-in-chief of all Finnish military forces. In practice, the everyday command and control is in the hands of Chief of Defence and the Commander of the Finnish Border Guard. The economic administration of the Finnish Defence Force is the responsibility of Ministry of Defence. The duty of the president is to decide upon[22]:§31

  • main principles of the military defence of the realm
  • principles of the execution of the military defenmce
  • other military command matters with wide-ranging importance to the military activity or the military establishment
  • any other military command issue that he wishes to decide upon

Since the constitutional reform of 2000, the Minister of Defence has the right to be present when the president uses his command powers, unless the matter is of immediate concern. In questions of strategic importance, the Prime Minister has the same right.[22]:§32

The president commissions and promotes officers and decides on activating reservists for extraordinary service and on the mobilisation of the Defence Forces.[22]:§40[23][24]:§ 128.2 If Parliament is not in session when a decision to mobilise is taken, it must be immediately convened.[24]:§ 129 Declarations of a state of emergency (Finnish: valmiustila, literally, "state of preparedness") and state of war (Finnish: puolustustila, lit. "state of defence") are declared by a presidential decree, given after a motion by the government, which is then submitted to the Parliament for ratification.[25][26]

The president has, in a state of emergency, the right to transfer the position of the commander-in-chief to another Finnish citizen.[24]:§ 129


In France, the President of the Republic is designated as "Chef des Armées" (literally "Chief of the Armies") under article 15 of the constitution, and is as such the supreme executive authority in military affairs. Article 16 provides the president with extensive emergency powers.[27]

However, owing to the nature of the semi-presidential system, the prime minister also has key constitutional powers under article 21: "He shall be responsible for national defence" and has "power to make regulations and shall make appointments to civil and military posts".[27]

Chief of the Defence Staff, reviewing troops during the 2008 Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Élysées in Paris


Since the reign of Louis XIV France has been strongly centralized. After crushing local nobles engaged in warlord-ism, the Kings of France retained all authority with the help of able yet discreet Prime ministers (Mazarin, Richelieu).

The 1789 Revolution transferred the supreme authority to the King (in the context of the short-lived constitutional Monarchy), then to the multi-member Comité de Salut Public during the Convention, and later to the Directoire, before being regained in the hands of Consul Napoléon Bonaparte, later Emperor Napoléon I, alone.

The Restoration restored the authority of the King, first in an absolute monarchy, then the constitutional July Monarchy of Louis Philippe, before it was overthrown in turn by the Second Republic and later the Second Empire of Napoleon III.

The following French: Le Père de la Victoire).

During World War II, Maréchal Philippe Pétain assumed power and held the supreme authority in Vichy France, while Général Charles De Gaulle, acting on behalf of the previous regime, founded the Free French Forces, upon which he held supreme authority all through the war.

The following and short-lived Fourth Republic was a parliamentary system, which was replaced by the present Fifth Republic, a semi-presidential system.


Prior 1992 Commander-in-chief of the Ghana Armed Forces (GAF) military rank was held by GAF military personnel until the ratification of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana ratified by Ghana Air Force (GHF) Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings and in accordance to the Constitution of Ghana, The Head of State of Ghana and President of Ghana is the Commander-in-chief of GAF. The incumbent Commander-in-chief of GAF (Ghana Armed Forces) is Head of State of Ghana and President of Ghana John Dramani Mahama.[28][29]


Supreme command of the Indian Armed Forces is vested in the President of India, although effective executive power and responsibility for national defence resides with the Cabinet of India headed by the Prime Minister. This is discharged through the Ministry of Defence, headed by the Minister of Defence, which provides the policy framework and resources to the Armed Forces to discharge their responsibilities in the context of the defence of the country.

On 15 August 1947, each Service was placed under its own Commander-in-Chief. In 1955, the three Service Chiefs were re-designated as the Chief of the Army Staff (rank of General), the Chief of the Naval Staff (rank of Vice-Admiral) and the Chief of the Air Staff (rank of Air Marshal) with the President as the Supreme Commander. The Chief of the Air Staff was raised to the rank of Air Chief Marshal in 1965 and the Chief of the Naval Staff raised to the rank of Admiral in 1968.


According to Article 10 of the Constitution of Indonesia, the President of the Republic of Indonesia holds the supreme command of the Indonesian Armed Forces. Day-to-day operations of the Armed Forces is handled by the Commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces (Indonesian: Panglima TNI).


Before 1979, the Shah was the commander-in-chief in Iran. After the inception of the Islamic Republic, the President of Iran was initially appointed that task, with Abolhassan Bani Sadr being the first commander-in-chief. However, Abolhassan Bani Sadr was impeached on 22 June 1981. It was after this event that the role of commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran was given to the Supreme Leader of Iran.


The Supreme Commander of the Army, Naval Service, and Air Corps.


The Constitution of Italy, in article 87, states that the President of the Republic: "is the commander of the armed forces and chairman of the supreme defense council constituted by law; he declares war according to the decision of the parliament".[33]


Chapter 131 of the Constitution of Kenya identifies the President as the Commander-in-Chief of the Kenya Defence Forces and the chairperson of the National Security Council.[34] The President appoints a chief of general staff, known as the Chief of the Kenya Defence Forces, who acts as the principal military adviser to the President and the National Security Council. The Chief of the Kenya Defence Forces is drawn from one of the branches of the Armed Forces, the Kenya Army, the Kenya Navy or the Kenya Air Force.


In accordance with Article 41 of the Federal Constitution of Malaysia, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is Supreme Commander of the Malaysian Armed Forces of the Malaysian Armed Forces. As such, he is the highest-ranking officer in the military establishment, with the power to appoint the Chief of Staff (on the advice of the Armed Forces Council). He also appoints the service heads of each of the three branches of the military.

The Federal Constitution establishes that the office of Supreme Commander is attached to the person of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong as the Federation's head of state:

  • Federal Constitution, Article 41 - The Yang di-Pertuan Agong shall be the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of the Federation.

The Federal Parliament passed the Federal Armed Forces Act to consolidate in one law all regulations that govern the three services ( Army, Navy, and Air Force ). It establishes the function and duties of the Federal Head of State in the capacity as Supreme Commander.


In the Republic of Mauritius, the President of the Republic is the commander-in-chief, according to Article 28 of the Constitution.[35]

After independence in 1968, Mauritius continued to recognise the Queen of Mauritius, as represented by the Governor-General of Mauritius, as commander-in-chief. After the country was proclaimed a Commonwealth Republic in 1992, the new constitution stipulated that a President would assume the position of the head of state and commander-in-chief.


In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, before the 1973 Constitution, the head of the Army, i.e., the Chief of the Army Staff, was referred as Commander-in-Chief. The term was replaced by Army Chief per recommendation of the Hamoodur Rehman Commission's report. The report also recommended that the president, being the head of state, be referred to as Supreme Commander. (The role of President is only a ceremonial position since the real power rests with the elected prime minister, who is the chief executive of the state.) Since 1973 these roles have been changed. Mostly the Presidents of the Federation held the real power since most of the Presidents (especially Dictators and Army Rulers) have played a more significant role, But Presently the Main Authority again rests with PM after the strengthening of democracy.


The President of the Philippines is both head of state and head of government, and is mandated by Article VII, Section 18 of the 1987 Constitution to be Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.[36]

During the Fourth Republic, the 1973 Constitution introduced by dictator Ferdinand Marcos created a semi-presidential system that split the Executive into two, with the prime minister retaining the office of commander-in-chief and the president reduced to a figurehead. The wording of Article VII, Section 10 in the previous constitution enabled Marcos as commander-in-chief to declare Martial Law and suspend the writ of habeas corpus on 21 September 1972. Marcos also issued an edict, conferring the rank of five-star general in the military to the President, as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. He consequently sat as both president and prime minister until 1981, when Cesar Virata succeeded him to the latter office. Salvador Laurel was the country's last prime minister when the office was abolished after the 1986 People Power Revolution, and the position's powers (including military authority) were again merged with the Presidency.


In Poland, the President is Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces. However, the art. 134 ust. 4 of the constitution states:

The President of the Republic, for a period of war, shall appoint the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces on request of the Prime Minister. He may dismiss the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces in accordance with the same procedure. The authority of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, as well as the principle of his subordination to the constitutional organs of the Republic of Poland, shall be specified by statute.

During the interbellum period, the General Inspector of the Armed Forces was appointed the commander-in-chief for the time of war (Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces). However, after the war this function ceased to exist—thus it is likely that if Poland formally participates in a war, Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces will be appointed Supreme Commander.


The President of the Portuguese Republic is the constitutional Supreme Commander (in Portuguese: Comandante Supremo) of the Armed Forces of Portugal. However, the operational command is delegated in the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces.

In the Portuguese military parlance, the term "Commander-in-Chief" (in Portuguese: comandante-em-chefe or simply comandante-chefe) refers to the unified military commander of all the land, naval, air and space forces in a theater of operations.

Republic of China

As stipulated in the National Space Organization.


The ceremony of passing the Cheget (i.e. the nuclear suitcase) from Dmitry Medvedev's military aide to Vladimir Putin's military aide during the 2012 presidential inauguration.[37]

According to the Constitution of the Russian Federation, (Chapter 4, Article 87, Section 1) the President is the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.[38] The President approves the military doctrine and appoints the defense minister and the chief and other members of the general staff.[39]

The Russian Armed Forces is divided into three services: the Russian Ground Forces, the Russian Navy, and the Russian Air Force. In addition there are three independent arms of service: Strategic Missile Troops, Russian Aerospace Defense Forces, and the Russian Airborne Troops. The Air Defence Troops, the former Soviet Air Defence Forces, have been subordinated into the Air Force since 1998.


In Slovenia, the commander-in-chief is formally the President of Slovenia, although he or she does not exercise this position in peacetime. Instead, this role is usually assumed by the Minister of Defence.


King Juan Carlos I inspects the Royal Guard during the 2009 Pascua Militar.

As with most remaining European monarchies, the position of the Spanish monarch as the nominal head of the armed forces is deeply rooted in traditions going centuries back.

The Spanish Constitution of 1978 gives the King in article 62 (h):

supreme command of the Armed Forces[40]

However, article 64 require that all official acts of the King must be countersigned, by the President of the Government or other competent minister, for them to become valid. Furtermore, article 97 stipulates that;

The Government shall conduct domestic and foreign policy, civil and military administration and the defence of the State[40]

And article 98 furthermore specifies the composition of the Government (which the King is not a member of). No provision in the constitution requires the King/Government to seek approval from the Cortes Generales before sending the armed forces abroad.[40]

Since 1984, the Chief of the Defence Staff is the professional head of the armed forces and, under the authority of the Minister of Defence, is responsible for military operations and military organisation.

Sri Lanka

As head of state, the President of Sri Lanka, is nominally the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. The National Security Council, chaired by the president is the authority charged with formulating and executing defence policy for the nation. The highest level of military headquarters is the Ministry of Defence, since 1978 except for a few rare occasions the president retained the portfolio defence, thus being the Minister of Defence. The ministry and the armed forces have been controlled by the during these periods by either a Minister of State, Deputy Minister for defence, and of recently the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Defence. Prior to 1978 the prime minister held the portfolio of Minister of Defence and External Affairs, and was supported by a Parliamentary Secretary for Defence and External Affairs.

Responsibility for the management of the forces is Ministry of Defence, while the planning and execution of combined operations is the responsibility of the Joint Operations Command (JOC). The JOC is headed by the Chief of the Defence Staff who is the most senior officer in the Armed Forces and is an appointment that can be held by an Air Chief Marshal, Admiral, or General. The three services have their own respective professional chiefs: the Commander of the Army, the Commander of the Navy and the Commander of the Air Force, who have much autonomy.


In Suriname, the constitution gives the president "supreme authority over the armed forces and all of its members".[41]


The Thai monarch is the "Head of the Armed Forces".[42]


Founder President of Turkey and Commander-in-chief of Turkish Armed Forces Mareşal Mustafa Kemal Pasha (center), General Mehmet Emin Pasha (left), General Ali Sait Pasha (right) at İnebolu in 1925.

President of the Republic of Turkey has the constitutional right to represent the Supreme Military Command of the Turkish Armed Forces, on behalf of the Turkish Grand National Assembly, and to decide on the mobilization of the Turkish Armed Forces, to appoint the Chief of the General Staff, to call the National Security Council to meet, to preside over the National Security Council, to proclaim martial law or state of emergency, and to issue decrees having the force of law, upon a decision of the Council of Ministers meeting under his/her chairmanship. With all these issues above written in the Constitution of Turkey, the executive rights are given to the President of the Republic of Turkey to be represented as the commander-in-chief of the nation.

United Kingdom

The British monarch is the "Head of the Armed Forces"[43] and their commander-in-chief.[44] Long-standing constitutional convention, however, has vested de facto executive authority, by the exercise of Royal Prerogative powers, in the prime minister and the Secretary of State for Defence. The Prime Minister (acting with the support of the Cabinet) makes the key decisions on the use of the armed forces.[45][46] The Queen, however, remains the "ultimate authority" of the military, with officers and personnel swearing allegiance only to the monarch.[47] A new constitutional convention appears to have emerged since the 2003 war in Iraq, where by the UK will only take military action with the consent of the House of Commons.

The Ministry of Defence is the Government department and highest level of military headquarters charged with formulating and executing defence policy for the Armed Forces; it employed 103,930 civilians in 2006.[48][49] The department is controlled by the Secretary of State for Defence (or "the Defence Secretary") and contains three deputy appointments: Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Minister for Defence Procurement, and Minister for Veterans' Affairs.

Responsibility for the management of the forces is delegated to a number of committees: the Defence Council, Chiefs of Staff Committee, Defence Management Board, and three single-service boards. The Defence Council, composed of senior representatives of the services and the Ministry of Defence, provides the "formal legal basis for the conduct of defence".[49][50] The three constituent single-service committees (Admiralty Board, Army Board, and Air Force Board) are chaired by the Secretary of State for Defence.

The Chief of the Defence Staff is the professional head of the Armed Forces and is an appointment that can be held by an Admiral, General or Air Chief Marshal (four-star officers). Before the practice was discontinued in the 1990s, those who were appointed to the position of CDS (professional head of the Armed Forces) had been elevated to the most senior rank in their respective service (a five-star officer).[51] The CDS, along with the Permanent Under Secretary, are the principal advisers to the departmental minister. The three services have their own respective professional chiefs (likewise four-star officers): the First Sea Lord who is also Chief of Naval Staff, the Chief of the General Staff and the Chief of the Air Staff.

Until 2012 each of the three services also had one or more commands with a (four-star) commander-in-chief in charge of operations. These were, latterly: Commander-in-Chief Fleet (CINCFLEET - sharing a Command HQ with Commander-in-Chief Naval Home Command (CINCNAVHOME)), Commander-in-Chief, Land Forces (CINCLAND) and Commander-in-Chief Air (CINCAIR). (At one time there were many more Naval, Military and Air Commands, each with (in many cases) their own Commanders-in-Chief.)

Since 2012, however, full operational command has been vested in the three Chiefs of Staff, and the appointment of distinct Commanders-in-Chief has been discontinued. This change was implemented in response to the 2011 Levene report, which advised that it would serve to "streamline top-level decision-making, simplify lines of accountability..., remove duplication between the posts and also provide impetus to the leaning of the senior leadership".[52] New three-star appointments (Fleet Commander, Commander Land Forces) mirror the old ones, but these are subordinate officers with delegated command responsibility, rather than Commanders-in-Chief.

King Battle of Dettingen in 1743, by John Wootton. It remains the last time a British monarch personally led his troops into battle. 
Queen Elizabeth II posing for a photograph with soldiers from the Household Cavalry, at Combermere Barracks in 2012. 
A warning sign posted "By Command of the Defence Council". 

United States

According to Article II, Section 2, Clause I of the Constitution, the President of the United States is Commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces.[53][54]

The amount of military detail handled personally by the President in wartime has varied dramatically.[55] The structure of U.S. ranks has its roots in British military traditions, with the President possessing ultimate authority, but no "rank", maintaining a civilian status. War in Afghanistan and Iraq War achieved mixed results. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks by al-Qaeda, the subsequent War on Terror that followed, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq due to the alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction, the speed at which the Taliban and Ba'ath Party governments in both Kabul and Baghdad were toppled by an overwhelming superiority of American and allied forces defied the predictions of many military experts. However, insufficient post-war planning and strategy by Bush and his advisors to rebuild those nations were costly errors.[63][64]

Before 1947, the President was the only common superior of the Army (under the Secretary of War) and the Navy and Marine Corps (under the Secretary of the Navy).[65] The National Security Act of 1947, and the 1949 amendements to the same act, created the Department of Defense and the services (Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force) became subject to the "authority, direction and control" of the Secretary of Defense; the civilian cabinet-level official serving as the head of the Department of Defense and who is appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.[66][67]

The Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986 codified the default operational chain of command: running from the President to the Secretary of Defense, and from the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commander.[68] While the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff outranks all other military officers, he does not have operational command authority over the Armed Forces. However, the chairman does assist the President and the Secretary of Defense in the exercise of their command functions.[69]

During the 20th century, certain area commanders came to be called "Commander-in-chief".[70] As of 2011, there are nine combatant commanders: six have regional responsibilities, and three have functional responsibilities. Before 2002, the combatant commanders were referred to in daily use as "Commanders-in-chief" (for instance: "Commander in chief, U.S. Central Command"), even though the offices were in fact already designated as "combatant commander" in the law specifying the positions.[71] On 24 October 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld announced his decision that the use of "Commander-in-chief" would thereafter be reserved for the President only.[72]

A painting depicting President Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania, 1794. 
President Battle of Antietam, 1862. 
President Lyndon B. Johnson awards the Distinguished Service Cross to First Lieutenant Marty A. Hammer in Vietnam, 1966. 
The Football is a briefcase, carried by a military aide to the President of the United States, which gives the President the ability to authorize a nuclear attack while away from a fixed command center.[74] 
Admiral George W. Bush at the White House, 2008. 

U.S. States

In U.S. states, the Governor also serves as the commander-in-chief of the National Guard, State Militia, and State Defense Forces. In the Commonwealth of Kentucky, for example, KRS 37.180[75] states:

Similarly, Section 7 of Article 5[76] of the Constition of the State of California states:


The commander-in-chief of the armed forces is the President of Vietnam, through his post as Chairman of the Defense and Security Council, though this position is nominal and real power is assumed by the Central Military Commission of the Communist Party of Vietnam. The secretary of Central Military Commission (usually the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam) is the de facto Commander. The Minister of Defence oversees operations of the Ministry of Defence, and the VPA. He also oversees such agencies as the General Staff and the General Logistics Department. However, military policy is ultimately directed by the Central Military Commission of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam.

Other officeholders as commanders-in-chief or other situations


The 1995 Constitution designates the Prime Minister of Ethiopia as "Commander-in-Chief of the national armed forces" in Article 74(1).[77]


Upon the re-militarization of West Germany in 1955, when it joined NATO, the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany was amended in 1956 to include constitutional provisions for the command of the armed forces.

Werner von Blomberg (left) saluting Adolf Hitler (right) with a baton at the 1937 Nuremberg Rally.

The rationale for placing the command authority over the armed forces directly with the responsible minister in charge of the military establishment, and thus breaking with the longstanding German constitutional tradition in both earlier monarchical and republican systems of placing it with the head of state, was that in a democratic parliamentary system the command authority should directly reside where it would be exercised and where it is subject to the parliamentary control of the Bundestag at all times. By assigning it directly to the responsible minister, instead of with the Federal Chancellor, this also meant that military affairs is but one of the many integrated responsibilities of the government; in stark contrast of earlier times when the separate division of the military establishment from the civil administration allowed the former to act as a state within a state (in contrast to the Federal Republic, the Weimar Republic began with the Ebert–Groener pact, which kept the military establishment as an autonomous force outside the control of politics; the 1925 election of Paul von Hindenburg as Reichpräsident, surrounded by his camarilla, did little to reverse the trend).[79][80]

East Germany

The legislature of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), the Volkskammer, enacted on 13 February 1960 the Law on the Formation of the National Defense Council of the GDR, which established a council consisting of a chairman and at least 12 members. This was later incorporated into the GDR Constitution in April 1968. The National Defense Council held the supreme command of the National People's Army (including the internal security forces), and the Council's chairman (usually the General Secretary of the ruling Socialist Unity Party) was considered the GDR's commander-in-chief.

The GDR joined with the Federal Republic of Germany on 3 October 1990, upon which the GDR's constitution and armed forces were abolished.


During the Kingdom of Prussia, German Empire, Weimar Republic and the Nazi era, whoever was the head of state—the King of Prussia/German Emperor (under the Constitution of the Kingdom of Prussia/Constitution of the German Empire) to 1918, the Reichspräsident (under the Weimar Constitution) to 1934, and the Führer from 1934 to 1945—was the Head of the Armed Forces (German: Oberbefehlshaber: literally "Supreme Commander").

Below the level of the Head of State, each military branch (German: Teilstreitkraft) had its own head who reported directly to the Head of State and held the highest rank in his service; in the Reichsheer - Generalfeldmarschall, and in the Reichsmarine - Grossadmiral.

After Chancellor Adolf Hitler assumed power as Führer[81] (after the death of President Paul von Hindenburg), he would later grant his war minister, Generalfeldmarschall Werner von Blomberg, the title of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces in 1935, when conscription was reintroduced. However, in 1938 due to the Blomberg–Fritsch Affair, Hitler withdrew the Commander-in-Chief title, abolished the war ministerial post and assumed personal command of the Armed Forces. The war ministerial post was de facto overtaken by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, which was headed by Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel until the German surrender.


In Israel, the applicable basic law states that the ultimate authority over the Israel Defense Forces rests with the Government of Israel (chaired by the Prime Minister) as a collective body. The authority of the Government is exercised by the Minister of Defense on behalf of the Government, and subordinate to the Minister is the Chief of General Staff who holds the highest level of command within the military.[82]


In Japan, prior to the Meiji Restoration the role of the commander-in-chief was vested in the Shogun (The most militarily powerful Samurai daimyo). After the dissolution of the Tokugawa Shogunate the role of the commander-in-chief, resided with the Emperor of Japan. The present-day constitutional role of the Emperor is that of a ceremonial figurehead without any military role.

After Japan's move towards democracy, the position of Commander-in-Chief of the [84][85][86]


The Royal insignia (Dutch: distinctief) worn by King Willem-Alexander, instead of a regular military rank, whenever he wears a Dutch military uniform.

The Constitution of the Netherlands states, in article 97, that "the Government shall have supreme authority over the armed forces". Article 42 defines the Government as the Monarch and the ministers, and that only ministers are responsible for acts of government. Article 45 further defines the ministers as constituting the Cabinet, chaired by the Prime Minister, with "authority to decide upon overall government policy".[87][88]

Before a constitution change took place in 1983, even though the equivalent section stated that: "The King shall have supreme authority over the armed forces"; that did not give the monarch any autonomous command authority.[88]

The Minister of Defence has the primary ministerial responsibility for the armed forces, which are formally a part of the Ministry of Defence.[88] The Chief of Defence is the highest ranked professional military officer, and serves as an intermediary between the Minister of Defence and the Armed Forces, and is responsible to the Minister for military-strategic planning, operations and deployment of the Armed Forces.[89]

North Korea

Flag of the Supreme Commander

The Constitution of North Korea is ambiguous about which official really is the country's head of state.

In any case, the North Korean constitution, in article 102, is quite explicit regarding which official commands the armed forces:

The Chairman of the National Defence Commission of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is the supreme commander of the whole armed forces of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and commands and directs all the armed forces of the State.[92]

The Chairman is formally elected by the Supreme People's Assembly (article 91:5[93]) and serves for terms of office of five years (articles 101[92] & 90:1[93]); but in practice, the office is hereditary within the Kim Dynasty, as the late Kim Jong-il was posthumously designated as "Eternal Chairman of the National Defence Commission", while his son, Kim Jong-un, was appointed as the "First Chairman of the National Defence Commission".[94]


The Swedish Monarch (King Carl XVI Gustaf) is no longer the Commander-in-Chief of the Swedish Armed Forces, although he continues to receive treatment befitting a head of state.

In Sweden, with the Ordinance of Alsnö in 1280, nobles were exempted from land taxation if they provided cavalrymen to the King's service. Following the Swedish War of Liberation (1521–53) from the Kalmar Union, a Guards Regiment was formed under the King and from there the modern Swedish Army has its roots. During the age of the Swedish Empire, several kings—Gustavus Adolphus, Charles X, Charles XI & Charles XII—personally led their forces into battle. Under the Instrument of Government of 1809, which was in force until the current Instrument of Government of 1974 went into force on 1 January 1975; the Monarch was in §§ 14-15 explicitly designated as the Commander-in-Chief of the Swedish Armed Forces (Swedish: Högste befälhavare).[95]

At present, the Government (Swedish: Regeringen) as a collective body, chaired and formed by the Prime Minister of Sweden, holds the highest Executive Authority, subject to the will of the Riksdag; and is thus the present day closest equivalent of a command-in-chief, although not explicitly designated as such.[96] The reason for this change was, apart from the fact that the King was since 1917 no longer expected to make political decisions without ministerial advice, that the new Instrument of Government was intended to be made as descriptive on the workings of the State as possible, and reflective on how decisions are actually made. Minister of Justice Lennart Geijer further remarked in the government bill that any continued pretensions of royal involvement in government decisions would be of a "fictitious nature" and "highly unsatisfactory".[97]

Certain Government decisions regarding the Armed Forces (Swedish: Särskilda regeringsbeslut) may be delegated to the Minister for Defence, under the supervision of the Prime Minister and to the extent laid down in ordinances.[98]

To add to some confusion to the above, the title of the agency head of the Swedish Armed Forces and highest ranked commissioned officer on active duty, is actually Supreme Commander of the Swedish Armed Forces (Swedish: Överbefälhavaren).[99]

However, the Monarch (as of present King Carl XVI Gustaf), is still a four-star general and admiral à la suite in the Swedish Army, Navy and Air Force and is by unwritten convention regarded as the foremost representative of the Swedish Armed Forces.[100] The King has, as part of his court, a military staff. The military staff is headed by a senior officer (usually a general or admiral, retired from active service) and is composed of active duty military officers serving as aides to the King and his family.[101]


The epaulet for the wartime-only office and rank of General.

Supreme authority over the military belongs to the Federal Council, which is the Swiss collegial head of state. Nothwithstanding the previous sentence, under the Constitution, the Federal Council can only, in the operational sense, command a maximum of 4,000 soldiers, with a time limit of three weeks of mobilisation.[102] For it to field more service personnel, the Federal Assembly must elect a General (see below)[102] who is given four stars.[103] Thus, the General is elected by the Federal Assembly to give him the same democratic legitimacy as the Federal Council.[102]

In peacetime, the Armed Forces are led by the Chief of the Armed Forces (Chef der Armee), who reports to the head of the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sports and to the Federal Council as a whole. The Chief of the Armed Forces hs the rank of Korpskommandant or Commandant de corps (OF-8 in NATO equivalence).

In a time of declared war or national emergency, however, the Federal Assembly, assembled as the United Federal Assembly, specifically for the purpose of taking on the war-time responsibilities elect a General as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces under Article 168 of the Constitution. While The General acts as the highest military authority with a high degree of autonomy, he is still subordinate to the Federal Council (See Articles 58, 60, 174, 177, 180 & 185).[104] The Federal Assembly retains the sole power to dismiss the General, but the General remains subordinate to the Federal Council by the Council's ability to demobilise and hence making the position of General redundant.[102]

Four generals were appointed in Swiss history, General Henri Dufour during the Swiss Civil War, General Hans Herzog during the Franco-Prussian War, General Ulrich Wille during the First World War, and General Henri Guisan during the Second World War ("la Mob", "the Mobilisation"). Although Switzerland remained neutral during the latter three conflicts, the threat of having its territory used as a battlefield by the much bigger war parties of Germany and France required mobilization of the army.

See also

Within NATO and the European Union, the term Chief of Defence (CHOD) is usually used as a generic term for the highest-ranked office held by a professional military officer on active duty, irrespective of their actual title or powers.[105]

Other Articles of Interest


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