in substance


A commander-in-chief is the commander of a nation's military forces or significant element of those forces. In the latter case, the force element may be defined as those forces within a particular region or those forces which are associated by function. As a practical term it refers to the military competencies that reside in a nation-state's executive, head of state or government. Often, a given country's commander-in-chief need not be or have been a commissioned officer or even a veteran, and it is by this legal statute that civilian control of the military is realized in states where it is constitutionally required.

The term "commander-in-chief" derives from the Latin imperator. Imperatores (commanders-in-chief) of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire possessed imperium (command) powers. In its modern usage, the term was first used by King Charles I of England in 1639. A nation's head of state usually holds the position of national commander-in-chief, even if effective executive power is held by a separate head of government. Colonial governors are also often appointed commander-in-chief of the military forces in their colonies. in-Chief Allied Forces North, Commander-in-Chief East Atlantic, etc.

Commanders-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. The term is also used for officers that hold authority over individual branches or within a theatre of operations

Commonwealth realms

In the Commonwealth realms, the role of commander-in-chief varies from country to country; in some instances the monarch is constitutionally vested with command-in-chief, though the title may be held by the relevant viceroy. In other cases, the monarch's representative legally holds both the position and title.


The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia provides 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," and the original letters patent constituting the Office of Governor-General refer to the occupant as Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief in and over Our Commonwealth of Australia. In practice, de facto control of the military is exercised by the Cabinet, as in other Commonwealth realms.

Until the early 20th century, the person commanding the Australia Station component of the Royal Navy's British Eastern Fleet was known as Commander-in-Chief, Australia.


The British North America Act, 1867, provides that "the Command-in-Chief of the Land and Militia, and of all Naval and Military Forces, of and in Canada, is hereby declared to continue to be vested in the Queen." This provision in still in effect; however, the 1904 Militia Act went further to state "The Command-in-Chief of the Militia is declared to continue and be vested in the King, and shall be administered by His Majesty or by the Governor General as his representative." Since that time, governors general have been permitted by the Canadian sovereign to carry the title of Governor General and Commander-in-Chief in and over Canada, as outlined in the Commission of Appointment in the 1947 Letters Patent issued by King George VI. By constitutional convention, the Cabinet has de facto command and control over the Canadian Forces; however all declarations of war must be signed by the Governor General or monarch.

New Zealand

The Governor-General is designated in letters patent issued in 1983 and the Defence Act 1990 as Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief. Although the Defence Act refers to the powers of the office none are described and this is left to common law, royal prerogative and administrational and operational practice. The current commander is The Honourable Anand Satyanand

United Kingdom

The title Commander-in-Chief is rarely used by the reigning monarch, but usually refers to local or service commanders-in-chief. The sovereign is the Commander-in-Chief, although they serve in a symbolic role as, by constitutional convention, the UK Cabinet, led by the Prime Minister, has de facto command over the British Armed Forces.

Royal Navy

In the Royal Navy, the overall head of the Navy is known as the Lord High Admiral, and the title has been variously held by the monarch or an individual admiral, or put into commission and exercised by a board of commissioners. Since 1964, the title has been held by the Queen. There have in addition long been many Commanders-in-Chief in charge of Royal Navy ships at home as well as foreign stations. During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the term was extended to cover the senior Admiral in a theatre of the war, such as the Mediterranean or North Sea.

In the 1930s the Royal Navy had nine commanders-in-chief; today there are two - the Commander-in-Chief Fleet and the Commander-in-Chief Naval Home Command.

British Army

In the British Army, the office of General-in-Chief Command, later renamed Commander-in-Chief of the Forces, was instituted after the Restoration in 1660. Between 1672 and 1904, the title Commander-in-Chief was officially used for the general in charge of the Army, after which the title Chief of the General Staff was adopted. There existed also in times of war, and in places such as India, regional commanders-in-chief. In addition, colonial governors are and were usually appointed Commander-in-Chief in and over their colonies.

Royal Air Force

The Royal Air Force uses the term Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (sometimes shortened to Commander-in-Chief) to describe those officers in charge of a command. An early example of air force usage occurred on January 1, 1925, when Air Vice-Marshal Sir John Salmond was appointed Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Air Defence of Great Britain. Although historically the RAF has had several air officer commanders-in-chief serving at any one time, currently there is only one such appointment, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Air Command.


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.


In Egypt the President of the Republic holds the ceremonial title of Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces while a member of the Government holds the position Commander-in-Chief. This person tends to be the Minister for Defence. The President still remains the only individual capable of declaring war. So far all Egyptian presidents have 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 Hosni Mubarak has abandoned this tradition. However Hosni Mubarak holds the same ranks during war time.


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 Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish Defence Forces and the Commander of the Finnish Border Guard. The economic administration of the Defence Force is the responsibility of Ministry of Defence. Since the constitutional reform of 2000, the minister of defence has the right to be present while the president uses her command powers, unless the matter is of immediate concern. In questions of strategic importance, the prime minister has the same right.

The President commissions officers and decides on the mobilisation of the Defence Forces. If Parliament is not in session when a decision to mobilise is taken, it must be immediately convened. A declaration of war is made by a presidential decree, which must be afterwards accepted by the parliament.


In France, the President of the Republic holds the title of "Chef des Armées" ("Chief of the Armies"). He is the supreme authority for military affairs, and is the only competent authority for the use of nuclear weapons.

Since the reign of Louis XIV France has been strongly centralized. After crushing local nobles engaged in warlordism, 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 Restauration restored authority of the King, in an absolute, then constitutional way before being overthrown by the Second Empire. The following Third Republic was a parliamentary system, where the military authority was held by the President of the Council (Prime Minister).

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.



During the Weimar Republic and the Nazi era, whoever was head of state--the Reichspräsident to 1934 and Adolf Hitler from 1934--was Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. Each branch had its own commander-in-chief, holding the highest rank--in the case of the Reichsheer, a Generaloberst; in the Reichsmarine, an Admiral.

When Adolf Hitler assumed power, he granted his war minister, Werner von Blomberg, the title of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. However, in 1938, Hitler took the title of Commander-in-Chief himself and assumed personal command of the Armed Forces.

West Germany (later united Germany)

Upon the remilitarization of West Germany in 1955, when it joined NATO, the Grundgesetz was amended to include constitutional provisions for command of the armed forces. In peacetime, the Federal Minister of Defence (Bundesminister der Verteidigung) is the commander-in-chief of the Bundeswehr. If the Bundestag (parliament) declares a "state of defence" (Verteidigungsfall), the Federal Chancellor (Bundeskanzler) assumes command of the German armed forces.

East Germany

The parliament 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 GDR's armed forces (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.

Hong Kong

When Hong Kong was a British colony the Governor was ex officio Commander-in-Chief of British Forces Overseas Hong Kong. (After the transfer of sovereignty the commander of the People's Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison are PLA personnel from the mainland China.)


The Supreme Command of the Armed Forces vests in the President, although effective executive power and responsibility for national defence resides with the Cabinet headed by the Prime Minister. This is discharged through the Ministry of Defence headed by Defence Minister, 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 August 15, 1947, each Service was placed under its own Chief Commander. In 1955, the three Service Chiefs were redesignated as the Chief of the Army Staff (General), the Chief of the Naval Staff (Admiral) and the Chief of the Air Staff (Air Chief Marshall) with President of India as supreme commander.


Before 1979, the Shah was the commander-in-chief in Iran. After the inception of the Islamic Republic, the Supreme Leader of Iran has taken on the role.


In Ireland, the commander-in-chief of the army is the President.


The Constitution of Italy, 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; however, since the president has no direct executive power, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence have the actual control of the armed forces, while the president retains a supervision role.


In the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the President is constitutionally the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, however that is only a ceremonial position and the real power rests with the elected Prime Minister who is the Chief Executive of the state however this has changed and in reality today the President of the Federation holds the real powers since overtime most of the presidents have played a major role and have been former army heads themselves

Republic of China

As stipulated in the national constitution of the Republic of China (commonly known as "Taiwan" since the 1970's), the President of the Republic of China is also the Commander-in-Chief of the ROC's Navy, Army, Air Force, Marines, Special Forces, and Space program.

People's Republic of China

Article 93 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China places the authority to direct the armed forces of the PRC in the Central Military Commission. However, Article 80 gives the President of the People's Republic of China the power to proclaim martial law, proclaim a state of war, and issue mobilization orders. Since the mid-1990's, it has been standard practice to have the President, the CMC Chairman, and the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China be the same person although the differences in the start of terms means that there is some overlap between an occupant and his predecessor.


According to the Constitution of Russia, the President of Russia is the supreme commander in chief of the Armed Forces. He approves the military doctrine and appoints the defense minister and the chief of the general staff.


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


The King of Spain (as of present Juan Carlos I of Spain) is the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Spanish Armed Forces.


In Sweden the Monarch was according to the Instrument of Government (1809) the Commander-in-Chief of all Swedish Armed Forces (Krigsmaktens högste befälhavare), up and till the new constitution of 1975.

After the new constitution came into effect: the Cabinet, which in turn is led by the Prime Minister of Sweden, holds the highest Executive Authority and is thus the Swedish Commander-in-Chief. Some Government decisions regarding the Armed Forces may be delegated to the Minister for Defence, under the supervision of the Prime Minister and to the extent laid down in law.

However, the Monarch of Sweden (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 convention the foremost representative of the Swedish Armed Forces. The King have, as part of his Royal Court, a Military Staff. The Staff is headed by a senior officer (usually a General or Admiral, retired from active service) and is manned by military officers serving as aides to the King and his family.

To add to some confusion, the title of the commanding officer of the Armed Forces is actually Supreme Commander of the Swedish Armed Forces (Överbefälhavaren).


In peacetime, the Armed Forces are led by the Chief of the Armed Forces who has the rank of "Corps commander" (Korpskommandant or Commandant de corps, ranking OF-8 in NATO equivalence). In a time of declared war or national emergency however, the Federal Assembly appoints a General (OF-9 by NATO) as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. The General acts as the highest military authority, but is subordinate to the Federal Council, which holds the supreme authority.

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.


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 States

The Constitution of the United States gives the title to the President of the United States, who "shall be Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States" (see the 1941 Declarations of War against Japan and Germany for how this call is made). Federalist No. 69 spelled out that the President would not be Commander-in-Chief until Congress had first declared war. "... In this respect his authority would be nominally the same with that of the king of Great Britain, but in substance much inferior to it. It would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces, as first General and admiral of the Confederacy; while that of the British king extends to the declaring of war and to the raising and regulating of fleets and armies -- all which, by the Constitution under consideration, would appertain to the legislature." The title commander-in-chief has been used from time to time to refer to powerful regional U.S. military leaders (such as CENTCOM), but the United States abolished all local commands-in-chief in 2002. In 1947, the National Security Act made the President, as a consequence of the creation of the United States Air Force, also the Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force of the United States, by extension.

The governors of the states are also commanders-in-chief of their states' respective National Guard and other military forces, except when those forces are called into active federal service. This temporarily ended with the John Warner Defense Authorization Act of 2007, a federal law that established the governor of a state was no longer the sole commander in chief of the National Guard during emergencies within the state. The President of the United States would then be able to take control of a state's National Guard units without the governor's consent. In a letter to Congress all 50 governors opposed the increase in power of the president over the National Guard. These changes were repealed in 2008, restoring full command within a state to that state's governor. This restoration of gubernatorial authority occurred by repealing the 2006 amendments to the Insurrection Act.

Although the United States presidency was modeled upon the monarch of Great Britain, and the title of Commander-in-Chief was unlikely to have been understood to confer upon the President any powers additional to those inherently held by a Sovereign, the title has increasingly come to be perceived as being a peculiarly military position. This has led to a blurring of the distinction between the President's civil and military responsibilities. It was, for instance, the basis for the trial by military commission of Dr. Samuel Mudd. The American presidency thus departs from the civilian basis of virtually all other republics. In 1867 Congress attempted to limit the President's powers as Commander in Chief by passing the Army Appropriations Act. The Act included the “command of the army” provisions, which required that the president issue all commands to the army through the General of the Army. This act was condemned by President Andrew Johnson, but he nevertheless signed it into law.

In the United States, the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 added a new level of commanders-in-chief (CINCs). Under Goldwater-Nichols, regional CINCs were created to bring a local supreme commander to a conflict, the most well-known of which was CINC CENTCOM, who was Norman Schwarzkopf during Operation Desert Storm.

On October 24, 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld announced that the title of "Commander-in-Chief" would thereafter be reserved for the President, consistent with the terms of Article II of the United States Constitution. Armed forces CINCs in specified regions would thereafter be known as "combatant commanders," heading the Unified Combatant Commands.

In 2008, there are ten Unified Combatant Commands. Six have regional responsibilities, and four have functional responsibilities. The chain of command runs from the President to the Secretary of Defense to the combatant commanders of the Unified Combatant Commands. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff may transmit communications to the Commanders of the Unified Combatant Commands from the President and Secretary of Defense, but does not exercise military command over any combatant forces.

Authority as Commander-in-Chief on the battlefield

As Commander-in-Chief, the U.S. President outranks any military officer and so has the inherent right to assume command on the battlefield. However, because presidents are rarely present in war zones, and often have less military experience than the military commanders, only two presidents, George Washington and James Madison, have so far done so. Washington personally led a federalized militia force of approximately 15,000 troops to quell the Whiskey Rebellion during his second term, although he was not present during any of the skirmishing in the relatively bloodless conflict.

During the War of 1812, President Madison was under enemy fire on August 24, 1814, when American forces were routed by British troops in Bladensburg, Maryland. Madison, incensed by the American commanding general's incompetence, was on the scene and personally assumed command of the only remaining American force, a naval battery commanded by Commodore Joshua Barney. He did so to stall the British invasion of the American capital, but his efforts were unsuccessful, and the British burned Washington over the next two days.

During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln considered personally assuming battlefield command of the Union Army, and studied military texts when he became frustrated by the incompetence and lethargy of his generals. He actually came under enemy fire in 1864 during the Confederate attack on Fort Stevens in the District of Columbia, but did not exercise battlefield authority as commander-in-chief at any time.

War on Terrorism

In the War on Terrorism President George W. Bush has used these war powers to justify several actions, such as the NSA electronic surveillance program and enhanced interrogation techniques. The administration, on several occasions, has promoted a legal theory known as the unitary executive theory, to argue that in his duty as Commander-in-Chief the President, with his inherent powers, cannot be bound by any law or Congress. Advocates of this theory opine that since the primary task of the President, during a time of war, is protecting US citizens, anything hindering him in that capacity can be considered unconstitutional. In the NSA warrantless surveillance controversy this was used to suggest he was not required to abide by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The same rationale was used to deny detainees in the War on Terror protection by the Geneva Conventions resulting in a global controversy surrounding apparent mistreatment. Also it is thought that the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, which was adopted to address prisoner abuse, might be ignored after President Bush added a signing statement, invoking his rights as Commander-in-Chief, to that bill.

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