Military Organization Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Military organization refers to the way a nation-state structures its armed forces.


Military organization refers to the way a nation-state structures its armed forces. Organization reflects the way a military perceives and develops its strategic mission and provides systematic command and control at the tactical level. An efficient organizational structure also includes administrative and logistical components, making the creation, maintenance, and application of effective military power possible. In order to understand organization, three major parts must be examined: the bureaucratic, usually centered in a nation’s department of defense or ministry of war; the armed forces, usually breaking down into branches of service (cavalry, artillery, infantry) as well as unit relationships such as the battalion and division; and the command hierarchy/rank structure.Military organizationMilitary organization


Understanding a nation’s military organizational structure reveals a great deal about how a military perceives and seeks to accomplish its mission. The United States;military organizationUnited States, for example, with a large industrial base, has a table of organization and equipment that seeks to maximize technology and avoid casualties. This is a logical outgrowth of the principles of the Enlightenment on which the United States was founded. The Vietnam;military organizationVietnamese, on the other hand, have an organizational structure that reflects Dau tranhdau tranh, which emphasizes the need to carry the struggle to the enemy at all costs.

Additionally, in many societies, the Rank systemrank system mirrors the social structure; for example, in the Prussian army the landed gentry, the Junkers, generally held officerships, while the enlisted ranks were the peasantry, who in civilian life worked under them.

History of Military OrganizationAncient World

The most famous of the Greek military formations was the Phalanx;Greekphalanx–a mass of troops equipped with long spears or pikes. Each line, or stoechis, consisted of sixteen to twenty-five troops, and each phalanx was eight to thirty-two lines deep. The largest formation, the taxis, consisted of between five hundred and fifteen hundred troops and was commanded by a general. A general’s council or a single commander in chief led the entire army, usually consisting of more than one taxis.

Military reforms byMarius, GaiusGaius Marius in 106-107b.c.e. standardized Rome;military organizationRoman military organization, training, and equipment and introduced a self-contained, combined arms unit, the Legion (military unit)legion, that could operate independently or as part of a larger army. Not simply reliant on mass, the legion could use a variety of tactics that enabled it to outmaneuver the unwieldy phalanx. While the composition of the legion varied widely, in general the basic unit was the Centuriate (military unit)centuriate, consisting of sixty to one hundred troops and commanded by a Centurion centurion. Two centuriates were a Maniple (Roman unit) maniple, commanded by the senior centurion; six to eight centuriates formed a Cohort (military unit) cohort, commanded by the senior centurions of the legion. There were ten cohorts per legion. The overall commander was the Legatus legionis (military unit) legatus legionis.

The centuriate consisted of heavy infantry, whose main weapons were the pilum, or javelin; a short sword, or gladius; and a heavy shield, which could be used to form a tight defensive line. Light Infantry;Romaninfantry, the Velites (Roman army unit)velites, were used to confuse and harass the enemy. In addition, Cavalry;Roman cavalry, the Equites (Roman cavalry unit) equites, and auxiliary troops filled out the legion, giving it a strength of approximately 5,126 troops.

Medieval World

Medieval European armies reflected the social organization of their day. The elites in the armies, the Knightsknights and heavy Cavalry;medievalcavalry, generally came from the nobility or royal classes, and the common soldiery, the Infantry;medievalinfantry, typically came from the peasantry. Most nobles and royalty did keep a retinue of professional men at arms, commanded by a sergeant at arms. Men at arms were generally expensive to maintain, and a king’s ability to wage war depended greatly on the nobles who had sworn loyalty to him and the manpower they themselves could generate. With the exception of Mercenaries;medievalmercenary armies, which had a definitive command-and-control structure, most medieval wars were fought by armies that had strong social and political loyalties but little in the way of professional training or effective organization. The result was often disastrous. At the Agincourt, Battle of (1415)Battle of Agincourt in 1415, for example, the French outnumbered the English by three to one. Charles I d’Albret[Charles 01 dAlbret]Charles I d’Albret was unable to coordinate his reserves or his men at arms with the heavy cavalry effectively, and the result was a French defeat.

The French defeat underscored another important development in the medieval period: the rise of Armies;professionalspecialized, professional troops. English Longbowmenlongbowmen, largely credited with the English victory at Agincourt, were highly trained. The inclusion of such troops could often turn the tide in battle, and in the Middle Ages the development of Artillery;medievalartillery–at first catapults, ballistae, and trebuchets but also battering rams and siege towers–gave an increasing edge to those armies that could afford them. By the eighteenth century, the development of Cannonscannons had created a specialized niche in European armies.

In the 1620’s, the China;military organizationManchusManchus developed the Four-banner system[Four banner system]four-banner system, which became the main organization for China (expanded to eight banners in 1642) until the end of the Qing DynastyQing Dynasty in 1911. Originally a means of controlling the Manchus, each banner became a means of civil administration after the establishment of the Qing Dynasty in 1644. In military terms, each banner army was independent and answered directly to the emperor. The smallest unit was Niru (military unit)niru (three hundred men). The next was Jalan (military unit) jalan (consisting of five nirus), and five jalans constituted a Gusa (military unit) gusa (banner). There were banners for the Manchus, the Han Chinese, and the Mongols. In 1631 a separate Chinese artillery corps was formed.

Modern World

The modern system of military organization can be traced to the French defeats in the middle of the eighteenth century. Maurice, comte de SaxeMaurice, comte de SaxeSaxe, Maurice, comte deMaurice, comte de Saxe, the French general in Flanders during the War of the Austrian Succession, War of the (1740-1748)Austrian Succession (1740-1748), reorganized the French army into columns to be used to outflank and outmaneuver rather than annihilate an enemy. He also experimented with mixed arms units, combining cavalry, artillery, and infantry in a single operation. During the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763)Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), Broglie, Victor-Maurice deBroglie, Victor-Maurice deVictor-Maurice de Broglie (the duc de Broglie) published Instruction pour l’armée (de Broglie) Instruction pour l’armée du roi commandée par le maréchal duc de Broglie (1761; instruction for the army of the king, commanded by the marshal the duke of Broglie), which separated the army into four Division (army unit) divisions. Each division would have a quarter of the brigades under overall command, and a lieutenant general would command each. Each division would also be self-sufficient and have cavalry, artillery, and infantry resources at its disposal. This organization proved effective; however, de Broglie’s system was dropped after his death, mostly because of pressure by noble officers who wished to preserve the French army as a bastion of privilege.

In 1772, the organizational ideas of Saxe and de Broglie were revived and developed byGuibert, Jacques deGuibert, Jacques deGeneral Essay on Tactics (Guibert) Count Jacques de Guibert, whose Essai général de tactique (General Essay on Tactics, 1781) called for a mixed formation of line and column depending on the tactical situation, a reform of the supply system, and an emphasis on speed. Artillery should be massed to concentrate on an enemy’s weakest spot, and a reserve should be maintained. In 1779, the Défense du système de guerre moderne (Guibert) Défense du système de guerre moderne (defense of the system of modern war) developed these ideas further and called for a Nation in arms “nation in arms” that is, a nation willing and able to commit all of its resources to winning a war. Guibert’s tactical ideas, and the organizational reforms they required, became the basis of a reformed French army, with one exception. The Corps (army unit) corps, consisting of two to four divisions and completely self-sufficient, was introduced by Napoleon in 1806. During the French Revolution(1789-1793) and the Napoleonic era, this army would conquer Europe and force all other European militaries to adopt similar organizational structures.

Modern military organization varies from army to army, but all have a similar outline. The basic unit of maneuver in the U.S. Army is the Squad (army unit)squad, consisting of five to seven troops. In communist armies, the three-man Fire team (military unit)fire team is the smallest unit, but the squad remains the basis of operations. Each squad is led by a noncommissioned officer, usually a corporal or sergeant. Four squads make up a Platoon (army unit)platoon, led by a sergeant first class and officered by a second lieutenant. Five platoons comprise a Company (army unit)company, usually with one platoon devoted to heavy weapons, such as a mortar or heavy machine gun. Captains command companies.

Two to five companies are a Battalion (army unit)battalion; three battalions are a brigade. In some armies, battalions are organized into Regiment (army unit)regiments. In the U.S. Army, while each battalion retains its regimental identity, its organizational identity remains with the Brigade (army unit)brigade to which it is attached. For example, the second brigade of an infantry Division (army unit)division might contain First Battalion, Second Infantry Regiment; the First Battalion, Third Infantry Regiment; and First Battalion, Sixth Infantry Regiment.

Each brigade consists of infantry and armor elements. An infantry brigade consists of two infantry battalions and one armor battalion; an armor brigade consists of one infantry battalion and two armor battalions. There are usually two to three brigades in a division. The number of infantry to armor brigades determines if the division is infantry or armored. A colonel or brigadier general usually commands a brigade. A lieutenant general or major general commands a division.

In addition to the brigade structure, each division usually has an armored cavalry squadron, an aviation unit, and a divisional artillery battalion attached, in addition to transportation, logistical, and health/hospital services.

The company/battalion structure is for the infantry. Artillery;military unitsArtillery units are organized into Battery (military unit)batteries rather than companies, and Cavalry;moderncavalry and armored cavalry units use troops rather than companies and squadrons rather than battalions.

Modern armies are still organized into Corps (army unit)corps, but usually by geographic locale. For example, most U.S. Army elements in Germany during the Cold War were part of VII Corps. An organization of corps is an army.Military organization

Books and Articles
  • Biddle, Stephen. Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. On the more theoretical side, Biddle examines the history of the modern system, the impact of technology in force employment, and the resulting changes in training and organization.
  • Brown, Howard G. War, Revolution and the Bureaucratic State: Politics and Army Administration in France, 1791-1799. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1995. Examines the political and bureaucratic genesis of French Revolutionary and Napoleonic military organization.
  • Center of Military History. FM 100-2-3: The Soviet Army–Troops, Organization, and Equipment. Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1991. The Center of Military History and the U.S. Department of the Army publish excellent studies and field manuals, which furnish detailed organizational structures on individual militaries. This volume remains a thorough reference to the organizational structure of the Red Army.
  • Chaliand, Gérard. The Art of War in World History: From Antiquity to the Nuclear Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Because of the unique nature of national militaries, it is beyond the scope of this essay to survey all relevant works on the history, theory, and evolution of individual military organizations. As a beginning point for the student of military organization, however, Chaliand’s study addresses this problem using primary documentation and is especially valuable for its inclusion of both non-European and Enlightenment military thinkers.
  • Dague, Everett. Napoleon and the First Empire’s Ministries of War and Military Administration. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2006. Examines the political and bureaucratic genesis of French Revolutionary and Napoleonic military organization.
  • Doughty, Robert, and Ira Gruber, eds. Warfare in the Western World. 2 vols. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1996. While primarily an operational survey, this work demonstrates the evolution of and relationship between modern organization and tactical employment.
  • Elting, John. Swords Around a Throne. New York: Free Press, 1988. Another excellent resource on the armies of the French Revolution and Napoleon.
  • Forrest, Alan. Soldiers of the French Revolution. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990. Provides superb descriptions of the organization, composition, and employment of the armies of the French Revolution and Napoleon.
  • Griffith, Paddy. The Art of War of Revolutionary France. London: Greenhill Books, 1998. Solid coverage of the French Revolution and Napoleon.
  • Howard, Michael. War in European Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. The study of organization is bound up in a fuller study of military history. Howard’s book provides an excellent overview of how military force developed from the Middle Ages to the present.
  • Ralston, David B. Importing the European Army: The Introduction of European Military Techniques and Institutions into the Extra-European World, 1600-1914. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Examines the social and economic impact of European military organization on Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, China, and Japan.
  • Stofft, William, ed. American Military History. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, 1989. For the student of modern military organization, this volume provides an excellent overview the Army as well as the Reserve and National Guard organizations.



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