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The Key West Agreement is the colloquial name for the policy paper Functions of the Armed Forces and the Joint Chiefs of Staff drafted by James V. Forrestal, the first United States Secretary of Defense. Its most prominent feature was an outline for the division of air assets between the Army, Navy, and the newly created Air Force which, with modifications, continues to provide the basis for the division of these assets in the U.S. military today.

The basic outline for the document was agreed to at a meeting of the United States service chiefs that took place from March 11 to March 14, 1948 in Key West, Florida, and was finalized after subsequent meetings in Washington, D.C. President Harry S. Truman approved the agreement on April 21, 1948, which was revised in 1954 by the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration.


The Joint Chiefs of Staff meet the press.[1] Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson (seated, left), confers with General Omar N. Bradley (seated, right), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at an informal press conference. Standing left to right are: General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, Chief of Staff, USAF; General J. Lawton Collins, Chief of Staff, USA; and Admiral Forrest P. Sherman, Chief of Naval Operations, USN.

The Key West Agreement is a revised version of a collection of documents approved by President Harry S. Truman, and the more popular version as well. Initially, Secretary Forrestal told Gen Omar N. Bradley, shortly after the latter became Chief of Staff of the Army in February 1948, that the large aircraft carrier had already been approved and would be built. Secretary Forrestal, nevertheless, concluded that the time had to decide who will constitute the power over Air Force. Hence, he assembled the Joint Chiefs of Staff at Key West, Florida, on 11 March 1948 to thrash out the roles and missions. As basic guidance, Forrestal demanded that the three services each recognize the need for mutual support of each other’s legal missions. According to Forrestal, the Joint Chiefs of Staff reached basic agreement that the Navy would proceed functions – including the 65,000-ton aircraft carrier and nuclear bombs that could be transported on naval aircraft – provided that the Navy would not develop a separate strategic air force. The Air Force recognized the right and need for the Navy to participate in an all-out air campaign and to attack inland enemy targets, for example, air fields from which hostile aircraft might be launched to attack a fleet. The formal agreements of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were subsequently approved by President Truman on 21 April 1948 and issued under the title of “Functions of the Armed Forces and the Joint Chiefs of Staff."[2]

In turn, President Truman revoked Executive Order 9877, in which he prescribed the primary functions and responsibilities of the Armed Forces, and Secretary Forrestal issued the “functions paper” in its stead April 21. The paper, which became known as “Key West Agreement,” reaffirmed primary service responsibilities and assigned secondary or “collateral” missions.[3] A memorandum formally recording these understandings, commonly known as the “Key West Agreement,” was sent to the Secretary of Defense by the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 29 April 1948. After amending one paragraph that dealt with research and development, the Secretary of Defense formally approved it on 1 July 1948.[4]


Less than a year after Truman’s executive order was issued, the Key West Agreement listed service functions in greater detail and distinguished between primary and collateral functions as illustrated by the following list of Air Force functions:[5]

  • Gain/maintain air superiority
  • Air defense of the United States
  • Strategic air warfare
  • Interdiction of enemy land power and communications
  • Close combat and logistical air support
  • Intelligence (including tactical intelligence) and aerial photograph
  • Airlift, air transport and resupply, and support for airborne and amphibious operations
  • Interdict enemy sea power
  • Antisubmarine warfare and shipping protection
  • Aerial mine-laying


Secretary of Defense James V. Forrestal in conference with the Joint Chiefs, 1948.[1] Left to right: General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, USAF; Admiral Louis E. Denfeld, USN, General Omar N. Bradley, USA; and Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, USN.

From the Army’s perspective, close air support (CAS) is one of the primary support functions that the U.S. Air Force provides to Army combat operations. A benchmark 1948 policy agreement among the services, the Key West Agreement, originally delineated this function. This agreement integrated the Armed Forces into an “efficient team of land, naval, and air forces,” and, within that arrangement, the Air Force was given a primary mission to furnish close combat and logistical air support to the Army, to include air lift, support, and resupply of airborne operations, aerial photography, tactical reconnaissance, and interdiction of enemy land power and communications.[6] Historically, CAS has been a function assigned to Air Force fixed wing aircraft. Assignment of CAS responsibility to the Air Force grew out of the Key West Agreement of 1948. Since that time, however, the nature of combat and weaponry has evolved to a high level of technological sophistication. This was graphically illustrated in the most recent combat experiences for U.S. forces, Just Cause in Panama and the Persian Gulf War.[7]

To preclude the roles, missions, and functions of the Department of Defense from being determined by Congress for largely political reasons and the services failure to provide something more tangible, it is imperative that a series of conferences be convened to formulate and publish a vision for our nation's military in the post-Cold War era. The words "Key West Agreement" are rapidly becoming a cliche, but they are currently the "politically correct" term to be used when referring to the future of the military. Therefore, the opportunity to capture the spirit of cooperation and professionalism that prevailed at the original Key West Conference, while satisfying the demands of the President and the Congress for a conference should not be lost. The basics of the original Key West Agreement have lasted for 45 years, if a document as sound as the original can be produced, the Department of Defense and the Nation as a whole will be well served. An added objective of the conferences will be to update all existing documents that pertain to roles, missions, and functions using the current definitions provided by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.[8]

Key pointsEdit

  • The Navy would be allowed to retain its own combat air arm " conduct air operations as necessary for the accomplishment of objectives in a naval campaign..."
  • The Army would be allowed to retain aviation assets for reconnaissance and medical evacuation purposes.
  • The Air Force would have control of all strategic air assets, and most tactical and logistic functions as well.


The Key West Agreement of 1948 was therefore vital in keeping the roles and missions of naval aviation under the control of the Navy. The Key West Agreement gave the Navy written verification that it controlled all aspects of its aviation arm, from the roles and missions, research and development, and utilization in combat. Though historians often cite the passage of the National Security Act and the Revolt of the Admirals as the key points in saving naval aviation, the agreement was just as important in the keeping land- and carrier-based naval aviation from being incorporated into the United States Air Force. Without the Key West Agreement, naval aviation might have developed under Air Force control during the Cold War years.[9] The terms of the Key West Agreement were considered as a tremendous victory for the Navy. The Navy in the Key West Conference stopped the Air Force from controlling the roles and missions of naval aviation.[9]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Condit, Kenneth W. (1996). The Joint Chiefs of Staff and National Policy. Office of Joint History, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Washington, DC, Vol II.
  2. ^ Futrell, Robert F. (1989). Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force. Air University Press, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama 36112-5532, Vol I, p. 198.
  3. ^ Correll, John T. (2008). “A New Look at Roles and Missions,” Air Force Magazine, p. 51.
  4. ^ Condit, p. 96
  5. ^ Kuehl, Daniel T.; Miller, Charles E. (1994). "Roles, Missions, and Functions: Terms of Debate" (PDF). In Brief: 103.
  6. ^ Matsumura, John, et al. (2017). Defining an Approach for Future Close Air Support Capability. Rand Corporation, Santa Monica, California, p. 3.
  7. ^ "Army Issue: Close Air Support" (PDF). AUSA Background Brief: 1. February 1993.
  8. ^ Anglin, Roger I. (1993). "Roles and Missions: Is It Time for Another Key West Agreement?" (PDF). U.S. Army War College. Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania 17013: 27, 28.
  9. ^ a b Vital, Mark D. (1999). The Key West Agreement of 1948: A Milestone for Naval Aviation. Boca Raton, Florida: Florida Atlantic University. pp. 8, 81.

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