Civilians at the Helm: Chile Transforms its Ministry of National Defense, 2010–2014


In 2010, 20 years after the end of Augusto Pinochet’s military regime, Chile transformed its defense sector by restructuring the Ministry of National Defense, stripping military leaders of responsibility for planning and strategy and placing that authority in the hands of civilians. The event marked a sea change in the relationship between the armed forces and the government. Civilians at the ministry previously had provided the military with scant guidance regarding the country’s strategic goals—in part because they lacked the training and experience required to anticipate threats to the country or to determine what capabilities the armed forces required to confront such threats. The enabling law, enacted after years of debate, also gave new powers to a chief of Joint Staff, an officer whose job was to promote cooperation among the army, navy, and air force—three military branches that jealously protected their independence and were wary of any attempt to diminish the authority of their powerful commanders in chief. Sebastián Piñera, who became president in March 2010 just as the law took effect, faced the task of implementing the massive shift in expectations, norms, culture, and the chain of command. His administration restructured the ministry and hired civilians to manage tasks long controlled by military officers, and by the end of his term in 2014, the Ministry of National Defense had taken the lead in developing Chile’s defense policies.

Tristan Dreisbach drafted this case based on interviews conducted in Santiago, Chile during July and August 2015. Case published November 2015.

joint staff
civilian oversight
civil-military affairs
democratic process
skill transfer
skilled manpower
bureaucratic structure
spoiler trap
Focus Area(s)
Critical Tasks
Creating civilian capacity
Subordination to civilian control
Core Challenge
Capacity (capability traps)
Institutional traps (spoilers)
Country of Reform
Case Studies
Tristan Dreisbach