How the U.S. Coast Guard Works

By: Ed Grabianowski

­Coast Guard Image Gallery

coast guard boat
Photo by PA3 Dana Warr/Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The United States Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk. See more Coast Guard pictures.

­A strong sense of tradition, an underdog mentality and a "make do with less" attitude are the hallmarks ­of the U.S. Coast G­uard. Unique among U.S. armed forces, the Coast Guard is perpetually on active duty, chronically underfunded, entrusted with a vast array of responsibilities, but often overlooked. If you watched television coverage of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, you may have seen Coast Guard helicopters hovering above a flooded New Orleans, plucking stranded storm victims from rooftops. But the Coast Guard is far more than a search-and-rescue brigade -- in fact, they even fought in naval battles in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II.

Most military services have a fairly straightforward goal: train and prepare for war and fight that war when necessary. But the Coast Guard has a patchwork of functions, tasks and responsibilities. Because they are always on the job, they don't have nearly as much time to train as the other military branches.

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­The Coast Guard's mishmash job description stems from the fact that the service itself is a conglomeration of other government agencies that have been incorporated over the decades. Some of the Coast Guard's primary responsibilities include:

  • Preventing smuggling of illegal goods or untaxed goods into U.S. ports. Making sure shipping companies pay all the appropriate tariffs and taxes on goods they ship into the United States was the first job of the Coast Guard.
  • Prevent smugglers from bringing drugs­ into the United States.
  • Preventing the illegal dumping of chemicals, illegal fishing or hunting of marine life and otherwise enforce marine environmental protection laws.
  • Searching for and rescuing anyone who needs help in a marine environment, including storm-wracked boats and ships, refugees and illegal immigrants trying to float to the United States, and anyone else involved in an accident at sea.
  • Preventing illegal immigration.
  • Watching out for terrorist attacks and other hostile forces trying to attack the United States by sea.
  • Enforcing maritime laws, train civilians and commercial shipping crews in maritime safety, and ensure the speed, safety and reliability of transportation in United States coastal waters.
The Coast Guard has law enforcement powers within U.S. waters, which extend 200 miles from shores, and on international waters. Coast Guard authority supersedes that of the U.S. Navy in terms of law enforcement -- a Coast guard captain can halt, board and even seize any vessel without a warrant, court order or direct orders from a superior, including U.S. Navy vessels.

Next, we'll look at the Coast Guard hierarchy.


Coast Guard Hierarchy

The Coast Guard is the smallest of the U.S. armed forces, with approximately 34,000 active members (not counting the reserve and auxiliary), but the Coast Guard's fleet is the 7th largest navy in the world [Source: Global Security]. It is a military service, although it is not a part of the Department of Defense. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Coast Guard was transferred from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Homeland Security. In the past, the Coast Guard has been placed under Department of Defense jurisdiction (within the Department of the Navy) during wartime, and current federal laws authorize this to be done at the authorization of Congress or the president.

The Coast Guard is headed by the Commandant of the Coast Guard, a position held as of 2007 by Admiral Thad Allen. Coast Guard operations are then divided into Atlantic and Pacific commands, with a Vice Admiral in charge of each region. The commands are subdivided into nine districts (they are not numbered consecutively, which is why there are districts with numbers above nine).

This map shows the location of all nine distrincts of the Atlantic and Pacific Coast Guard commands.
Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Navigation Center
This map shows the location of all nine distrincts of the Atlantic and Pacific Coast Guard commands.

The Atlantic commands:

  • District 1 - New England, eastern New York and northern New Jersey
  • District 5 - Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina
  • District 7 - South Carolina, Georgia, eastern Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands
  • District 9 - All inland waters in the middle United States, the Gulf of Mexico

The Pacific commands:

Each district is divided into sectors. Each sector is responsible for protecting inland waterways and coastal waters within the U.S. Economic Exclusion Zone (any water within 200 miles of shore). For example, Sector St. Petersburg, within District 7, is responsible for the western coast of Florida, plus a large portion of the Gulf of Mexico. Sector Buffalo is responsible for the Lake Erie and Lake Ontario shorelines and a segment of the St. Lawrence Seaway [Source: United States Coast Guard]. The operational centers within each sector are stations, which ships and boats use as a home base, and air stations, where Coast Guard air support crews are based.

The Coast Guard generally uses the same order of rank as the U.S. Navy.

Official Coast Guard Ranks and Abbreviations
Commissioned Officers
Warrant Officers
Enlisted Soldiers
Admiral (ADM)
Chief Warrant Officer 4 (WO-4)
Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard (MCPOCG)
Vice Admiral (VADM)
Chief Warrant Officer 3 (WO-3)
Command Master Chief Petty Officer (CMCPO)
Rear Admiral - Upper Half (RADM - UH)
Chief Warrant Officer 2 (WO-2)
Master Chief Petty Officer (MCPO)
Rear Admiral - Lower Half (RADM - LH)

Senior Chief Petty Officer (SCPO)
Captain (CAPT)

Chief Petty Officer (CPO)
Commander (CDR)

Petty Officer 1st Class (PO1)
Lieutenant Commander (LCDR)

Petty Officer 2nd Class (PO2)
Lieutenant (LT)

Petty Officer 3rd Class (PO3)
Lieutenant Junior Grade (LTJG)

Seaman (SN)
Ensign (ENS)

Seaman Apprentice (SA)

Seaman Recruit (SR)
Source: DefenseLink United States Military Rank and Insignia

Next, we'll look at the ships and aircraft that the Coast Guard use.


Coast Guard Ships and Aircraft

The most important pieces of equipment used by the Coast Guard are the naval vessels they use to patrol U.S. waterways. All Coast Guard ships longer than 65 feet are cutters. Originally, a cutter was a specific kind of ship, but now every ship of that size is a cutter, no matter what its configuration. Coast Guard ships are given names, prefaced by the designation USCGC (United States Coast Guard Cutter). Each Coast Guard ship also has an alphanumeric designation. The code starts with a W (the letter assigned to all CG ships during World War II). The next letters represent the endurance of the ship -- how long it can operate at sea without stopping for fuel and provisions. HEC stands for High Endurance Cutter, and MEC stands for Medium Endurance Cutter. Other codes are used for ice breakers, buoy tenders and other types of cutters. A numeric code completes the specific designation for a given ship. For example, the USCGC Alert is a Medium Endurance Cutter, so its designation in WMEC-630. The USCGC Maple is a buoy tender with the designation WLB-207.

The United States Coast Guard Cutter bouy tender Maple moors in Juneau, Alaska, for a scheduled port visit.
Photo by Roger Wetherall/courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The United States Coast Guard Cutter buoy tender Maple moors in Juneau, Alaska, for a scheduled port visit.

The Coast Guard's largest ships are the Hamilton Class cutters, 378-foot ships intended for duty on the high seas. There are 12 in service. Reliance Class cutters, in both 270-foot and 210-foot versions, operate as Medium Endurance cutters. These ships may be equipped with a helicopter landing deck, as well as crews to support the helicopters. Below the 65-foot cutter threshold, there are some smaller workhorses. The 25-foot Defender Class boats are designed for fast, flexible responses to a variety of situations, and can be transported on a boat trailer. The 47-foot Motor Life Boat is a steadfast tool for search and rescue missions. The boats are virtually unsinkable and self-right themselves after capsizing.

The Coast Guard Marine Safety and Security Team Anchorage demonstrates its ability to defend a stationary target against a water-based aggressor on board two of their Defender Class boats.
Photo by PA2 Sara Francis/courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The Coast Guard Marine Safety and Security Team Anchorage demonstrates its ability to defend a stationary target against a water-based aggressor on board two of their Defender Class boats.

Aircraft are used by the Coast Guard to perform search and rescue, spot smugglers and illegal immigrants and transport people and supplies. Most Coast guard aircraft are helicopters. For medium range missions, the Coast Guard relies heavily on the Sikorsky-built HH-60J Jayhawk helicopter. Shorter missions are suitable for the HH-65A Dolphin, built by Aerospatiale of Texas. While both helicopters are usually based on shore, they can operate from the larger cutters equipped with helipads. One notable feature of the Dolphin is an advanced automatic flight control system. The helicopter can be set to automatically hover at a certain distance above the ground or ocean surface, and can even be set to conduct certain preset search patterns [Source: Global Security]. Both helicopters are due for an extensive modernization program to extend their service life further into the 21st century. The Coast Guard also uses a number of fixed-wing aircraft, including the RU-38A surveillance plane, the HC-130 Hercules transport and the HU-25 Guardian jet.

An HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Astoria, Ore., retrieves a rescue swimmer during a rescue pick-up drill.
Photo by PA3 Adam Eggers/courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
An HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Astoria, Ore., retrieves a rescue swimmer during a rescue pick-up drill.

We'll look at how to join the Coast Guard and what Coast Guard life is like in the next section.

The USCGC Eagle
The Coast Guard employs a special ship for training Coast Guard Academy cadets and conducting goodwill trips around the world. The USCGC Eagle is a steel and wood square-rigged sailing vessel (the only one in service in the U.S. military). Built in Germany in 1936, the ship was taken by the U.S. after World War II as part of Germany's reparations.


Joining Up and Coast Guard Life

All U.S. residents between the ages of 17 and 27 with high school diplomas are eligible to enlist in the Coast Guard, providing they pass certain physical exams, as well as the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) evaluation test. All recruits go through eight weeks of boot camp at the Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, New Jersey. While recruits will be taught how to swim, people who are afraid of being in or on the water should probably consider a different branch of service.

The Coast Guard Training Center and Station in Cape May, New Jersey.
Photo courtesy PA2 Blair Thomas/U.S. Coast Guard
The Coast Guard Training Center and Station in Cape May, New Jersey.

The U.S. Coast Guard Academy is located in New London, Connecticut. Anyone who wants to join the Coast Guard as a commissioned officer (and meets the eligibility requirements) can apply to attend the Coast Guard Academy. Unlike other U.S. military academies, a congressional petition is not required for entry. The academy provides a rigorous four-year academic experience that also prepares cadets for life as an officer in the Coast Guard. Graduates are commissioned as ensigns. Enlisted sailors and airmen can attend Coast Guard officer candidate school if they want to become commissioned officers.

Another option for joining the Coast Guard is the Coast Guard Reserves. The reserves train and serve one weekend per month and two weeks each year. The 8,000 reserves don't form separate reserve units -- they are integrated into full-time Coast Guard operations. Many non-law enforcement jobs are handled by the Coast Guard Auxiliary, a volunteer organization with about 30,000 members. People who join their local auxiliary are specially trained in boating safety, search and rescue, and other maritime skills. The auxiliary helps with search and rescue, teaches civilian boaters in special seminars, conducts safety inspections and provides introductory youth classes in boating and maritime safety. The Coast Guard also hires about 6,000 civilians to perform a variety of jobs (mostly administrative), both full and part-time.

After basic training, most recruits are assigned to a shore station or a ship. The Coast Guard often uses an apprentice system, where recruits work alongside a more experienced seaman and learn their job with hands-on experience. For more technical jobs, recruits are sent to technical schools ("A-Schools").

Coast Guard cutters make lengthy patrols, during which they don't return to their home station unless they need to. These patrols typically last for four weeks. An example of a typical cutter patrol is the one taken by the USCGC Mohawk (WMEC-913) in January 2006. During the patrol, the crew confiscated 6,000 pounds of cocaine from smugglers on fast boats. A special detection system spotted the boats, and the Mohawk's Dolphin helicopter chased them down, taking out the engines with precise gunfire when necessary [Source: CGCMohawk: Current Patrol]. The Mohawk patrolled oceanic waters off the southern coast of Florida for four weeks before returning to her home base in Key West.

The United States Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk
Photo by PA3 Dana Warr/courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The United States Coast Guard Cutter Mohawk

Life on a cutter is not easy. Space is cramped and you spend a lot of time in very close proximity to your crewmates. However, crews form close bonds and learn to work together smoothly and efficiently. The most important person on any ship, of course, is the captain. Each captain has absolute authority on his or her ship. The personality and habits of a captain can have a tremendous effect on the character of the ship and the way a crew conducts itself. For most mariners, achieving a captaincy is a very high honor.

Between patrols, the crew takes care of ship maintenance or may take on shore duties. Some of them will take advantage of leave time (they get 30 days of leave each year). This pattern will continue for a sailor until his term of active duty has ended. Active duty lasts two or more years, depending on the contract the sailor signed at the time of enlistment. Once active duty is over, the sailor still must provide several additional years of service, either as a reserve or a ready-reserve who can be called to active duty at any time.

As members of a U.S. military organization, all Coast Guard sailors are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Dismissal from the Coast Guard can take a variety of forms, from an Honorable Discharge to a court martial, depending on the circumstances surrounding the dismissal. See How the Army Works for a full explanation.

Coast Guard veterans and retirees are eligible for a host of benefits, including health and life insurance, low-interest loans for mortgages or small businesses and veterans' health care. The full suite of benefits available may depend on the nature of the veteran's dismissal -- usually an honorable discharge or retirement is necessary for access to all benefits. A comprehensive guide to Coast guard veterans' benefits can be found at Coast Guard Insider.

In the next section, we'll explore the history of the Coast Guard.


Coast Guard History

The Racing Stripe
All Coast Guard vessels are easily recognizable by the vivid red and blue racing stripe found on both sides, near the bow. The stripe, which is angled at 64 degrees, was adopted in 1964 to improve the image of the Coast Guard and make their ships easily distinguishable from other military vessels.

The U.S. Coast Guard has a fairly convoluted history, as many different organizations and functions have been combined and recombined under different names. After the American Revolutionary War, the U.S. Navy was disbanded. By 1789, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton realized that some kind of naval enforcement agency was needed to make sure tariffs were properly collected. Ten ships with a crew of 10 men each went into service in 1790 as the Revenue Marine Service. Because these cutters were frequently out on patrol when naval accidents occurred, they naturally found themselves in the position to perform search-and-rescue operations. Volunteer organizations that conducted rescue missions later merged with the nascent Coast Guard. Military conflicts in the next few decades lead the Revenue Service to take on port defense tasks. The advent of American fishing around the coast of Alaska created a need for ice breaking and winter rescue capabilities (these remain Coast Guard specialties today). A separate service operated the lighthouses and other navigational aids across the United States until that, too, was merged with the Coast Guard. This growing organization wasn't officially called the Coast Guard until 1915.

Although the Coast Guard is ostensibly a defensive and law enforcement organization, Coast Guard recruits receive basic weapons training, and most Coast Guard vessels are armed in some way. When the United States has gone to war, the Coast Guard has gone too, usually after being subsumed into the U.S. Navy. Some of the Coast Guard's most notable wartime service came during Word War II, when numerous Coast Guard cutters provided escorts to the transport convoys traversing the North Atlantic. Refitted with additional guns and depth charges, the cutters' took on a very dangerous duty, watching for German U-boats (submarines). The U-boats hunted the convoys in "wolf packs," and their torpedoes sunk many transport ships, as well as the USCGC Alexander Hamilton, which went down near Reykjavik, Iceland in 1941.

Coast Guard crews had better training conducting sea-to-land assaults, so the landing ships at Normandy and other marine invasions in World War II were usually piloted by a Coast Guard seaman.

The USCGC Alexander Hamilton after she had been torpedoed and the majority of her crew abandoned ship.
Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The USCGC Alexander Hamilton after she had been torpedoed and the majority of her crew abandoned ship.

The Coast Guard is currently in the middle of a 25-year modernization effort known as Project Deepwater. The 2007 fiscal year budget included an increase of $1 billion for Project Deepwater upgrades, research and development [Source: Navy Times]. The modernization is vital, as the Coast Guard currently operates one of the oldest fleets among the world's navies. Not only will Project Deepwater upgrade the Coast Guard's weapons, drug detection systems and search-and-rescue operations, it will make the entire service more efficient. The number of crew members needed to operate a cutter will be decreased, improving flexibility and allowing the Coast Guard to function with lower recruitment and funding levels.

For lots more information about the U.S. Coast Guard and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Belcher, Lloyd. "Cutter Mohawk Runs Down High Seas Smugglers U.S. Coast Guard."
  • Birkler, Alkire, Button, et al. "The U.S. Coast Guard's Deepwater Force Modernization Plan." Rand Corporation, 2004. ISBN 0833035150.
  • Blue, Rose and Naden, Corinne J. "The U.S. Coast Guard." Millbrook Press, October 1, 1993. ISBN 978-1562943219.
  • Gaines, Ann. "The Coast Guard in Action." Enslow Publishers, September 2001. ISBN 978-0766016347.
  • Halberstadt, Hans. "USCG, Always Ready." Presidio Press, January 1987. ISBN 978-0891412564.
  • Holden, Henry M. "Coast Guard Rescue and Patrol Aircraft." Enslow Publishers, February 2002. ISBN 978-0766017153.
  • Kime, Patricia. "Coast Guard budget signed by president." Navy Times, Oct. 4, 2006.
  • Walling, Michael G. "Bloodstained Sea." International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press, 1st edition, May 1, 2005. ISBN 978-0071457934.